Pasco School Board candidates stay cordial while their supporters attack

Al Hernandez and James Washington differ sharply on policy, but much of the District 1 campaign is being waged by proxies.

Tampa Bay Times | By Jeffrey S. Solochek | October 4, 2022

On the few times Al Hernandez and James Washington have appeared together, the rivals for the Pasco County School Board District 1 seat have had mostly positive interactions.

Though they differ widely on policy issues — Hernandez has Gov. Ron DeSantis’ endorsement, while Washington is backed by Equality Florida and the local teachers union — they find time for genial backstage banter. They’ve even mused about dining together with their families.

That doesn’t mean their campaign is friendly, though.

Through supporters and proxies, the sides have bashed one another, with social media serving as the primary platform. The defeated third candidate from the primary, Steve Meisman, meanwhile continues to argue that neither Hernandez nor Washington deserve to be on the ballot.

Claiming they didn’t live in the east Pasco district at the time of qualification, Meisman has asked a circuit court judge to remove one or both of them, and place him back into contention for the November general election. That case remains pending.

It’s become a race that locals have an eye on at a time when school board control has taken a front seat in state politics.

Hernandez, a Humana executive, has served as a DeSantis appointee to the Pasco-Hernando State College board of trustees, and has received support from the Republican establishment.

In an ad for a recent fundraising event, Hernandez forwarded some of the key talking points that conservatives across Florida have used to promote their education policy priorities.

“Support the only candidate who believes in parental control, student safety and removing all anti-American curriculum from our schools!” the invitation stated.

Washington rejected the notion that he does not support parental rights or student safety. His supporters went on the offensive regarding the curriculum comment.

Former United School Employees of Pasco president Kenny Blankenship, a retired Land O’Lakes High history teacher, challenged Hernandez for asserting there’s an anti-American curriculum in the schools. He suggested it’s the same type of misleading claims that conservatives are using to rile their base, adding that Republicans have controlled state politics for more than two decades and would be responsible for the materials if they existed.

“It’s ludicrous, and they know it’s not true,” Blankenship said, adding that Hernandez repeated the statement when confronted.

Asked for clarification, Hernandez spoke about his disdain for anything that contradicts the American system, having come from Cuba, which he said represses individuality and destroys freedom.

He did not offer any specific examples of the type of lessons he said need to be removed.

“Many parents of students within the Pasco County School District have come to me and said they are worried about anti-American lessons being taught in our public schools,” Hernandez said via text message. “Whether or not these lessons are part of the official school curriculum, they have no place in our county or in our schools.”

Hernandez has said he would focus on why he should be elected, without denigrating his opponent. His supporters have done that for him, criticizing Washington as a member of Antifa and calling him a pedophile without any proof.

Washington is a teacher union member and has participated in several Democratic and LGBTQ causes. He said he will stand up for the rights of all, not just some.

Critics also have said Washington is financially irresponsible and should not have a vote on how taxpayer money is used.

Washington’s financial disclosure form shows he has debts approaching $100,000, with minimal assets. Court records show he had bankruptcy filings in 2005 and 2013, and that he faced residential eviction cases over unpaid rent in 2018 and 2022.

He also was arrested in 2007 by Zephyrhills Police for passing a bad check at Publix, something his campaign has said was inadvertent.

Washington’s supporters have defended their candidate. Long-time teacher Shannon Matthews took particular issue with the arrest, saying she became involved in the aftermath of what she called a “shameful and unethical decision” made by an officer who later was let go by the department.

Matthews complained to the police chief at the time, and said the chief came to the school to apologize.

Washington has taken steps to explain his troubles in a series of Facebook posts, which included copies of documents to back up some of his statements. He argues that his opposition is attempting to twist a series of misfortunes and minor events into something nefarious.

“We’re just two educators living on two educator salaries, and at times, it was only one salary for our entire family while also helping to care for elderly parents and purchasing supplies for my students,” Washington said via text message.

It’s easy to look at words on paper and draw conclusions that don’t take into account all factors, he suggested. It’s also easy to demonize people who live paycheck to paycheck and stumble, he added.

“That’s exactly why I’m running — our educators and staff need a living wage and we need to stop vilifying people that aren’t wealthy,” he said, adding he would take an $8,000 pay cut to serve on the board.

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