Dregs of the Ballot: Stealth Candidates

Let’s start here. Everyone has the right to run for elective office. But if you run, you ought to be honest about who you are and what you believe.

But there’s a movement among adherents of QAnon conspiracy theories to run for local office while concealing their extreme ideologies. And some of it is happening right here in Vermont. Voters need to watch for the warning signs of a stealth candidacy, and news media need to be more diligent in their often formulaic coverage of local elections.

The biggest tell that you’ve got a QAnon type running for school board or select board is a complete absence of any policy positions. Instead, the candidate emphasizes family, community ties and activities.

Take, for example, Ingrid Lepley of Tinmouth. In a social media announcement of her candidacy for the Mill River Unified Union School Board, she wrote paragraph after paragraph about her participation in numerous community activities while saying little to nothing about education policy. She offered a couple of bromides about loving her community and the local schools, and hoping they “continue to grow and do well.”

Meanwhile, she reportedly ran an online jewelry design business that featured numerous pieces that seemed to signal QAnon adherence. She used coded phrases and symbols from the QAnon lexicon. And some of her customers specifically praised her for selling QAnon jewelry. She has apparently scrubbed her site of the more overtly coded pieces, but there are still large quantities of “Q” and rabbit designs. (“Follow the white rabbit” is one of Q’s dog-whistle slogans.)

After the jump: Advice for the news media.

Another example is the previously-discussed select board candidate Ethan Lawrence of Essex. In a candidate forum on Town Meeting TV, he presented the image of a thoughtful moderate, speaking for the most party in vague generalities. But, as we have already seen, Lawrence’s social media presence has been riddled with anti-vax and anti-masking statements, profane language directed at political opponents, and offensive “jokes” about liberals and Democrats.

It was a stealth campaign that got Liz Cady elected to the Essex-Westford school board. She ran as a community-minded mom concerned about educational quality. She didn’t mention that her kids were in private school and that she was up in arms about that conservative bugaboo, critical race theory. Now, as an elected official, she has brought shame to her community through public comments equating vaccination with the Holocaust.

Again, these people have every right to run, and you have every right to vote for them if you agree with them. But they ought to be honest about their beliefs instead of hiding behind earnest bromides about community and family.

The rise of the stealth candidate means that voters have to pay attention and do some research. It also means that the news media should stop treating local elections as a formality that only merits the briefest of attention. Every election brings the inevitable “candidate profiles” that include basic biographical information and a few rote policy statements and not much more. They’re boring to read, and you can tell that the reporter and the editors considered them a necessary chore. But oftentimes, the candidate profile is the first, last and only coverage given to a local race.

It ought to be standard operating practice for reporters to do Google searches and look into candidates’ social media profiles. That’s the minimum. Preferably, they should also contact people they know for insights into the candidates.

In the vast majority of local elections in Vermont, there’s a maximum of one news outlet paying attention. It behooves outlets with informational monopolies to do their due diligence. Otherwise, it’s far too easy for stealth candidates to sneak through the process and into public office.

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