Sarah Manski and TJ Mertz
Just hours after Tuesday's primary, Sarah Manski and TJ Mertz were already leveling accusations about experience and integrity in what is becoming the most contentious race for Madison school board this year. The two beat out Ananda Mirilli and will face off in the general election on April 2.
Manski finished 14 points ahead of Mertz with about 8,400 votes -- a comfortable margin that she says is proof that she has the "strongest voice against Scott Walker and the Republicans and their push for privatization and vouchers."
Mertz is quick to dismiss vote totals in a race with such low voter turnout.
"I think as the voters learn more about the candidates, I'll emerge in first place," he says.
Mertz touts his heavy involvement in Madison schools, including his service on the district's equity task force and his work on the 2006 and 2008 referendum campaigns, to draw a contrast with Manski.
"She has none of this experience," he says. "She doesn't know what the school board does. She doesn't know what she wants to do with the school board except gain political stature. It is the wrong reason."
While Manski has not had the intense level of involvement in Madison schools that Mertz has had, she calls herself a "very established woman in the community." She also points to high-profile endorsements from Mayor Paul Soglin, Rep. Peter Barca (D-Kenosha), Congressman Mark Pocan (D-Madison) and school board vice-president Marj Passman.
"They've worked with Thomas too, and they think that I'm the better candidate," she says. "It's one thing to be a blogger and a critic. It's quite another to be a leader."
That comment doesn't sit well with Mertz.
"I don't consider myself a leader. But I do consider myself someone who's worked with hundreds of people in Madison around school issues for years. Sarah Manski attended her first school board meeting in December," he says. "I consider her a politician who claims leadership."
Manski calls Mertz' claim about her first school board meeting "absolutely an untruth" and "offensive." She says she first attended a school board meeting about 10 years ago and further insists that Mertz knows his statement isn't true.
"Is this how a public official should behave?" she asks.
There may be no love lost between the candidates, but both can at least find common ground on Gov. Walker's latest budget proposal which expands Wisconsin's voucher program and sets up a state board that would approve independent charter schools.
"I am absolutely appalled by it, and it emphasizes even more that we need a strong leader and a coalition builder on the school board because our schools are really under attack right now," Manski says.
"It's horrendous," agrees Mertz. "So whatever comes down from Walker, we need prepared school board members who can be effective in limiting the damage Walker does to our schools."
Mertz and Manski are vying for one of three school board seats. In the other races, legislative aide Greg Packnett is taking on school board president James Howard. And Dean Loumos, head of the non-profit Housing Initiatives, is running against retired police officer Wayne Strong.