Outgoing state ed board chair urges more civility in public arena

A number of Texas Republicans, including five members of Congress, have decided to throw in the towel rather than seek re-election in 2020.

So it’s not shocking that State Board of Education Member Donna Bahorich, a conservative who represents part of Harris County, has also decided to join the “Texodus.” She plans to step down at the end of her current term rather than seek a third one.

Bahorich has been an effective Republican officeholder since joining the the state board in 2012. She recently wrapped up a stint as its chairwoman, a post to which she was appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott in 2016. State law barred Bahorich from serving another term as chairwoman until 2024.

Unlike many of the retiring Republicans, Bahorich wasn’t interested in seeking another term. She also isn’t expecting the coming election cycle to be a pleasant one.

“I think it’s going to be a very long year and a half,” said told me Thursday over iced tea at The Moveable Feast in Katy.

She reflected on the tribalization of politics, and the toxicity of our conversations with each other on social media.

“I just wish people would dial it down a notch and not give themselves over to the emotionalism,” she continued. “It’s so temporary and fleeting.”

Many other Republican elected officials have been echoing that same theme lately. But by and large, it’s hard to take their calls for civility seriously given their support for President Donald Trump, who has been flooding the nation with bile on a daily basis, attacks that have escalated and become more coarse as the 2020 campaign has neared.

But Bahorich — who began her career in politics accidentally, in 2004, as a volunteer for George W. Bush’s re-election campaign — is a different kind of Republican. She’s consistently argued that Americans on both sides of the aisle should treat political opponents with kindness, as well as civility, and that we should expect our elected representatives to do so as a matter of course.

That’s naïve, perhaps. But Bahorich’s commitment to the health of our deliberative process served Texans well during her tenure as chair of the state education board. This was evident last year, when the state board voted to create a new course in “Ethnic Studies,” covering the history and cultural contributions of Mexican-Americans from an interdisciplinary perspective — and then voted, unanimously, to change its name to “Mexican-American Studies” several months later. The advocates who had lobbied for that change were astonished by their success, which is understandable. The state board had never been known for having thoughtful conversations about history and culture. Bahorich, however, wanted to change that. When we spoke, after then name was changed, she was pleased with the civility of the debate that had preceded the vote, as well as its outcome.

When she was tapped chair in 2016, the board’s moderate Republicans were disappointed because she was aligned with its conservative faction. One of those moderates, then-Vice Chairman Thomas Ratliff, denounced his colleague then as a right-wing ideologue, and questioned her commitment to public education.

Ratliff’s evidence was flimsy, at best. Bahorich had home-schooled her three sons through grade school, and was close with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (She managed his first campaign for elected office in 2006, and served as his district director after he won his bid for a seat in the Texas Senate).

Bahorich could have responded in kind. Instead she invited Ratliff to dinner and asked him to give her a chance,

And today, Ratliff is happy to concede that he was wrong to have judged her so harshly and says he failed to grasp his colleague’s talent.

“Bahorich’s style could certainly be mimicked, for the good, by any governing body anywhere,” Ratliff said. “She was Mrs. Smith goes to Austin.”

“She was as good for the SBOE as I thought Joe Straus was for the Texas House — and he’s a Texas giant, in my opinion,” he added.

Told of Ratliff’s remarks, Bahorich appreciated the compliment.

But she said she was just doing her job, as an elected official, and happens to think that those privileged to hold such a position should treat others with kindness and respect and listen to various perspectives.

“The thing that’s been beautiful about America, I think, is that we have so clearly understood that when things happen, we pull together and we work together and we get it done,” Bahorich explained. “I just feel like we can’t lose that.”


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