Press Club

School Board member reverses course, speaks out against Democratic caucus process

Arlington School Board member Mary Kadera during the board’s Feb. 17, 2022 meeting (via Arlington Public Schools)

Mary Kadera says she’s had a change of heart about the Arlington’s Democratic party’s School Board endorsement caucus, which helped her to land a School Board seat.

Kadera, who said she initially voted to keep the process after careful study, wrote in a blog post on Monday that it’s time to listen to dissenting voices and try something else.

The Arlington County Democratic Committee holds a caucus to determine which School Board candidates are bona fide Democrats and should be considered for the party’s endorsement. It’s not a primary, since school board races in Virginia are nonpartisan, but the results are similar to one because losing candidates agree not to run in November.

It’s been criticized by the Arlington NAACP and the pandemic-era group Arlington Parents for Education for, among other reasons, effectively limiting participation by communities of color, confusing voters and limiting the range of qualified candidates.

Arlington Democrats debated in February whether to use the caucus this year. After a spirited discussion, members — including Kadera — voted overwhelmingly (117-22) to keep it.

Now, she says, the dissenting voices she heard made her realize “holding on to the Caucus comes at too great a cost.”

“[A]t its very heart, this question is about white people needing to cede and share power with people of color, and that doing so is not a zero-sum game,” she writes.

Many critics of the caucus who spoke in February were Black, including community activists Wilma Jones and Zakiya Worthey, an Arlington Public Schools parent representing a new group called Black Leaders of Arlington.

They said the caucus is a glaring exception to progressive Arlingtonians’ commitment to racial equity. They argue the majority of caucus voters come from heavily white areas of North Arlington and pick well-connected, establishment Democrats who don’t prioritize the students of color in APS who have fallen behind.

“It’s faux-progressive and surface level,” Worthey tells ARLnow. “A lot of Black advocates, when we’re fighting, we’re not fighting against Republicans — we’re fighting against so-called progressive Dems.”

Kadera credited Jones and Worthey for her change of heart.

“They reminded me that hearing and valuing the voices and lived experiences of people of color means that when many of them are telling me that I am perpetuating a system that does them harm, I need to prioritize that over any ‘what if’ scenarios that make me afraid to dismantle the system,” she said.

Caucus proponents, including current School Board Chair Barbara Kanninen, member Cristina Diaz-Torres, and former member Monique O’Grady, who is Black, posed those “what if” scenarios in their arguments for keeping the process. They and others said without it, the School Board is open to “Republican infiltration,” even in heavily Democratic Arlington.

Kadera conceded that this “very well could” happen, but it’s not for certain unless ACDC tests it out.

The local party says it is still open to suggestions for improving the process, the rules for which will be decided in mid-March and ratified in April.

“We are going to continue the community engagement and we’d love to hear from stakeholders and interested groups in the community who have ideas on how to make the process better,” ACDC Chair Steve Baker said during a meeting last night (Wednesday).

The caucus is slated for June with in-person voting at some public schools and likely a handful of other places that are in South Arlington or Metro-accessible. Voting last year was held electronically due to the pandemic and participation surpassed local records.

ACDC members will go door-to-door in under-represented precincts to inform people how they can participate.

Jones, Worthey and Arlington NAACP President Julius “J.D.” Spain, Sr. tell ARLnow that they are still formulating their next steps.

“We’re going to keep working,” Jones said.

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