Back in October when Shurita Thomas-Tate announced she would seek a second term on the Springfield Public Schools Board of Education, she said she expected to be targeted by attack ads. The first one aired Tuesday night on KY3.
The ad, paid for by the SWMO Forward PAC, a Columbia-based political action committee with a trove of Springfield donors, accused Thomas-Tate and fellow candidate Judy Brunner of possessing a “hatred of American values.”
Thomas-Tate said Tuesday night she hadn’t seen the ad nor had any intention of watching it. “It’s what I expected from them,” Thomas-Tate said after the final school board meeting before the election concluded. “It comes off as very desperate.”
“School boards are supposed to be nonpartisan,” she wrote later in a statement to the Springfield Daily Citizen. “My focus is on students, teaching and learning. I will not be distracted by negative attack ads. There should more focus on the schools and less focus on political affiliation and religious beliefs.”
Brunner reviewed a copy of the ad shared with her by the Daily Citizen. In a statement, she called for the commercial to be pulled from the airwaves.
“The false attack ad against me is despicable, and I am asking for it to be removed by TV stations immediately,” Brunner said. “The attacks against me are a lie. It is disappointing to be attacked, once again, by dark money special interests who support my opponents. As the daughter of a World War II veteran, these anonymous cowards could learn a lot from the bravery my father showed risking his life for America and the love of country he instilled in me.”
The ad, which began airing a week before the April 4 election, does not mention the other two candidates campaigning for two seats on the board: Landon McCarter and Chad Rollins.
Elections for seven seats on the Springfield school board are officially nonpartisan, but they have increasingly taken on a partisan tone in recent years. In spring 2022, incumbent board member Charles Taylor was targeted by a similar ad that ran on KY3 and also with flyers and text messages sent by conservative groups. While these were independent expenditures, the anti-Taylor effort was credited for helping elect businessmen Kelly Byrne and Steve Makoski to the board.
Here is the full SWMO Forward PAC TV ad, which began airing March 28 on KY3.
For full context, here is a link to the entirety of Shurita Thomas-Tate’s statement that the attack ad references, at the point she begins her statement during a Sept. 6, 2022, school board meeting.
Ad most directly targets Thomas-Tate
The ad most directly targets Thomas-Tate, pointing to two examples of what the narrator claims to show her anti-American values. Thomas-Tate has addressed each in the run-up to the April 4 election, because they were the subject of Facebook posts before they were cited in the SWMO Forward PAC commercial. Thomas-Tate has also flatly told the Daily Citizen she’s not anti-American, pointing as Brunner did to her relatives who have served the country.
The ad’s first example is Thomas-Tate’s decision not to put her hand on her heart or to recite the Pledge of Allegiance during board meetings. Thomas-Tate told the Springfield News-Leader in February that her decision was based on her faith. “As an unapologetic Christian, I pledge my allegiance only to God,” she said in a statement to the News-Leader. “Through him all things are possible.”
The second is a 14-word clip from a nearly 450-word statement Thomas-Tate made during a September meeting. Thomas-Tate was addressing the district’s decision to bar Pride flags from Kickapoo High School classrooms, citing a board policy forbidding staff from representing their personal opinions as the opinion of the district. Thomas-Tate, in her comments, invoked the American flag and the Pledge — and the Confederate flag, though the ad omits that — saying those symbols “come with a political agenda” as well.
In a February interview with the Daily Citizen, Thomas-Tate said she was engaging in an intellectual exercise similar to ones she leads in her classroom at Missouri State University, where she is an associate professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders. She was offering questions and alternatives.
“But that’s not a classroom environment, and I have learned now I can’t do that,” she said in February. “Because it will be taken out of context and perhaps they may not even understand what I was saying or why I was trying to say it.
She added: “The language that was being used to dismiss the Pride Flag was, it’s a political statement. And I wanted to say that we already have other images that are providing political statements. Let’s talk about some of the other ones that are out there. That was my point.”
She said people would understand her point if they either were in attendance at the board meeting or watched the entirety of her statement.
Read entire statement Thomas-Tate made, including 14 words cited in ad (click to read)
“I also just wanted to speak briefly on the (SPS board) policy GBCB and the response to the new interpretation. And I am saying new because it doesn’t seem that we have responded in the same way in the past and this seems to be a new way of addressing this, or interpreting this, particular policy.
“It does appear that the policy does not allow for teachers and district employees to express, display personal opinions or political statements. I’m not completely sure why now this new interpretation, or the way that we’re responding has changed other than to think of it as being a direct response to political agendas.
“This move saddens me, because I truly, truly believe that representation matters. We know that students who are seen and supported and heard and feel safe — they do perform better in school and you can see Maslow’s hierarchy about that. Not only that. Particularly with this particular population, they live. And they live a better life because of that kind of representation.
“We are now being challenged in all sorts of spaces with banning books that have representation of students’ identities whether it’s, you know, LGBTQIA+ or other identities. And I think our students are now questioning whether or not we are trying to ban them. Not just their identities. But what are we saying about our students when we ban books and we ban symbols and things that represent their identities?
“You know, I question what does a personal opinion … what does constitute a personal opinion and what does constitute a political statement? I think we may or may not agree that maybe the American flag can be one of those, or the Pledge of Allegiance or the Confederate flag. And maybe, once upon a time, these may have been apolitical symbols. But we are not in that time anymore and they do come with a political agenda, and are we going to remove all of them because of that?
“I just want us to think carefully about what we’re saying to our students when we don’t allow for their identity to be represented in our school buildings. We don’t have to agree with one another, but we do have to — we must — respect our students and their identities. We must respect their ability to be a full person in the school setting if we want to see them to not just be successful but to be fully realized individuals. When we know better, we do better. So I am just encouraging us all to consider what these messages that we are putting out says to our student population.”
Thomas-Tate, Brunner have both pointed to patriotism and service in recent months
Brunner is drawn into the ad’s crosshairs by way of a picture of her and Thomas-Tate together. There are no direct examples explaining her alleged hatred of America. In conversation with the Daily Citizen in February, Brunner described herself as a patriot when addressing a question about school choice initiatives being considered at the state level.
“I am convinced that our democracy depends upon a strong foundation with our public schools,” Brunner said then. “Right now, we’re not fully funding the public schools. So to start diverting money elsewhere is not what I would hope. We’ll see. But I’m a very patriotic person. And I learned to be patriotic from my parents, and from school and from church.”
In February, after a local watchdog group posted a brief portion of the statement Thomas-Tate made about the American flag and Pledge (referenced in the attack ad), Thomas-Tate said it was being taken out of context in an effort to paint her as anti-American.
“I am not anti-American,” she told the Daily Citizen in early February, after a half-minute clip from the Pride flag meeting was posted on Facebook. “I am very grateful to be a part of this country. I have family members who have served this country. I have family members who have served this country when this country didn’t even see them as full human, or full citizens, of this country — my grandfather, who fought before the Civil Rights Act, for this country. Come back here, and you’re still not fully capable of doing what the people you serve with are able to do here. So absolutely, I am grateful to be in this country and I honor those who serve this country. But I also recognize some of the challenges that our country has, too, which is a thing that we’re not supposed to say these days, which is a dangerous thing to say.”
On Tuesday night, she reiterated that statement, saying her grandfather and uncles fought in wars for this country to allow her the freedom to choose what to pledge her allegiance to. She said she has served her country and community in other ways. Thomas-Tate founded a nonprofit literacy group (that also came under fire), serves with the local NAACP chapter and has run for office.
Attack ad PAC funded predominantly by Springfield residents
The PAC that funded the ads is SWMO Forward, which has a Columbia-based treasurer and a trove of Springfield donors. The treasurer is listed as Heather Grote, of Grote and Associates in Columbia. On the company website, Grote lists political action committee management among her areas of expertise.
A report filed by the PAC on March 28 states that it raised $47,050 this election cycle and had just over $16,100 on hand following a $15,000 media buy on Tuesday with Ax Media. The Kansas City-based company specializes in messaging for conservative candidates and issues.
Nearly all of the PAC’s funds come from Springfield residents, who contributed thousands of dollars to the PAC in recent days, according to a set of expenditure reports filed with the Missouri Ethics Commission. They include:
- Robert Wilson, the retired owner of Rapid Robert’s, who gave $10,000 to the PAC
- Loren Cook II, president of the Loren Cook Co., who gave $7,500
- Royce Reding, an investor, who gave $5,000
- 417 PAC, which gave $5,000
- Lee Fraley, of Fraley Masonry, who gave $2,500
- John Ruder, an investor, who gave $2,500
- Jeffrey Caison, a consultant, who gave $2,500
- Anthony Stubblefield, a retiree, who gave $2,000
- Daniel Pinheiro, a physician, who gave $1,000
- Sean Sutton, a real estate agent, who gave $1,000
Along with the collection of Springfield-area contributors, the SWMO Forward PAC also got a $7,500 contribution from Gail Griswold, a Lake of the Ozarkz-based business owner who is also president of the Camdenton School District Board of Education.
Along with five-figure media buys, SWMO PAC has contributed $6,000 to two Springfield candidate campaigns this election cycle. Mayor Ken McClure’s campaign received $5,000 from the PAC on March 20. SPS school board candidate Landon McCarter’s campaign received $1,000 in January, according to MEC filings.
“I don’t endorse attack ads on any candidate, ever,” McClure told the Daily Citizen Wednesday afternoon. He said he had not yet seen the commercial.
The Daily Citizen reached out to McCarter for comment Wednesday morning. His response will be added if and when he provides it.
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