So is this the year of the outsider? Consider that just a few months ago political commentators vastly more experienced than I were wondering how the electorate would respond to a re-run of the Bush-Clinton campaign of 1992, a quarter century ago.
Since then Jeb Bush-Hillary Clinton has morphed into the possibility of a Trump-Sanders race. I think that’s highly unlikely. For Donald Trump there’s one word that stands between him and the Republican presidential nomination: religion. Sorry, Donald, criticizing Ben Carson for being a Seventh Day Adventist won’t fly. And bragging about you being a Presbyterian won’t win many voters, either. In the Republican primaries, especially in a state like Iowa, being a Presbyterian is like being in a Sunday morning social club. You might as well say you hang out at Denny’s while everyone else is at church.
Bernie Sanders has his own one-word problem: socialist. Really? How many people are going to vote for a guy whose party affiliation almost rhymes with communist? And it won’t take many negative attack commercials to make senior citizens fear that Sanders will take away their hard-earned Medicare and replace it with socialized medicine. We might as well move to Canada or Great Britain.
But you never know. Trump has been near or at the top of the polls for months now. And his nearest rival is Carson, even more an outsider than Trump (whose most recent wedding was attended by the Clintons, those consummate insiders). And Sanders continues to nip at the heels of Clinton.
One small measure of just how strong the outsider movement is this year could come in the small town of West Windsor, where there is a race for one seat on the West Windsor-Plainsboro Board of Education. The incumbent seeking reelection is Michele Kaish, a 21-year resident of West Windsor, the mother of three children who have gone through the WW-P schools, and the current vice president of the board.
Her challenger has true credentials as an outsider — he has never served in office before, he has no cronies in any other political group, and you can bet he has accumulated no political debts that he will have to repay if he is elected. The opponent is Jordon DeGroote, who just turned 18 earlier this month, and is a senior at WW-P High School South, the captain of the football team, and president of the school’s Model United Nations.
If elected, DeGroote says, he will narrow his college choices to ones within an easy drive of the WW-P district and take his position on the board very seriously.
This is not the first time a student has run for school board. One of my high school classmates ran shortly after our graduation in 1965. It was a lark and he got a few votes from family and friends. Over the years I have seen a few other bids by recent high school graduates. When I first heard that a high school senior was running in WW-P I assumed that this, too, would be — at least — a lark. At best it might be a chance for a young candidate to register a note of protest to the establishment and perhaps obtain a taste of the political process and a good line item on the college resume. But if the candidate got even a hundred votes, I would be surprised.
But in the most recent issue of the WW-P News DeGroote’s campaign generated roughly as many letters to the editor as did that of his much more experienced rival.
Nothing in DeGroote’s family would suggest that he was destined for politics. His father is retired from the reinsurance business; his mother is a substitute teacher. His brother Josh, 26, a graduate of the University of North Texas, is a manager in the food service industry in Philadelphia.
Sister Jessa, 24, is a Penn Law School graduate who is now clerking for a U.S. District Court judge in Philadelphia. Throughout Jessa’s high school and college years, she was active in Mock Trial programs. As he approached his final years in high school, Jordon decided to organize a mock trial program at High School South, similar to the one already in place at WW-P High School North. As Vincent Xu reported in the August 7 WW-P News:
“The first time DeGroote attended a board meeting was in the spring of his sophomore year. He had spent his freshman year attempting to set up a Mock Trial club. North had one, but South’s administration ruled out a teacher-advised club, and a student-run club would not be able to compete against other schools. So DeGroote made a case before the school board. He had a petition with 70 signatures, and he prepared a written proposal. However, the board said the budget had already been set and no funds were available for a teacher-advisor stipend.”
DeGroote’s response, as reported in the community paper: “I was at first disillusioned with the school board. Now I realize there are a lot of great things they do, but there are a number of fields which can be improved upon.”
That summer Jordon participated in the Boys State program and was elected “governor.” After that experience, his father says now, “the possibility of running for real office and making a real difference seemed quite possible.”
The teenager’s platform consisted of a few common sense proposals that an outsider might appreciate more than an experienced board member used to the status quo.
As presented on his website, www.degroote4boe.org, his platform has some of the student-oriented concerns that would expect: “Include student input in teacher evaluations to judge student’s perspective of teacher’s efficacy; increase the frequency of unscheduled in-class evaluations to better judge teacher’s ability; hire teachers who will provide the best education, not just an average education at a lower salary.”
Other planks in the DeGroote platform had to do with school board transparency, a subject that a few adults in town had been raising for some time now:
“Televise all school board meetings via either public access TV or upload to the WW-P website; publish the voting records of all board members, and make them accessible online; release an official board response to questions of substance raised through public comment.”
The transparency issue struck a chord later when the school administration proposed several changes to the curriculum that got the attention of a substantial number of parents.
The school has proposed canceling the accelerated and enriched math program for kids in fourth and fifth grades. And at the high school level, the decision was made to eliminate midterm and final exams and replace them with several tests administered in the course of the semester, when students will have a chance to learn from their mistakes.
Parents argued all sides of these issues, but a common complaint was the lack of advance notice and public input. The superintendent put out a 16-page report on “the whole child,” but in a district with so many parents expecting their children to be exceptional, the wholeness goal was not fully appreciated. The good news for the DeGroote campaign was that the A&E decision and the exam changes came after the deadline for candidate filing had passed.
Supporters of DeGroote seem to be on both sides of the controversies embroiling the WW-P school district. In which case, if elected the 18-year-old may discover that it can be even more difficult to govern than to run.
But if he is elected that will be another measure of the strength of the outsider movement. Big party politicians should take notice.