Wednesday, 22 May 2024 10:08

“I Refuse to Be Told What to Do”: Facebook Posts Show a Conservative School Board Member Rejecting Extremism

I have been covering the bare-knuckle, far-right political battles in a rural North Texas county since shortly after the 2020 presidential election. Just about an hour southwest of Fort Worth, Hood County might be off the beaten path, but it has been at the cutting edge of hard-line conservative activism in Texas for the past few years.

A year after the 2020 presidential election, I covered the effort in the county, which voted 81% for former President Donald Trump, to force out its independent elections administrator and give her duties to an elected county clerk who had used social media to promote baseless allegations of widespread election fraud.

That’s when a local activist named Courtney Gore first came across my radar; she seemed to be the very embodiment of an uncompromising Republican movement intent on making schools the battleground for culture war issues over race and gender. As the co-host of a local far-right web-based talk show, Gore and her colleagues had taken aim at fellow Republicans they considered insufficiently conservative and frequently attacked the school district, alleging it was providing sexually explicit books to kids and teaching socialism and left-wing ideology about race and gender.

Gore ran for a seat on the Granbury Independent School District board in the fall of 2021. After she won, I spoke to parents who feared the worst. One gay parent said she and her wife were contemplating moving their 4-year-old son out of the district.

“Seeing stuff like the school board election definitely opens my eyes,” the parent told me. “Even though this is a small town, and I know most of the people, and I grew up next door, when it comes to sexuality nobody’s safe.”

A few months after the election, the local school district became one of the first in Texas to remove about 130 library books. The district eventually returned most of the books to the shelves, but in 2022 the Department of Education launched an investigation into whether the district violated federal laws that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender after ProPublica, The Texas Tribune and NBC News published audio of the district superintendent targeting books with LGBTQ+ themes.

As we continued to cover the district and efforts to remove LGBTQ+ library books, I kept tabs on the always lively local Facebook forums, where I watched Gore make a stunning about-face.

In May 2022, she publicly broke with her former hard-line supporters and admitted to her Facebook followers that she had unwittingly contributed to an effort to weaken support for public education in Granbury. Without naming names, she warned her followers on social media to be on guard against misinformation and efforts to manipulate their emotions with “conjecture.”

In May 2022, Gore wrote on Facebook about misinformation and efforts to “manipulate with the power of suggestion.” Credit: Screenshot by ProPublica

Gore’s social media messages became more pointed a week later. In response to a Facebook post about some of the tactics she believed were being used by her former allies, she spoke bluntly: “I’m over the political agenda, hypocrisy bs,” she wrote. “I took part in it myself. I refuse to participate in it any longer, it’s not serving our party. We have to do better, imvho.”

The next month, she made her break explicit and began warning residents that a deeper plan was afoot to eliminate public education in Texas.

In June 2022, Gore wrote on Facebook, “I refuse to be someone’s puppet.” Credit: Screenshot by ProPublica

Then, in October, she told her Facebook followers that she had witnessed firsthand a plan for “weaponizing” the school board in an effort to build support for a voucher program, in which public education dollars would be spent on private and religious schools.

In October 2022, Gore wrote on Facebook about a “systemic plan” that involved “weaponizing our local school board.” Credit: Screenshot by ProPublica

I reached out to Gore to see if she would be willing to talk to me about her political evolution. She was initially hesitant to do an interview, but I kept in communication with her. Then, nearly a year after I’d first reached out, as the Granbury district continued to undergo battles about library books, bond elections and vouchers, she agreed to meet with me. Since then we have done hours of interviews over Zoom, where she has described her experience, providing insight into what was happening behind the scenes as she ran for school board and in those first crucial months after she took office. Our stories this week detail how she came to her conclusions and her thoughts on what she sees as the larger forces that have played a role in Hood County politics.

Texas politics experts told me it is rare to see someone in modern political life have the fortitude to not just admit that they were wrong and had been misled, but to then turn around and challenge the party directly. Much more common in the Trump age, political scientists told me, is for politicians to stay silent or quietly resign rather than risk facing the wrath of the conservative hard-liners.

I’ll continue to report on school district elections and vouchers in Texas throughout the year. If you have tips or inside information, you can fill out this form.

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