By John Wright
After finishing 12 points behind in the March 1 Democratic primary, Dr. Dakota Carter says he surprised a lot of people by recording a 20-point victory over Jasmine Jenkins in the May 24 runoff for the District 6 seat on the State Board of Education.
Now, the 28-year-old Carter is looking to pull off a much bigger upset by defeating Republican incumbent Donna Bahorich, who chairs the SBOE, in the November general election.
Four years ago, Bahorich outpaced the Democratic candidate by 18 points in the district that’s home to two million residents of west Houston and its northwestern suburbs.
But Carter, the first openly gay person in Texas’ history to become his party’s nominee for an SBOE seat, said he believes the incumbent is “arrogant and entitled.
“I think she thinks she’s already got this won, and just like this last race, I’m going to outwork her,” Carter said a day after the runoff. “I know what it’s going to take to win.”
Bahorich didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
A former campaign manager and communications director for GOP Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, Bahorich is a member of the SBOE’s “radical faction of social conservatives,” according to Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network (TFN), a progressive group that monitors the board.
In 2012, Bahorich’s campaign platform included opposition to same-sex marriage, even though the SBOE has no jurisdiction over the issue. She’s also a strong supporter of Texas’ abstinence-only education policy, which Carter blames for the state’s high teen pregnancy and STD transmission rates.
The SBOE, which sets curriculum and textbook standards for Texas public schools, has consistently made headlines for ideological fights over topics including evolution, climate change, religion, and racial minorities.
“Currently, there’s a political agenda on the state board, and instead of teaching kids, we’re indoctrinating them,” Carter said.
A first-generation college student from a small town in the Texas Panhandle, Carter served as student body president at the University of North Texas, where he earned his bachelor’s degree before attending medical school at Houston’s UTHealth.
Carter, who now works in the juvenile justice unit of an inpatient psychiatric hospital, is also seeking a doctorate from the University of Houston. His partner is a 10th-grade English teacher, and Carter has co-founded two nonprofits, including one that serves troubled LGBT youth.
“Through all of that, I’ve always appreciated the power of education,” Carter said, touting his experience over Bahorich’s. “It changes people’s lives. It changes their means. It can change their social standing. I want every kid to have that opportunity, and unfortunately that’s not what’s happening currently.”
Carter is endorsed by the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, and Stonewall Young Democrats of Houston.
Thus far, the District 6 SBOE race has been overshadowed by the Republican primary in District 9, where candidate Mary Lou Bruner drew national attention for her incendiary statements and bizarre conspiracy theories, including that President Barack Obama once worked as a gay prostitute. Bruner was defeated by Lufkin school board president Kevin Ellis in the May 24 Republican runoff.
Carter said that although Bahorich isn’t as outspoken, he believes she shares some of Bruner’s right-wing views. He also blamed Bahorich for not disavowing Bruner’s statements in the media.
“We don’t need Mary Lou Bruner [on the SBOE] to be an embarrassment,” he said. “It’s already happening.”
TFN’s Quinn said that although she’s consistently voted with the board’s socially conservative bloc, Bahorich hasn’t gone out of her way to attack or demonize people.
“She’s been a lot more careful about what she says than some of her colleagues,” he said.
When Bahorich was appointed SBOE chair by Governor Greg Abbott last year, she faced criticism for home-schooling her three children rather than sending them to public school.
“That seems problematic to us,” Quinn said.
Although the board hasn’t directly addressed LGBT issues in recent years, Quinn expects that to change when members review the health curriculum and textbooks within the next few years. In 2004, the SBOE cleansed the health curriculum of all references to LGBT people, and a 2009 TFN report found that some schools were still teaching that same-sex relationships are illegal and sinful.
“It’s always important for a governmental body to look like the people it represents, and there are no LGBT people on the board now,” Quinn said. “I think Carter could add something to the board simply by bringing a new perspective that it doesn’t often hear.”