By MAUREEN HAYDEN
CNHI Statehouse Bureau
Some of the same forces that used social media to defeat the Republican state schools superintendent are mobilizing their resources again, this time to send a message to GOP leaders to pay attention to the election results.
They’re flooding the email inboxes of some key legislators and policy makers with an online petition that asks them to “honor” the 1.3 million votes cast for Democrat Glenda Ritz in her upset win over GOP incumbent Tony Bennett. The online petition drive was launched over the Veterans Day weekend by some pro-Ritz grassroots organizations, including a group called Republicans for Ritz.
It came in response to public statements made by Gov.-elect Mike Pence and GOP legislative leaders, who downplayed the significance of Ritz’s election and claimed their own victories as mandates for continuing with the sweeping education reforms championed by Bennett and locked into law by a Republican-controlled legislature.
By mid-Tuesday, more than 3,000 people had signed the online petition, triggering a flood of emails into the inboxes of legislators who sit on the General Assembly’s education committees and those belonging to the members of the policy-making State Board of Education.
Cathy Fuentes-Rohrer, a Bloomington mother of four school-aged children and Ritz supporter, helped launch the petition drive through the influential social media site Change.org. She did so, she said, because she was “astounded” by the comments made by Republican leaders last week. The day after the election, Pence said Indiana voters delivered a “strong affirmation of the progress on education reform in this state” by keeping GOP legislative majorities.
“I thought, ‘You’re trying to take away our voice when we just raised it,’ “ said Fuentes-Rohrer. “It was a clear to us we had to keep the momentum going.”
The online petition, which can be found on several sites, including that of the Northeast Friends of Public Education at neifpe.blogspot.com, starts by reminding voters that Ritz won more votes than Pence did. It goes on to say that voters rejected the “top-down, corporate reform model imposed by the state.”
Fuentes-Rohrer is a self-professed liberal Democrat who chairs of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education of Monroe County and South Central Indiana, an organization that used its strong Facebook presence to connect with other like-minded grassroots organizations across the state.
They helped generate an anti-Bennett message which resonated with voters like Sharon Kain, president of the Cass County Republican Women’s organization, a self-described conservative and ardent supporter of Mitt Romney and Richard Mourdock, the GOP’s losing presidential and Senate candidates.
“I did everything I could to defeat Tony Bennett,” Kain said in an email to the CNHI Statehouse Bureau. Kain’s reasoning: She has a daughter who is a teacher and a husband who is a school superintendent.
“Both have been extremely unhappy with the way education reforms have been handled,” she said.
Ritz is a schoolteacher, a political newcomer and a former Republican who switched parties to take on Bennett. She billed her campaign as a referendum on sweeping education-reform legislation implemented by Bennett, including vouchers for private schools, merit pay for teachers and more high-stakes testing for students.
With a campaign budget less than one-fifth of what Bennett raised, she and her campaign staff tapped into the sentiments of unhappy teachers and school administrators across the state and made the most of social media.
State Sen. Jean Leising, a Republican from Oldenburg who backed the major education-reform legislation had 1,500 online petitions in her inbox when she opened her email Tuesday morning.
That caught her attention, as did Ritz’ win. She’s not ready to jettison the reform legislation, she said, but she’s also not ready to dismiss its critics: “I think in the next session you’re going to see legislators saying, ‘Let’s look at what’s working and what’s not working.’”
That’s what retired schoolteacher Phyllis Bush of Fort Wayne was hoping for when she got involved in the online petition drive. Bush, who helped start the Northeast Friends of Public Education, said the reforms that have come down over the past four years have been “too much, too soon.”
“There have been all these demands placed on teachers and students, without much evidence they were really working,” Bush said. “Along with parents who were seeing the impact on their children, they were starting to revolt.”