After months of largely positive campaigning by the Denver school board candidates themselves, attack ads funded by outside groups have begun showing up in voters’ mailboxes.
Last week, we fact-checked negative mailers from an independent expenditure committee funded by the Denver and Colorado teachers unions. The ads attacked three candidates backed by groups that support education reform policies, including school choice.
Now, we’re fact-checking negative ads from the other side of the debate. They attack a union-backed candidate, Tay Anderson, who is running for an at-large seat on the school board.
One mailer claims that Anderson “led a radical protest where an American flag was torn down and desecrated, then shrugged the incident off on social media.”
“Tay Anderson says: ‘Flags are replaceable…’” the mailer says.
The mailer encourages voters to elect Anderson’s opponent, Alexis Menocal Harrigan.
The protest in question took place in July at a private immigration detention facility in Aurora. As many as 2,000 people gathered in front of the facility as part of a nationwide protest against the federal government’s treatment of immigrants. Multiple groups were involved in organizing the protest, and at one point, a smaller group of protesters broke away from the crowd. The group took down an American flag and tried to burn it. They then raised a Mexican flag in its place.
The group also took down a “Blue Lives Matter” flag honoring law enforcement, spray painted “Abolish I.C.E.” on it, and raised it upside down. That’s the flag pictured on the mailer. I.C.E. is federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Anderson was indeed at the protest. But Anderson said he was not involved with the group that removed the flags, and there is no indication he was. Video from the protest shows Anderson leading a calm candlelight vigil that took place after the flag incident.
The following day, Anderson made a post on his personal Facebook page. It said, “Flags are replaceable, but the children dying at the border are NOT.”
Anderson stands by that post. “I’m not apologetic about standing up for immigrants,” he said in an interview Monday. By highlighting that quote on a mailer, Anderson, who is black, said that groups that oppose him are trying to portray him as angry.
“We know with stereotypes that exist within the community, people are afraid of the angry black man — and that’s what they’re trying to make me seem like,” he said. “I’m a product of Denver Public Schools, and my intentions are never to be like, ‘Let’s throw the entire system away.’ But as a person employed by this system, there are fundamental changes we have to make.”
Anderson graduated from Denver’s Manual High School in 2017. He now works as a restorative practices coordinator at North High School, helping students resolve conflicts.
The mailer was sent by an independent expenditure committee called the Ready Colorado Action Fund, which is tied to a conservative education advocacy group called Ready Colorado.
Luke Ragland, president of Ready Colorado, said he was “honestly confused” by Anderson’s claim that the mailer attempts to make a black candidate seem angry.
“We intentionally chose not to include a picture of Tay in any mailer because we wanted the focus to be on Tay’s lack of judgment,” Ragland wrote in a statement emailed to Chalkbeat. “The mailer was about Tay’s flippant response to the desecration of the American flag. Judgment matters in this race, and voters deserve to know if candidates lack it.”
Ready Colorado staunchly believes in school choice — that is, the ability for families to request their children attend a school other than the one to which they’ve been assigned. School choice has been a hot-button issue in the election. Anderson, who used school choice as a student, has criticized the system for creating winners and losers.
“It’s benefiting those who can actually obtain it, those who are able to get up every morning and go to a school across the city,” he said at a candidate forum. “However, those students who are left without choices in their neighborhood, it’s hurting them.”
His opponents, including Menocal Harrigan, support school choice. She has said families should have a variety of public school options, including independently run charter schools.
Another independent expenditure committee, Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, has been running Facebook ads claiming Anderson “blames Denver students and families for pollution.” The weekend before the Nov. 5 election, the same committee dropped a mailer that repeated the claim.
The claim is based on Anderson’s answer to a question at a televised forum. During a “lightning round” where candidates were asked to give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, Anderson, Menocal Harrigan, and the third candidate in the race, Natela Manuntseva, were asked whether they thought increased traffic and pollution were an “unintended consequence” of students using school choice to travel outside their neighborhoods to attend school.
Menocal Harrigan and Manuntseva gave a thumbs-down. Anderson gave a thumbs-up.
The candidates were not given a chance to clarify their answers. On Monday, Anderson said he doesn’t blame families for traveling outside their neighborhoods, but rather blames a system that doesn’t provide good schools where families live, thus pushing them to go elsewhere.
Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado is associated with the parent advocacy group Stand for Children, which endorsed Menocal Harrigan.
Independent expenditure committees are prohibited from coordinating with candidates.
On Monday, Menocal Harrigan sent a statement to Chalkbeat condemning all negative ads.
“Mailers sent out by [independent expenditure committees] in this cycle have contained false information, and Denver voters deserve the truth,” she wrote.
“These mailers undermine the reasons my opponent and I entered this race,” she added. “We owe it to our children to have dialogue on policy and ideas.”
This story has been updated to include an additional mailer from a committee affiliated with Stand for Children.