Talk of hate and tone policing mark fierce campaign for the CMS District 4 board seat
As the final week of early voting began, an already fierce District 4 Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board race got even more intense.
Incumbent Carol Sawyer posted on her Facebook page that she was “distressed and saddened by the number of early voters who are transphobic and hateful towards LGBTQ+ students and teachers.”
A few hours later, challenger Stephanie Sneed took to her campaign Facebook page to say Sawyer had made "despicable and unacceptable" comments to Sneed's son at an early voting polling place.
In an unusual election year with big decisions looming and major frustrations simmering, the District 4 race has emerged as a focal point for local and national tension. Sawyer, a one-term incumbent, and Sneed, a lawyer making her third run for school board, are facing off again after Sawyer defeated Sneed in 2017. Clara Witherspoon, a retired educator and first-time candidate, is also in the mix.
"I have steered away from much of the drama," Witherspoon said Monday. "But I’ve heard it, absolutely."
'A diet of fear'
On Sunday, Sawyer posted on hercampaign Facebook page that she is proud to have the endorsement of EqualityNC, an LGBTQ rights group that has also endorsed Sneed. Her additional comments about "early voters who are transphobic and hateful" led some commenters to ask how she knows that and whether she was assuming her opponents are bigots, while others rallied to Sawyer's defense.
Sawyer told WFAE her comments were based on "a whole lot" of encounters with voters at the Mint Hill polling place.
"The voters come up to me and demand to know why we’re teaching their children to be trans," she said. "They’ll talk about, you know, men dressing as women and teaching in our schools. I mean, a surprising amount of that."
She said those voters didn't cite specifics about CMS policy and seemed to be driven by national media themes, "folks who are getting a steady diet of fear."
An 'annoying' song
Soon afterward, Sneed posted that she was breaking a self-imposed ban on negative comments about her opponents to call out Sawyer for an encounter with Sneed's son at a polling place.
Sawyer doesn’t dispute the facts of Sneed's account. Sawyer said Sneed’s 9-year-old son was with his dad at the same polling place as Sawyer, and Sawyer says she and the child had several friendly conversations.
But then the boy began singing. "He was kind of hanging out near me. I kept moving away," she said. She says she then asked him to stop because it was annoying.
Sneed, a lawyer making her third try for a school board seat, posted that she learned about the encounter from her son afterward. She said the boy called the interaction scary and was in tears when he finished recounting it to his mom. Sneed called Sawyer’s words despicable and unacceptable and said her son was a victim of tone-policing.
That term is often used in reference to racial dynamics. Sneed is Black and Sawyer is white.
"I have already reached out to Stephanie, mom to mom, to apologize, and have apologized for my poor choice of word in calling the song annoying," Sawyer said, adding that she's also willing to apologize to the boy if his parents think that's a good idea.
Sneed couldn't be reached Monday to comment on the incident and the apology. Her post includes a 15-second video of the boy urging people to vote for his mother "because she will help the children of District 4 have a better education and future."
Meanwhile, Success4CMS filed a financial report showing it has spent more money to oppose Sawyer than it has on any of the five candidates the group endorses. Larry Shaheen, a Charlotte lawyer and Republican political consultant, is the group's spokesperson and has not disclosed any other participants or donors.
The report shows Success4CMS has spent just over $19,000 with Adams Outdoor Advertising on "electioneering" in the CMS board races. That includes $7,800 to oppose Sawyer and about $5,900 to support Sean Strain, the incumbent in District 6. The group spent about $1,800 each to support Sneed, District 1 candidate Hamani Fisher and District 5 candidate Lisa Cline.
Early voting continues through Saturday, and Election Day is Nov. 8. The CMS board's six district seats are on the ballot, with four incumbents in the mix.