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How Southlake, Texas, Won Its Battle against Critical Race Theory

By RICH LOWRY | June 3, 2021 6:30 AM

(shock/Getty Images)


And the lessons for everyone else.

It was the weekend that changed politics in Southlake, Texas, forever.

At the end of July last year, word began to spread of a quiet effort by the school board to pass a so-called Cultural Competence Action Plan, a critical race theory-inspired effort to ingrain woke racial politics in the town’s schools.


The outrage was instant and, as it turns out, highly consequential. Opponents of the plan eventually swept the school-board races last month, garnering national attention and giving opponents of critical race theory a signature victory at the local level.


Tim O’Hare, a former chairman of the Tarrant County Republican Party who would be at the center of opposition to the plan, together with his friend and long-time political organizer and activist Leigh Wambsganss, remembers being in Montana when he heard of the impending vote.


“It was the perfect time to pass it with as few people in town as possible,” O’Hare says. But the 72-hour notice that the school board had to give for its scheduled meeting on Monday, August 3 was enough time for opponents to begin to mobilize.


An affluent suburb of Dallas-Fort Worth in Tarrant County that votes Republican and is known for its excellent schools, Southlake wouldn’t seem a natural front in a fight over critical race theory — it’d seem one of the last places activists would target, rather than one of the first.


Yet, so it was. Opponents were motivated by a belief the stakes couldn’t get higher. “It’s the primo district,” O’Hare says of Southlake, called the Carroll Independent School District.


“And our concern was we knew everybody was watching us and, if it passed here, it was going to take off in the public schools like wildfire.”


Cam Bryan, who ended up running for school board on the conservative slate, says everyone realized “if they can take Southlake, they can take any place.”


Of course, they didn’t. It’s worth delving in detail into Southlake’s successful pushback because it should be a model for conservative parents confronted by the similar situations around the country. (The organizers can be reached at info@southlakefamilies.org.)

The Southlake opposition was spontaneous and genuinely grassroots, but not the least bit amateurish. While there’s no substitute for having inflamed public opinion on your side, it has to be appropriately channeled. The Southlake opposition was unified, was carefully organized, and never took its eye off the ball.


It was also fearless, remaining outspoken and resolute despite harassment and efforts to get its supporters fired by their employers.

In short, its stupendous victory wasn’t something that just happened. As Leigh Wambsganss puts it, “The one who works the hardest wins, and we had an army.”

* * *

After an eight-second video clip of some school girls from the district engaging in a racially offensive chant was blown up into a major crisis in 2018, the school board created a so-called District Diversity Council with more than 60 members to consider how to address racism.


The result was the 34-page Cultural Competence Action Plan, or CCAP. The beyond-parody plan was a blueprint for an “anti-racist” revolution in how the district’s schools conducted their business so radical and thoroughgoing it wouldn’t have been out of place at Oberlin College.


Nearly everything, from curriculum to discipline policies to teacher training to hiring decisions, would be filtered through the prism of diversity, equity, and inclusion. A director of equity and inclusion would be hired to oversee implementation of the plan, including the goal to “[e]mbed diversity and inclusion curriculum/initiatives for students as an ‘enrollment to graduation’ process in all grades.”


There were so many prongs to the scheme, with so many proposed councils, committees, subcommittees, task forces, and teams, it’s difficult to summarize them all briefly.

It was, naturally enough, a five-year plan.


The proposal would have created “an equity and inclusion grievance process system”; expanded the district tip-line to include equity and inclusion; conducted an “equity audit” of curriculum and policies; established a diversity and inclusion week “and/or” diversity and inclusion day; mandated diversity and inclusion training for students; instituted mechanisms to “hold staff accountable for equity and inclusion work”; added “diversity into teaching materials and instruction in all classrooms”; audited every student group on diversity-and-inclusion grounds; and on and on.


The overwhelming sense from the plan is that it would have created a regime to constantly hector students about diversity and inclusion, snitch on them for any alleged offenses, and then hold them accountable for them.


Indeed, the most insidious part of the plan proposed to “[s]trengthen wording and consequences” in the student code of conduct “for microaggressions and discriminatory behavior.” It called for creating “a process for campus administrators to include incident notes to document microaggressions and discriminatory behaviors in the discipline offense history for students.”


The only thing the plan lacked was a call to make “anti-racism” guru Ibram X. Kendi the school superintendent.


Any rational person reading the plan for the first time would have been alarmed and disturbed, especially if he or she had no idea that the leaders of the school district were in the grip of a fevered ideological fashion.

The uprising was almost instantaneous.


* * *


Leigh Wambsganss got an immediate reaction when she started spreading the word of the plan via Facebook. “I published the points about what the CCAP did. And within twelve hours, I had 1,200 people sign my petition,” she says.


“And so I called Tim,” she recalls. “I said, ‘Uh, we’ve got something here.’”

Tim O’Hare started a PAC, called Southlake Families PAC, for fundraising, legal work, and political organizing.


It was obvious that they had a tiger by the tail. Quickly, signatures on the petition hit 2,600, an astonishing number in a town of 32,000.


“Everywhere you turned,” O’Hare recalls, “people said, ‘If this passes, we’re leaving. If we don’t get our people elected, we’re out of here.’ Everybody knew there was a lot at stake.”

At the end of July last year, word began to spread of a quiet effort by the school board to pass a so-called Cultural Competence Action Plan, a critical race theory-inspired effort to ingrain woke racial politics in the town’s schools. The outrage was instant and, as it turns out, highly consequential. Opponents of the plan eventually swept the school-board races last month, garnering national attention and giving opponents of critical race theory a signature victory at the local level.

Tim O’Hare, a former chairman of the Tarrant County Republican Party who would be at the center of opposition to the plan, together with his friend and long-time political organizer and activist Leigh Wambsganss, remembers being in Montana when he heard of the impending vote.

“It was the perfect time to pass it with as few people in town as possible,” O’Hare says. But the 72-hour notice that the school board had to give for its scheduled meeting on Monday, August 3 was enough time for opponents to begin to mobilize.

An affluent suburb of Dallas-Fort Worth in Tarrant County that votes Republican and is known for its excellent schools, Southlake wouldn’t seem a natural front in a fight over critical race theory — it’d seem one of the last places activists would target, rather than one of the first.

Yet, so it was. Opponents were motivated by a belief the stakes couldn’t get higher. “It’s the primo district,” O’Hare says of Southlake, called the Carroll Independent School District. “And our concern was we knew everybody was watching us and, if it passed here, it was going to take off in the public schools like wildfire.”

Cam Bryan, who ended up running for school board on the conservative slate, says everyone realized “if they can take Southlake, they can take any place.”

Of course, they didn’t. It’s worth delving in detail into Southlake’s successful pushback because it should be a model for conservative parents confronted by the similar situations around the country. (The organizers can be reached at info@southlakefamilies.org.)

The Southlake opposition was spontaneous and genuinely grassroots, but not the least bit amateurish. While there’s no substitute for having inflamed public opinion on your side, it has to be appropriately channeled. The Southlake opposition was unified, was carefully organized, and never took its eye off the ball.

It was also fearless, remaining outspoken and resolute despite harassment and efforts to get its supporters fired by their employers.

In short, its stupendous victory wasn’t something that just happened. As Leigh Wambsganss puts it, “The one who works the hardest wins, and we had an army.”

* * *

After an eight-second video clip of some school girls from the district engaging in a racially offensive chant was blown up into a major crisis in 2018, the school board created a so-called District Diversity Council with more than 60 members to consider how to address racism. The result was the 34-page Cultural Competence Action Plan, or CCAP. The beyond-parody plan was a blueprint for an “anti-racist” revolution in how the district’s schools conducted their business so radical and thoroughgoing it wouldn’t have been out of place at Oberlin College.

Nearly everything, from curriculum to discipline policies to teacher training to hiring decisions, would be filtered through the prism of diversity, equity, and inclusion. A director of equity and inclusion would be hired to oversee implementation of the plan, including the goal to “[e]mbed diversity and inclusion curriculum/initiatives for students as an ‘enrollment to graduation’ process in all grades.”

There were so many prongs to the scheme, with so many proposed councils, committees, subcommittees, task forces, and teams, it’s difficult to summarize them all briefly. It was, naturally enough, a five-year plan.

The proposal would have created “an equity and inclusion grievance process system”; expanded the district tip-line to include equity and inclusion; conducted an “equity audit” of curriculum and policies; established a diversity and inclusion week “and/or” diversity and inclusion day; mandated diversity and inclusion training for students; instituted mechanisms to “hold staff accountable for equity and inclusion work”; added “diversity into teaching materials and instruction in all classrooms”; audited every student group on diversity-and-inclusion grounds; and on and on.

The overwhelming sense from the plan is that it would have created a regime to constantly hector students about diversity and inclusion, snitch on them for any alleged offenses, and then hold them accountable for them.

Indeed, the most insidious part of the plan proposed to “[s]trengthen wording and consequences” in the student code of conduct “for microaggressions and discriminatory behavior.” It called for creating “a process for campus administrators to include incident notes to document microaggressions and discriminatory behaviors in the discipline offense history for students.”

The only thing the plan lacked was a call to make “anti-racism” guru Ibram X. Kendi the school superintendent.

Any rational person reading the plan for the first time would have been alarmed and disturbed, especially if he or she had no idea that the leaders of the school district were in the grip of a fevered ideological fashion. The uprising was almost instantaneous. * * * Leigh Wambsganss got an immediate reaction when she started spreading the word of the plan via Facebook. “I published the points about what the CCAP did. And within twelve hours, I had 1,200 people sign my petition,” she says. “And so I called Tim,” she recalls. “I said, ‘Uh, we’ve got something here.’”

Tim O’Hare started a PAC, called Southlake Families PAC, for fundraising, legal work, and political organizing.

It was obvious that they had a tiger by the tail. Quickly, signatures on the petition hit 2,600, an astonishing number in a town of 32,000.

“Everywhere you turned,” O’Hare recalls, “people said, ‘If this passes, we’re leaving. If we don’t get our people elected, we’re out of here.’ Everybody knew there was a lot at stake.” All Our Opinion in Your InboxNR Daily is delivered right to you every afternoon. No charge. The best ammunition the opponents had was the plan itself. Wambsganss took care to download the document, fearing it might disappear. “This isn’t my first rodeo,” she notes.

She also began sending out points for opponents of the plan to make at the impending meeting of the school board. The session was chaotic and contentious, with people speaking on both sides of the question. It was clear, though, that the board didn’t expect the blowback and didn’t know what it was doing. It voted to “receive” the plan rather than to approve it, a confusing expedient that spoke of the board’s disarray.

The next big event for the opponents was an organizational meeting on August 30. Wambsganss calls the time between the school board meeting and this event, “27 days of building an army.”

It was held at First Baptist Grapevine, in the town next door, because at this point it was hard to find a place to hold a big meeting due to COVID restrictions. Capacity was limited. “The bottom floor of the church sanctuary holds 800,” Wambsganss says. “And we were advised not to use the balcony for security purposes because there’d been so many threats. So we had to go 50 percent. So we could only allow 400 people in there.”

She continues, “We maxed out really quickly because we could have had tripled what we had in that church.” Allen West, the chairman of the Texas party, was the keynote speaker. According to O’Hare, the PAC raised about $75,000 that day and has raised roughly a quarter-million dollars to date.

The PAC came away formidably organized. It had a school-issues committee, a research-and-open-records committee, a legal-advisory committee, and a neighborhood-chair committee. In addition, there was a PAC fundraising team and a prayer team. * * *

This allowed for a multi-layered approach to the fight. “There was a committee of about 20 people who sent public-information requests,” Wambsganss says, “one after the other.” Importantly, the requests uncovered texts from the president of the school board to other members of the board discussing CCAP prior to the August 3 meeting. The texts appeared to violate the state’s Open Meetings Act by constituting a so-called walking quorum, or informal meeting of the body outside of public scrutiny. This was an absolutely crucial mistake. “If they hadn’t been so careless about that,” says Rich DeOtte, a political activist involved in the fight against CCAP, “I’m not sure we would have had the success that we’ve had.”

The PAC funded a civil suit based on the violation and got a temporary restraining order, still in place, against further work on the plan. The school district has appealed, and the case is now at the Fort Worth appellate court.

Separately and stunningly, the president and vice president of the board were indicted by a Tarrant County grand jury for the alleged violation and arrested (before showing up for another meeting hours later).

The public-information requests turned up other useful information: It was discovered that an assistant superintendent had traveled to events and spoken on social-justice themes and bad-mouthed the community. The administration spent $15,000 for a staff-training talk by a motivational speaker named Adolph Brown; his website boasts, “The actualization of diversity and inclusion is Dr. Brown’s life’s work.”

Bizarrely, the district applied for funding from the state to implement the program under the state’s Victims of Crime Act.

Wambsganss published a newsletter with all this information and more, and sent it to roughly 15,000 homes.

* * *

The PAC’s candidates-and-campaigns committee proved particularly consequential. It set about finding the best-possible candidates for two open seats on the school board, which has seven members who serve for staggered three-year terms.

“We wound up interviewing six candidates, and these interviews were about two hours each, from 45 minutes to an hour and a half each,” Wambsganss explains, “and they all had the same questions, and it was a very organized effort. We had 17 people in the room. Tim and I led the questions so that everyone got the same questions, but then at the end we opened it up to anyone on the committee who wanted to ask additional questions.”

To win a school-board race in Southlake, there’s no requirement to reach 50 percent, but only to pick up one more vote than everyone else. So, splitting the conservative vote would have been risky.

To avoid the possibility, the organizers got everyone to agree that they would abide by the committee’s choice, and not splinter off to challenge a fellow conservative. Wambsganss says her mantra was, “Nothing matters if we don’t get a majority on the school board. None of this matters if we do not win seats.”

Some potential candidates dropped out when they realized how much work would be involved, while others deferred to candidates they thought better suited for the job. In the end, the committee settled on two impressive candidates, Hannah Smith and Cam Bryan. Smith is lawyer who had clerked for Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, although she was relatively new to the town. With a background in aviation, Bryan had spent a decade coaching youth football and was ready to find another way to stay involved in the community.

The coaching provided a built-in advantage. “Everybody in town that had kids in sports knew him,” says O’Hare.

Previously, these races weren’t really contested. “In fact,” says Bryan, “the current makeup of the board right now, of the seven, not including Hannah and I, they’ve all been appointed or have run unopposed. So, none of them have run a campaign.”

For Smith and Bryan, that wasn’t an option. “We did every single meet-and-greet,” he says, “over 70 meet-and-greets and met thousands of people in this community, over a 14-week period.”

The two ran, effectively, as a ticket. They supported one another other and always said if someone was voting for one of them, he should vote for the other. “We put up 900 yard signs, and every yard you went to, you saw a Cam sign right next to a Hannah sign,” says Bryan.

Bryan raised $64,000, more than any Southlake candidate had raised before, including in city-council and mayoral races. He could run Facebook ads, do mailers, and hire canvassers.

Smith and Bryan felt what was coming. “We were doing meet-and-greets every single night,” says Bryan, “and we saw, as we went along, this wave growing and this momentum growing and this community so fired up, that we knew we’re going to have some big numbers, but we didn’t expect them to be that big.”

Typically, according to Bryan, 10 percent of registered voters or fewer vote in municipal elections, but more than 40 percent voted in this school-board election. Famously, Smith and Bryan got nearly 70 percent of the vote.

“It was quite the team effort and a butt-kicking,” says O’Hare.


As Rich DeOtte, the activist, puts it, “It’s clear from the election results that people are generally opposed to fighting theoretical racism with real racism.”


John Huffman, who had been on the city council for several years, experienced the wave in his equally lopsided victory in his mayoral race. “We had two times our normal mayoral race turnout in a local election,” he says, “and I don’t know when the last time I saw a local race with no incumbents that had twice the normal turnout that was a 70-30 outcome. It’s huge. Right?”


He believes the town was reacting to the sense that it was under attack, with the CCAP and the national media falsely portraying it as a hotbed of hate. “The community,” he says, “spoke very clearly with one voice, ‘We’re not a racist city. We’re not a broken city. And we won’t let anyone tell us that we are.’”


The school-board races were also for open seats; one that had been held by a conservative, another by a swing vote. So the net gain was one, leaving the conservatives still a minority on a 4-3 board. “But next May we will win two seats,” says O’Hare, “and then it’ll be a clear five-two.”


He adds, “There’s no way to pull up a 40-point margin in six months, so we’re looking pretty good.”


“Even if we don’t have the majority votes,” says Bryan, “we know that we have the leverage that we can get things done until we can flip this forward.”

* * *

The stars aligned in Southlake — the side pushing a radical “anti-racist” agenda had written it down in extensive detail so there was no mistaking what they were about, local public opinion swung hard against the plan, and skilled organizers in the opposition executed flawlessly.


If that’s going to be hard to replicate everywhere, there are a number of notable takeaways.


“I would say number one,” O’Hare observes, “perhaps the single most important position in all of politics is the school board. And that has so much influence on what our kids grow up to believe and what they think of our country. It’s generally viewed, I think, as the lowest-level election as well as office — it very well may be the most important one.”


As Wambsganss puts it, “Traditionally, no one thought of school boards as sexy. But now, with critical race theory, I think that’s changing, and people are going to realize that this is really a momentous fight.”


Getting out the word is key — using freedom-of-information requests to find out what’s happening in the schools, disseminating it widely, and explaining it to parents. “Making parents aware is step one,” says Wambsganss, “because people who have never been vocal, people who’ve been terrified of speaking at a public meeting before, they’re realizing the danger to their kids and they’re coming forward.”


Getting organized is obviously essential, as is dividing up responsibilities to be able to fight on multiple fronts.


Cam Bryan says that knowing that a substantial organization was supporting the cause was indispensable for the campaigns that he and Hannah Smith ran. Knowing, as he puts it, that a formal group had their backs “allowed me and Hannah to say, ‘Okay, we can run unafraid because we have thousands of people behind us.’”


There’s also no substitute for being absolutely committed to seeing through the fight despite the flak. “We were not afraid,” Wambsganss notes. “We kept going, and these parents were not afraid. And they were getting threats, and their companies were all getting called, and their jobs were being threatened.”


Relatedly, O’Hare warns against the attitude that says, “We go fight in this election and then, ‘Okay, now we rest.’” Instead, he thinks ceaseless vigilance and activism is necessary.


“They never rest,” he says of the Left, “and if we want to save our country then we have to be the same. We never stop fighting. We never rest. There is always a battle to fight.”


In sum, says O’Hare, “Conservatives in Southlake fell asleep, but they’re awake now.”

And they have a remarkable victory to show for it — one that should inspire conservatives around the country and give them a working template for fights to come.

RICH LOWRY is the editor of National Review. @richlowry