Mike Pence blasts Terry McAuliffe in Loudoun County, promoting educational freedom

PURCELLVILLE, Va. — Former Vice President Mike Pence took his support for parental choice and educational freedom Thursday to ground zero, better known as Loudoun County.

In what he called “the epicenter of a powerful movement that is spreading across America,” Mr. Pence lauded the parents and community members packing school board meetings to speak out about critical race theory, sexually graphic books, transgender policies and other hot-button cultural issues.

“Make no mistake about it, you’re making a difference for your kids. With families here in Loudoun County, standing up for educational excellence and accountability, you are making a difference in the life of the nation,” Mr. Pence told the audience at Patrick Henry College.

Once known as a sleepy Washington-area bedroom community, Loudoun County has become synonymous with the pitched battles over K-12 education between liberal school districts and alarmed parents. The conflict has spilled into the Justice Department and Virginia governor’s race, with a George Soros angle to boot.

Ford O’Connell, a longtime Republican Party strategist who has worked extensively in Virginia, said Loudoun’s emergence at the tip of the spear of the culture wars was driven by a “perfect storm” of fast-changing politics, traditional values and upper-middle-class residents.

“If you want to look at the overall picture, change came too fast for this community,” said Mr. O’Connell. “And this community was affluent enough, motivated enough and educated enough to push back, unlike some of the others that may have similar demographics across the country in this shift from red to blue.”

Indeed, Loudoun County ranked first on Kiplinger’s 2021 list of wealthiest U.S. counties, based on its median household income of $142,299. The average median home value is $556,600, nearly twice that of the state.

“Usually when you have that, you typically have more white-collar educated folks who tend to side with what I call the woke agenda,” Mr. O’Connell said. “But in Loudoun County, I think they still retain some of what I call traditional Virginia values, and that’s why they’re having this.”

The schools issue took over the Virginia governor’s race in September when Democrat Terry McAuliffe, asked about the conflict at a Sept. 29 debate, said, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

Since then, Republican Glenn Youngkin’s campaign has surged as he hammers his Democratic rival on K-12 education and parental choice. Most polls have the race in a statistical tie ahead of the election Tuesday, and a Fox News poll released Thursday gave Mr. Youngkin a significant lead.

Terry McAuliffe said famously, ‘I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,’” said Mr. Pence, whose speech was not a Youngkin campaign event. 

“We believe that parents should be the ultimate authority,” the former vice president said.

The issue took over the gubernatorial contest after a pandemic year of sometimes-raucous school board meetings that have drawn extensive national and local media attention.

They include stories about a teacher, Tanner Cross, who was suspended and then ordered reinstated in June by a judge for refusing to use students’ preferred pronouns at odds with their biological sex. 

In May, parents read excerpts from books described by Fight for Schools as “smut.”

A half-dozen board members have been targeted by recall efforts. One board member, Beth Barts, resigned in October.

Now Loudoun County also sits at the cutting edge of a national outcry that has pitted congressional Republicans against Attorney General Merrick Garland and the National School Boards Association.

Mr. Garland was ripped by Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans at a Wednesday hearing for his Oct. 4 memo directing federal law enforcement authorities, including the FBI, to investigate threats against schools based on an NSBA letter Sept. 29 warning about “domestic terrorism.”

The letter listed two dozen articles that dealt primarily with rowdy school board meetings. 

There were two arrests, including a June 22 incident in which a parent, Scott Smith, was arrested at a Loudoun County school board meeting.

Mr. Smith later said he sought to confront the board about his daughter being sexually assaulted by a “skirt-wearing male student” in a “genderfluid” school bathroom.

In August, Loudoun County agreed to allow transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their gender identity.

The 14-year-old attacker was found guilty in juvenile court of sexual battery in the May 28 case, as well as an assault at a different high school. The convictions prompted a student walkout Tuesday at several high schools to protest the district’s handling of the attacks.

Mr. Smith was also found guilty in August after being charged with disorderly conduct by Commonwealth’s Attorney Buta Biberaj.

Ms. Biberaj, who was elected in 2019 with nearly $659,000 from the Soros-funded Justice and Public Safety PAC, has since been targeted by a recall campaign. The Virginia State Police are investigating threats against her, according to Loudoun Now.

At the Senate hearing, Republican Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Josh Hawley of Missouri brought up Mr. Smith’s case when asking the attorney general about his schools directive.

Mr. Cotton said the NSBA letter referred to “Scott Smith, whose 15-year-old daughter was raped in a bathroom by a boy wearing girls’ clothes and the Loudoun County school board covered it up because it would interfere with their transgender policy during pride month.”

“And that man, Scott Smith, because he went to a school board and tried to defend his daughter’s rights, was condemned internationally. Do you apologize to Scott Smith and his 15-year-old daughter, judge?” Mr. Cotton asked.

Mr. Garland responded that the attack was “the most horrific crime I can imagine.” 

Mr. Cotton and Mr. Hawley have called for the attorney general to resign.

In Loudoun County, some parents have called for the resignation of superintendent Scott Ziegler. He has apologized for the district’s handling of the sexual assaults.

The board issued a statement two weeks ago saying that “school board members are typically not given details of disciplinary matters,” and that they had no record of Mr. Smith signing up to speak at the June 22 meeting.

In the Virginia governor’s race, former President Barack Obama condemned the “fake outrage” surrounding culture issues.

“We don’t have time to be wasting on these phony trumped-up culture wars, this fake outrage that right-wing media peddles to juice their ratings,” Mr. Obama said in a Saturday campaign appearance for Mr. McAuliffe.

At the Pence speech, Susan Friesen, 62, of Loudoun County took issue with Mr. Obama’s comments.

“When you have President Obama coming to stump for him and saying parents are making a big deal out of nothing, that’s Terry McAuliffe’s opinion,” Ms. Friesen said. “He’s having people stump for him that shows where he is.”

Mr. Youngkin pulled ahead of Mr. McAuliffe by 53% to 45% among likely voters in a Fox News poll released Thursday, a 13-point swing from the 5-point deficit in the same poll two weeks ago. 

Two of the major findings in the poll’s details are that Virginia parents had decisively turned against Mr. McAuliffe and that Mr. Youngkin had an edge on the issue of education — traditionally a significant Democratic advantage. 

Such parental outrage “isn’t fake; it’s real,” Mr. Pence said. “And it’s grounded in love for this country and their kids.”

• Mica Soellner reported from Purcellville.

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