That has been one of the many themes coming from the resistance since the Trump Organization took over Washington DC. It became a rallying cry when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell turned off Senator Elizabeth Warren’s microphone after Senator Warren read Coretta Scott King’s letter addressing decades old racial issues surrounding Jeff Sessions. It happened in the Pennsylvania Capitol when House Appropriations Chairman Stanley Saylor threatened to cut off State Representative Leanne Kruger-Brankey’s microphone after she asked the Pennsylvania Department of Health Secretary Karen Murphy on how the budget would be impacted if the Affordable Care Act would be repealed. And it happened again in Harrisburg when those connected to the REACH Alliance, a pro-charter school and school choice advocacy organization who has connections to a Harrisburg based Koch Brothers backed think-tank, tried multiple times to throw Carrie Fowler off of the ballot for Harrisburg School Board.
Midtown resident, Planned Parenthood activist, full-time graduate student, and first-time political candidate Carrie Fowler decided she was going to run for Harrisburg School Board days before ballot petitions were due. The only obstacle she thought she was going to face? Getting the one hundred signatures needed to be on the ballot by the Monday, March 7th deadline, but her fight to stay on the ballot had just begun.
Shortly after she handed in her signatures, Fowler’s ballot petitions were met with a legal challenge from one of her primary opponents, Richard Soto. Soto’s initial challenge was thrown out of Dauphin County Court and Fowler was able to remain on the ballot. Then Soto appealed the Dauphin County Court ruling, and sent the case to Commonwealth Court of Appeals. This time Fowler was destined to lose.
Soto obtained pro-bono legal help from the high powered, Pennsylvania GOP connected, suburban Philadelphia law firm McNelly and Goldstein. Fowler was left in the breeze without a lawyer; but, she persisted. Fowler was able to obtain pro-bono legal help hours before her initial Commonwealth Court of Appeals briefs were due, and she was able to remain on the ballot after the Commonwealth Court of Appeals stated that Soto “failed in his endeavor” to kick Fowler off of the ballot.
But one question remains. Who exactly was behind Carrie Fowler’s petition challenges?
Fowler agreed to go on the record, and talk about who was fueling her ballot petition challenges. She points her finger directly at the REACH Alliance, a charter school and school choice advocacy group whose Board of Directors come from powerful Harrisburg lobbying firms like the Bravo Group and Malady and Wooten; groups representing “family values” and Christian and Catholic schools; and the Commonwealth Foundation , a Koch Brothers backed think-tank.
According to Fowler, she received a message from former Harrisburg City Councilman and the REACH Alliance’s lead lobbyist Otto V. Banks after she declared her candidacy through Facebook messenger (here and here). Banks was upfront with Fowler on his current position with the REACH Alliance and wanted a meeting to with Fowler to see if she would support the organization’s school choice agenda.
Then the Saturday before ballot petitions were due Fowler and volunteers for other local candidates had a table set up at the Broad Street Market where they were gathering petition signatures and approached by three candidates running for the Harrisburg School Board on a pro-charter school slate. While gathering signatures, Fowler was approached by Richard Soto and other members of the pro-charter school, school choice slate running for Harrisburg School Board, who includes Corey Williams, Brian Carter and Gerald Welch, and Corey Williams offered Fowler a coffee meeting because she was unable to meet with Otto Banks.
On a recent blog post, Banks states that he is “not employed by or working for a Charter School Group who is desirous of opening up a school in the old Bishop McDevitt building,” but that he is a “school choice advocate.” However, the Reach Alliance’s website and Bank’s LinkedIn still has him listed as “Executive Director” of the charter school, school choice lobbying outfit. The organization is best known for holding a yearly “birthday rally” for the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC), both of which send public tax dollars to private religious schools and charter schools via vouchers. A recent report from the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center states that in 2014-2015 close to $95 million from the EITC and OSTC programs went to religious schools that were mostly concentrated in the Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Harrisburg regions. On top of that, millions of public taxpayer dollars from these voucher programs have been sent to scholarship funds controlled by the Association of Christian Schools International, an association of private Christian schools that teach young earth creationism.
Fowler warns that Harrisburg voters needs to know that this slate has one goal and that is to bring more “choice” and charter schools to the city.