Denver school board member Andrea Merida has been caught up in a maelstrom since Friday, when The Denver Post broke a story that she has been paid $5,000 since May by Andrew Romanoff's U.S. Senate campaign.
Merida, in her position as a board member, has been an aggressive critic of a pension refinance deal orchestrated by current Superintendent Tom Boasberg and former Superintendent Michael Bennet, Romanoff's Democratic primary opponent. So it's not surprising the Post and others have called her out for a potential conflict.
I spoke with Merida by phone Monday afternoon. She had been uncharacteristically silent over the weekend. Normally, she is active on Twitter and Facebook, expounding on issues related to Denver Public Schools. She frequently lambastes Boasberg, (from her Facebook page: "Well, let's recap, shall we? Flat CSAPs, spending time at the state capitol lobbying against transparency, knowingly giving misleading financial information to Board members....bonus? I think not. Sorry, Mr. Boasberg."), heaps praise on teachers and their unions, and points to schools that are bucking the odds and succeeding with high-poverty populations.
She doesn't shy away from a fight, that's for sure, so I've been expecting a social media barrage, an impassioned defense of her actions. What I got instead during our conversation was at least a partial apology.
"I'm guilty of being naïve and having tunnel vision on some things," she said. "In my naïveté I failed to reveal information I should have revealed." She has elaborated a bit on her website as well.
Merida said she works for Romanoff as a consultant on field organizing. She develops walk lists and call lists for volunteers, organizes canvassing teams and phone bank teams, and does some translating of campaign materials into Spanish.
Given the controversy, Merida said she is mulling her options. "I understand the concern, it is valid, and therefore am seriously considering (whether to stay on the payroll) in talking with close advisors. My commitment to DPS and its students, as well as my constituents, is the most important thing," she said.
Later Monday, she decided to step down from her paid position, but will remain a Romanoff volunteer, at least for now.
During our conversation, Merida also took some shots at her critics. She says they have unfairly accused her of using her school board soap box to criticize Bennet. "Go back and look at the tapes. I don't talk about Michael Bennet. My focus has been on Tom Boasberg and what do we do now? Bennet isn't here anymore. He can't help us."
Since I'm not a beat reporter these days, I've been spared the exquisite agony of sitting through school board meetings on a regular basis. So I can't verify Merida's assertion. But even if she hasn't launched assaults on Bennet by name from her school board seat, she has used other forums to bash him. This is within her rights as an individual in a free society, but can sow confusion.
First, there's last week's column in the Denver Post, in which she picks Bennet apart for using a tired line about "the ZIP code you're born into is not the place you end up if you work hard and behave responsibly." Merida writes in her guest column that this statement insults decent, hard-working people who reside within those ZIP codes.
On her personal website, Liberal Latina, Merida has blasted Bennet, questioning his credentials as a true Democrat and criticizing his campaign tactics:
...before he was appointed to the Senate there is virtually no evidence of Michael Bennet speaking out for minorities or expressing any opinions at all on civil rights or other issues important to progressive Democrats. That is why it is all the more appalling that his campaign is attacking the integrity of Andrew Romanoff.
Again, she is free to say these things. But let's not pretend the general public notices whether she's saying them as a private citizen or in her capacity as a board member.
And she has linked to withering assaults on Bennet by others, in particular those by former school board candidate Christopher Scott on Huffington Post. While they aren't her words, the links are a tacit endorsement of their message. And she and Scott have worked together on the pension issue.
As Mary Seawell wrote in her thoughtful blog post, this particular primary election is unique in its convoluted ties to the world of public education, particularly Denver Public Schools. So I'm not sure there is any universal lesson to be learned here.
In her post, Seawell makes a heartfelt plea for transparency, which seems the best place to start. Let's hope Merida, and the rest of us, have learned a lesson from this latest, unfortunate episode. If you're a public official, when in doubt, be an open book.