Ashley Carter, a Republican who was elected in November to the D.C. State Board of Education, speaks in sound bites that no parent can resist. Her talking points sound as if she has repeated them hundreds of times. That’s because she has.
Carter is a director of coalitions for a national nonprofit focused on women and families. She describes herself as an education advocate by way of literacy volunteer, and her message is simple: Close the achievement gap in District schools, raise graduation rates, and direct resources to students “no matter where they live.”
“I really spoke to a lot of residents around the city,” Carter says, reflecting on her comfortable margins in Wards 5 and 6, eclipsed by even wider margins east of the river. “I spent a lot of time in Wards 7 and 8. Parents feel spoken at, instead of being asked what is going on with their child.”
Carter says she campaigned the old-fashioned way. “I had a lot of doors closed in my face,” she says. “But I wanted to make sure my presence was felt all over the city, not just in Wards 2 and 3. And I’m living up to that.”
Carter’s victory in a high-turnout election over the more experienced and heavily endorsed incumbent Mary Lord was utterly unexpected. Lord—a Democrat and school board member since 2007 and the President of the National Association of the State Boards of Education—concedes that her opponent ran a more effective campaign. “She wanted it more,” says Lord, a mother, journalist, and longtime D.C. resident. “We’ve hugged and I’ve wished her well. I’m sure she like the rest of us will find the work meaningful.”
Lord credits Carter for staying on message in what was a nonpartisan race in a very partisan city. Yet she is stung by how Carter downplayed her Republican bona fides. “Most people, all they need to know is that she’s Republican,” Lord says. “There’s a tendency to dismiss Republicans because there’s no two-party system in D.C.”
Carter says she didn’t hide from her politics—or the kinds of school reform strategies her party champions. Running in staunchly Democratic and predominantly black neighborhoods required discipline, she says. “I was running for a nonpartisan seat,” she says. “I was not there to talk about taxes. If I wanted to run as a Republican, I would’ve run for something else.”
Lord tried to make party affiliation an issue, especially in Wards 7 and 8, Carter says. “I did not deny it. I stuck to an education platform. I made sure people felt as if their voice would be heard, which is something my opponent did not do. She was not visible in their part of the city.”
Ronald Williams Jr., a Ward 8 activist who campaigned for school board candidate Tony Donaldson Jr., applauds Carter for keeping politics out of the campaign—while also neutralizing race as a potential voter issue. “Ashley did well to not announce herself as a Republican,” Williams says. “You have to do that over here if you’re white. Don’t tell your party affiliation, and you’ll get somewhere.”
More to the point, Williams says, Carter appealed to residents who feel disenfranchised, regardless of race. “There’s been black politicians for years who haven’t done shit,” he says. “A lot of people saw her as a fresh face with a lot of vigor. She had everyone lined up against her, and she whacked ’em. This is the Chocolate City, and this young lady came in and whacked ’em. When it came out she was a Republican, I just didn’t care.”
The nine-member education board is a policy-making body with no budget authority whose role is often lost in the politics of school reform. Candidates who campaign to serve on the body run in what is always a down-ballot race, but a seat can also be a stepping stone to higher office. Most recently, Trayon White served on the school board before parlaying it into a seat as a Ward 8 D.C. councilmember.
Lord, 63, says she never saw the school board in opportunistic terms. “I’m not a politician,” she says of her original foray into school policy-making. “I’m a mom, I have two jobs, I volunteered at my kids’ middle school where things were getting out of hand.”
When D.C. dissolved its former school board and placed D.C. Public Schools under mayoral control in 2007, Councilmember Jim Graham drafted Lord to run for the new board. “It was ‘terra incognita,’” says Lord, who was drawn to the challenge of “developing an architecture for excellence.”
She saw her role as nonideological—her children have attended both traditional public schools and charter schools—and says she was on the fence about running for a fourth term. A former Newsweek correspondent, Lord is now an editor and writer at the American Society for Engineering Education’s magazine, which keeps her busy. But when the federal “Every Student Succeeds Act” replaced “No Child Left Behind,” school board powers expanded and she decided to run again, with endorsements from the Post, Greater Greater Washington, The Current, and six D.C. councilmembers.
Carter, who is in a long-term relationship and speaks of someday raising children in the city, emerged virtually out of nowhere. Raised on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, she’s the first in her immediate family to attend college, she says. When campaigning, she touted her family ties to D.C.—a grandmother who grew up off Bladensburg Road and a grandfather who was an MPD police detective for 25 years.
Carter graduated from the University of Maryland and started law school at Catholic University before earning her law degree from University of Baltimore, which taught her the importance of education, she says. “Education can take you places,” says Carter, who lives near Capitol Hill. “I’m still immersed in learning every day.”
Through volunteer work at women’s shelters and her job as a coalition director at the conservative Independent Women’s Forum, Carter found herself speaking around the country about the importance of women in elected office. “I followed my own advice,” she says. “I had never sought to run myself.”
For two candidates with no stated ideological agendas, Carter and Lord cast two vastly different images. Inevitably, the campaign devolved into a battle to define and denigrate one another.
Early on, Lord called attention to Carter’s conservative bent: She volunteers with the Junior League and works for the Independent Women’s Forum, which is devoted to “free markets and personal liberty” and a return to “limited, constitutional government.” (The IWF’s board includes analyst and pundit Larry Kudlow—who endorsed Trump—and Trump spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway, who is on a leave of absence. Lynne Cheney, wife of former Vice President Dick Cheney, is a former director.)
Carter also served as election day operations director for Virginia GOP gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli in 2013,and identifies her mentor as Jeanne Allen, who served at the U.S. Department of Education under Ronald Reagan and worked on education policy at the Heritage Foundation for six years. A C-SPAN telecast of a panel entitled “Trump and Women Voters” during the GOP Convention in Cleveland features Carter presenting a glowing Trump endorsement based on focus group research conducted by the Independent Women’s Voice.
After Lord branded her opponent as an agent of the right, the Carter campaign struck back. In October, City Paper reported that someone using Carter’s account on the D.C. Urban Moms and Dads blog posted insulting remarks about Lord’s age, appearance, and fashion sense. Carter denied responsibility, dismissed the campaign volunteer who wrote the post, and apologized to Lord. She criticized Trump for his more outrageous conduct yet remained a supporter. In December, she tweeted, “Betsy DeVos will be a breath of fresh air for American education”—support for Trump’s education secretary pick that made Democrats and traditional education advocates shudder.
Knowing that she still needed to steer clear of knee-jerk reactions to her true leanings, Carter turned to a more subtle strategy. Although the school board is nonpartisan, and the District is charter-friendly even among Democrats, she was bound to stand out as a young, white woman campaigning in Wards 7 and 8. A direct mail campaign appears to have killed two birds with one stone.
With “Smarter with Carter” emblazoned on the top and a handwritten signature stamped on the bottom, a campaign letter obtained by City Paper was distributed to homes in Ward 7 in the kind of plain white envelopes that people tend to open. “We cannot let current leadership cut programs like Universal Pre-school that leaders like former Mayor Vince Gray fought so hard to implement and build,” Carter wrote, aligning herself with a Democratic council candidate who was on his way to a resounding victory. (Gray campaign officials say he has no affiliation with Carter.)
Carter’s letter also emphasized her volunteer efforts “east of the river” and derided a disparity in school resources in Wards 2 and 7. Then, back to her central message, she pledged to improve graduations rates, offer students equal career and tech opportunities, and provide more individualized classroom attention for all students. Carter confirms sending similar letters in other wards, but she declined to show them to City Paper.
Throughout it all, Carter avoided being tagged with a partisan label. “I’d like to know how she won,” says Paul Trantham, a Ward 8B Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner who says he never saw her and knew nothing about her. “They said there’s a flyer, but I’ve never seen it. I doubt if people would’ve voted for her if they knew she supported Trump.”
Patrick Mara, executive director of the D.C. Republican Committee—and the only other Republican ever elected to the school board—says the at-large school board seat is the most winnable race for members of his party. And because much of D.C. already embraces charter schools and vouchers—models that almost all conservatives favor— Carter could have gone far to the right on education reform without most people in other parts of the city batting an eye, he says. “It’s not shocking in D.C. to have views on education that are consistent with Betsy DeVos’ views on education.”
But Mara, who actively recruited Carter, also says Carter just might have outworked her opponent. “Ashley kept chugging along,” he says. “When she didn’t get the Post endorsement, she started going door to door, set up a call bank, sent out mail pieces. She’s a worker.”
Carter made her own breaks, but some say she had help—including from Jacques Patterson, a well-financed and highly visible candidate and charter school director who was forced to drop out of the race when Lord successfully challenged his ballot signatures before the D.C. Board of Elections. Once out of the race, Patterson says he “worked actively” against Lord in his home Ward 8 and “talked to people” in Ward 7.
Political operatives who spoke with City Paper on condition of anonymity doubt that Patterson played a spoiler role. Washington Teachers Union President Elizabeth Davis sees the upset victory from the opposite end of the spectrum: “Mary did not have a strong grassroots presence in Ward 8,” Davis says. It’s also worth noting that popular incoming Councilmember Trayon White did not support Lord. Ronald Williams says he anticipated Patterson’s disqualification and worked with other political factions to defeat Lord.
Either way, Patterson insists he has the pulse of his community. “We didn’t endorse anyone else, but we couldn’t speak to anything [Lord] had truly accomplished,” he says. “She speaks to issues west of Rock Creek Park, but she really couldn’t speak to issues here. Those who supported her over there could not help her.”
“At the end of the day,” Patterson continues, “there’s one word that draws people together: accountability. If you’re speaking to accountability, and closing the achievement gap, you’re gonna get my vote. Parents don’t care if you are a Republican or a Democrat or a Libertarian or an Independent. They want to know, ‘How are you going to help my child learn.’ Ashley spoke to accountability. Period.”
Ashley Carter had another thing going for her too, Patterson says: the Post endorsement of Mary Lord.
People east of the river are frustrated with the status quo and are looking to hold someone accountable, Patterson says. This time, it was Mary Lord. “People are tired of lip service from on high about everything, of being told that everything is going well when it’s not true. Don’t sell us a bill of goods. Don’t go into a neighborhood and tell us what to do. If you have a missionary mentality, you will fail.”