How anti-vaccine, anti-LGBTQ rhetoric made its way into Marin Co. school board elections

Novato Unified school board candidate Tief Gibbs Jensen says trans kids are "seriously mental, they have mental problems."

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ByLiz Kreutz via KGO logo
Friday, October 28, 2022
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Several Marin County school board candidates are discreetly running on an anti-LGBTQ, anti-vaccine platform for the California midterm elections.

MARIN COUNTY, Calif. (KGO) -- From anti-LGBTQ+ platforms to campaigning against critical race theory, conservative candidates are vying for school board positions across the United States in these midterm elections. Surprisingly, to some, that includes school districts right here in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Among them, is the race for school board in the Novato Unified School District.

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Tief Gibbs Jensen is a candidate running for school board in the Novato Unified trustee District 4. She's a mom of two recent Novato graduates and a local business owner.

We met up with her in the final weeks of her campaign while she was walking her district, door knocking.

"I have walked my entire district at least once and now I'm on my second go around again," said Jensen. "And the number one thing people are concerned about is the financial well-being of the district. And that's where we need to keep our focus."

On her campaign flier, Jensen talks about the ABCs, which she describes as - Accountability... Back to Basics... and Children First.

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What's not obvious from reading it is that Jensen is one of the most vocal conservative activists in Marin County. She actively campaigned to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom. She's organized protests against the coronavirus mandates and threatened to boycott businesses in Novato that required showing proof of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Jensen: "So I am on record as being against the COVID vaccine."

Kreutz: "Are you vaccinated?"

Jensen: "No I'm not. I don't believe that kids should be forced to get this. It's experimental."

Jensen says her campaign is not about state or national politics. But her candidacy is part of a larger trend happening across the country including the Bay Area: conservative candidates running for small, down-ballot races.

"Local elections are nonpartisan, so officially they are not running as a Democrat or a Republican," said Dr. Sarah Hill, a political science professor at Cal State Fullerton. "If you can fight on those issues and make it not about party, folks, right, have a better chance of winning a seat and influencing policy."

Pat Johnstone, the chair of the Marin Democratic Party, says she's never seen anything like it.

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"The Republican party in Marin County, I think, has a registration of about 18% so we're a pretty blue county and so it's often that Republicans don't even run," she said. "So that fact is, it is unusual that we have this many candidates running."

According to Johnstone, Jensen is one of nine school board and city council candidates across Marin County supported by Marin Freedom Rising, an anti-vaccine group. Also on that list is Faye Bourret, a San Rafael School Board candidate.

Like Jensen, Bourret is running for office for the very first time. She says she also wants to focus on learning loss during the pandemic.

"We've had a lot of parents pull their kids out of school here and put them into the private schools during the lockdown," Bourret said. "And part of that has to do with curriculum."

But when it comes to hot topics before the school board, like discussing LGBTQ+ issues, gender identities in school, and COVID vaccines, Bourret did not give us clear answers on where she stands.

Kreutz: "Are you vaccinated? Do you believe in vaccinations?"

Bourret: "I'm not going to answer that question because I believe it's private medical information. I've been asked there and I don't go there."

Kreutz: "Do you believe the kids should get the COVID vaccine?"

Bourret: "It's up to their parents."

Johnstone believes that is strategic.

"They are not in their campaign materials, they are not talking about any of these issues, they're being sweetness and light about building the community and things like that," said Johnstone. "It's hard to know what their full agenda is."

Jensen tells ABC7, "I'm not trying to cover anything up. And I'm certainly not trying to obfuscate anything."

But those are the issues that are firing up school boards across the country, particularly issues around LGBTQ+ students. Across the U.S., school boards and states have been enacting legislation to restrict students from talking about LGBTQ+ issues - removing protections for transgender students - even closing student newspapers for publishing "PRIDE" issues.

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Jensen opposes the district flying the LGBTQ+ flag during Pride month which the current board approved during this meeting in May.

Kreutz: "Why are you against flying the LGBTQ+ flag at the Novato school district?"

Jensen: "I'm against it more for a practical position. What the city is setting itself up for is if someone wants to come in a fly a flag then they're going to have to let them. It could be the satanic flag. It could be the 'Don't Tread on Me' flag."

Kreutz: "Are you comparing the LGBTQ+ flag, the rainbow flag, to the satanic flag?"

Jensen: "How about the 'Don't Tread on Me' flag? How about a Trump flag? How about the Russian flag."

Jensen went on to say books about transgender people should not be allowed in elementary schools.

Jensen: "The transgender thing is a much greater issue. OK? Those kids are seriously mental, they have mental problems. They're having a very, very tough time processing their sexual identity. My daughter had a friend in high school who decided she was a boy and I discussed that with her. I said I'm not going to call her by her boy name. (I told her) I understand you think that's disrespectful but I'm not going to do that. I think when kids are younger than 18 the school should not be involved in any way about their sexuality. It should be between the parents and the kids."

Kreutz: "Do you believe the school should allow that child to go by their preferred name?"

Jensen: "(sigh) I don't know, that's a really tough question."

Kreutz: "What's so scary to you about a young person deciding they want to transition?"

Jensen: "Because I don't think it's biologically possible and I think you're lying to kids. You're either a boy or a girl."

Kreutz: "You don't believe in transgender?"

Jensen: "No."

"It's horrifying," said Suzanne Ford, Novato resident and San Francisco Pride Executive Director.

Among those living in the district Jensen hopes to win is Suzanne Ford, a trans woman. Ford was hurt and outraged when we showed her Jensen's comments.

"That she could equate LGBTQ with mental illness in children is insane," said Ford.

Ford said she feels Jensen has not been upfront about these beliefs during her campaign.

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"I do think they don't want everyone to know what her real views are," said Ford. "That's why it's so important that we do these interviews with politicians and people running for office. We need to know what they really believe at the beginning of their careers and hopefully we can really make it a real referendum on those beliefs."

Dr. Hill says it's hard to predict how well candidates like Jensen will do in the November election.

"Certainly in some areas, these are strong candidates who are doing really well and they have backing," she said. "But it's probably a more conservative area. You get surprises all the time though. If you get your friends to door knock and put up the signs and write the postcards and all those sorts of things. You have a chance there."

Kreutz: "Do you think messaging like this is going to resonate in Marin County?"

Jensen: "In terms of teaching something or pushing something on other people? Or pushing them to accept something? I don't think that's a good thing and I think the community doesn't want that either."

"With the pandemic, folks like school boards were making decisions but parents didn't feel like they were part of it. It woke folks up to 'oh, school boards are important,'" said Dr. Hill.

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