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The Elephant in the Room

Alum Becomes Sole Republican on D.C. School Board

By Sala Levin ’10

Carter

Darrow Montgomery

Darrow Montgomery

Ashley Carter ’05 never planned on running for office. Instead, she encouraged other young women across the nation to enter politics through her job as director of coalitions for the conservative Independent Women’s Forum.

So she was as surprised as anyone to be sworn in on Jan. 2 as the only Republican on the D.C. State Board of Education.

Her change of heart came one evening about a year ago when neighbors in Capitol Hill told her they’d move to Maryland or Virginia when their then-2-year-old child was school-aged.

“I want to raise my own children here in the city,” says Carter, who grew up on Kent Island, Md., and attended public schools. She and her boyfriend, who don’t have children, now own a house in Capitol Hill, across the street from an elementary school. “Why are we losing good D.C. residents and giving them away to Maryland and Virginia when we can fix our schools here?”

In November, Carter upset longtime incumbent Mary Lord in a heated race for the at-large seat on the nine-member board, which can make policy but has no budget authority. Her victory was all the more unexpected, as the city’s voters are overwhelmingly Democrats. (Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton took 91 percent of the vote in the general election.)

Carter says that she’s used to being the lone—but influential—Republican. “In high school I was part of mock election, and I chose to be George W. Bush. Even though Maryland is a blue state, I got my entire school to vote for George Bush.”

The government and politics department at Maryland gave her a comfortable home where she could test and strengthen her beliefs. “Even though they say university professors are very liberal, I had a warm welcome as a Republican. The professors really shaped my thought process.”

Her opponent and some observers suggested she downplayed her Republican Party membership. “Most people, all they need to know is that she’s Republican,” Lord told the Washington City Paper. “There’s a tendency to dismiss Republicans because there’s no two-party system in D.C.”

Patrick Mara, executive director of the D.C. Republican Committee and, before Carter, the only Republican ever elected to D.C.’s education board, says that Carter was forced into a partisan fight. “You want to focus on education, because that’s what the job is, but your opponents bring up the fact that you’re a Republican quite frequently,” he says. “It’s as if it’s on par with neglecting to mention the 10 years you served in prison.”

Carter’s conservative politics would have been hard to hide in any event—her employer, the Independent Women’s Forum, is a nonprofit whose mission statement focuses on “women who value free markets and personal liberty” and whose board includes Donald Trump’s counselor Kellyanne Conway, now on a leave of absence.

For her part, Carter rejects the idea that party affiliation had any place in the campaign. She believes her victory was the result of old-school campaigning and the right platform, which focused on raising the District’s graduation rate (69 percent), putting more trained volunteers and nonprofit resources into classrooms, and supporting charter schools—a traditionally conservative viewpoint that enjoys widespread popularity even in liberal D.C.

She campaigned particularly aggressively in Wards 7 and 8, predominantly black neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. “Voters were so happy that somebody was out there wanting to listen to what problems they were facing,” says Carter, who is white. “Many felt they’d been spoken at, that no one ever asked for their opinions about what was going on.”

In Ward 7, Carter won around 41 percent of the vote, while Lord won about 18 percent, and in Ward 8, Carter got around 42 percent to her opponent’s 17 percent.

Ultimately, she attributes her success to her persistence. “I knocked on well over 10,000 doors in the city,” she says. “Had I stopped when the first person told me I wasn’t going to win and closed the door in my face, I wouldn’t be here now.”

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Strategic Communications for the University of Maryland community weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.