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Regional Interests

Political consultant supported many conservative school board candidates recently elected in Oregon

In our coverage of recently elected conservative school board members advocating for changes across the state, there’s one name that kept popping up: Reagan Knopp. He is the political director for Oregon Right To Life and the founder of a political strategy firm called Knopp and Company. In these dual roles, Knopp has supported dozens of conservatives running for their local school boards. He says he sees school boards as a “proving ground” for the kind of experience necessary to run for higher office and he’s hoping to deepen the Republican bench in Oregon politics. We talk with Reagan Knopp about his political strategy.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Over the last few months, we’ve had a few different conversations about school board elections in Oregon. We talked about the races in Salem-Keizer and the greater Albany school district. In both cases, conservative candidates were supported by the same person. We thought we should talk to him. Reagan Knopp is a campaign strategist, a political director of Oregon Right To Life and the editor of the conservative blog Oregon Catalyst, and he joins me now. Reagan Knopp, welcome to TOL.

Reagan Knopp: Thanks for having me on the program, Dave.

Miller: Thanks for joining us. Why focus, among other things, it’s not all you’re doing, but why focus on school board elections this year?

Knopp: Well, I think progressives and Democrats specifically, they’ve been working on recruiting candidates for local offices, like school board, and they’ve done it with the support of their state party and groups like Emerge Oregon, that helps train and finance candidates, and we realized that they have maybe a decade of head start on us. And so I felt like it was important to get involved in school board races and to help other organizations do that, because conservatives, we need to have a voice first of all in our communities and about education. Education is a top voter issue in most elections. And so we need to be able to communicate our ideas and our policies on that. And then also, I think school boards have become a jumping-off point from local office to higher office. I think about the many legislators, including the senate Democratic leader, Rob Wagner, who serves in his local school board. So political candidates are getting their start there. And so we can’t just not run candidates for those offices. So we have to govern there, and then we have to use those as launching off points to talk about education, when candidates run for higher office.

Miller: You know, I’m fascinated hearing you say that you feel like the left has a head start here because the narrative that I’m more familiar with nationally is that conservatives were very savvy going back, say to the 1970s, in recognizing the power both locally and also as jumping-off points, in things like school boards. And I remember Democrats saying, ‘ha, we should take a page from the Republican or conservative playbook and pay more attention to local races or to school boards’. But it seems like you’re saying that in Oregon, conservatives have not recently been paying enough attention to school board races?

Knopp: Yeah, not until the last couple of years did I feel like conservatives really got organized and really focused on these races. I think that especially like you said, the national Republicans were more organized Republicans, and more competitive. Redder states are more organized than we were here. And so Democrats really did get started sooner. And so we’re trying to catch up with them.

Miller: What do you look for in a candidate for a school board?

Knopp: I think the key is they gotta have strong community ties. I don’t think that they have to have held any other kind of elected office before necessarily. I don’t think that they necessarily need to be somebody who’s been prominent in the community, but they have to have a strong community network, whether they’re connected with parents in their school district, whether they have ties to their local business community, whether they’ve been involved in some kind of other educational efforts, whether private or public. And those are the kinds of things that we need to find in a candidate because if they don’t have broad community support, it doesn’t really matter what kind of campaign they run, they aren’t going to be able to win. I think that one of the things we see in these races is that if you’re organized and you get started early and you have a good candidate, you can win regardless of if you have a financial advantage or not. The organizing really wins over the money.

Miller: When you’re looking at school boards, it’s interesting that what you talked about there is they were all things that weren’t tied to being conservative, they were about supporting the community, or ties to the community or, being a parent. But what about conservative values or politics?

Knopp: I think that we try to have as big of a tent as we can. And certainly, some of that’s just dictated by national politics and what’s kind of most common in the party, but I think we have all kinds of candidates that run all over their communities, and they have all kinds of different backgrounds. And they do have certainly conservative values, but I think that if you run and you have conservative values, but you have no community network, it doesn’t really matter if you have conservative values. I think it’s gonna be hard to win elections. And so certainly I’m gonna end up working with and helping more conservative candidates just naturally, because I’m a conservative myself, and I think that there’s conservative kinds of solutions that are going to be really good for the community overall. But if they don’t have a network, then it kind of doesn’t matter how conservative they are or how good their value [inaudible] is.

Miller: Some of your support for candidates in recent school board elections, it was tied to your work as the political director of Oregon Right To Life. What’s the connection for you between being an anti-abortion activist, and pushing for candidates on school boards?

Knopp: I think it started before I got to Oregon Right To Life, actually in 2012. Planned Parenthood actually had a contract to teach sex education in Salem Keizer schools and, parents really were frustrated with that. And they were able to convince the school board then to that contract. And as far as I know, Planned Parenthood doesn’t teach sex ed in schools anymore. But what they do is they do try to influence who gets elected to those positions. They endorsed 40 candidates combined between Planned Parenthood and the NARAL organization. In 2021 for school board, they’ve run pro-abortion board members before, in Salem Keizer and other places. And so we felt like at the very least there needed to be pro-life voices on some of these school boards to kind of push back and make sure that the contents of sex education, other things like that, were all really neutral. They didn’t have a pro-life position, they didn’t have a pro-choice position, they were just as neutral as they could be.

Miller: In Salem Keizer in that case, I did reach out to the district just to get some clarity on this. And the way they explained it is that - and this ended I think in 2014 or 2015 - they were teaching a supplement to their healthy sexuality unit in high school health. But the curriculum was tied to standards supported by the Oregon Department of Education. Is your larger concern about state standards, as opposed to who is teaching these standards?

Knopp: I think if we had the opportunity to weigh in on those standards, certainly we would, and I think that that would be beneficial to the broader community.

I think that right now, as far as I’m aware, there aren’t any pro-life or conservative people that get to weigh in on those standards, that aren’t part of the legislative minority in Salem. And so, I think that we’ve tried to focus on just making sure that if there [are] concerns from the community, that there are local pro-life leaders on the school boards. And we have the exact same interests as Oregon Right To Life that Planned Parenthood does, in ensuring that they run people for school boards, that can run for offices also. It’s not just about the local governance, although that’s a huge piece and I think the vast majority of school board members don’t run for office, but like I said before, I think if Democrats and pro-abortion advocates are going to run candidates for school board and then run them for higher office, we would be not very smart if we didn’t try to do the same thing, and try to get pro-life advocates in there.

Miller: One of the biggest issues that has brought so many people to be focused on school policies over the last year is about COVID-19 regulations, about schools being closed for in-person instruction, and eventually reopening, now about masks nationwide. Obviously, a gigantic issue. I’m just curious how you approach this issue as a conservative political strategist.

Knopp: So again, I think it’s back to the people with strong community ties that can listen to their community. If you remember back when the school board elections were just getting started in March and April this year, people were really concerned we wouldn’t have full-time in-person learning. And at that point, the governor was sending signals that the decisions about full-time in-person education, about masks, about vaccine mandates, were gonna be local decisions. And so that’s why it’s like specifically in Albany, I formed Albany First PAC, and try to support the candidate we felt had the right view, that full-time in-person education really is best for the vast majority of kids. And so we got them elected, and I think they have good heads on their shoulders and would make good local decisions with input from the community. Unfortunately, it seems like Governor Brown is kind of continuing to change their mind on local control about masks broadly for individual counties, and now about masks and schools and about vaccine mandates and all that. So I think parents are kind of back to where they were in the spring, where they’re really concerned that schools aren’t going to be open for full-time in-person learning. And so having school board members that have that as a goal, have that as their focus, is going to be important, because they are going to need to be in contact with the governor’s office and doing everything they can locally to really ensure that happens.

Miller: Her argument and the argument of public health experts, is that in-person instruction is more likely if people actually wear masks. It seems like you’re saying give us the freedom to not have to wear masks, but also let us be in school all the time.

Knopp: I think the key for the school districts and the individual communities is that if they have the agency to make their own choices, they also have the agency to own any mistakes or the consequences of those results, whether they be good or bad. And I think what Governor Brown is basically saying is that the consequence of those results, she’s very concerned what they’re going to look like. And so she would rather not have that conversation. And I think that’s just a difference of opinion about governments, right? Conservatives are focused on local control and Democrats prefer, progressives tend to prefer centralizing that control a little bit more, just because they’re concerned about outliers or some counties making different decisions, ultimately about their concerns with Covid.

Miller: Thanks very much for joining us today.

Knopp: Thanks for having me.

Miller: Reagan Knopp is the editor of Oregon Catalyst, political director of Oregon Right To Life, and founder of Open Company, a political strategy firm.

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