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Durst takes on education establishment

by CHUCK MALLOY
| April 4, 2022 10:40 AM

Branden Durst concedes that he probably would not win the Republican race for state superintendent if he were going against either of his two opponents alone. Getting 50 percent of the vote would be a high threshold for someone who cares little about winning over crowds.

But in a three-way race, where something around 35 percent could win the GOP nomination, Durst has a more optimistic view.

He’s not touting himself as the winner by any means. He knows that his two opponents — State Superintendent Sherri Ybarra and former State Board President Debbie Critchfield — have their followers. Ybarra has been in the office for eight years and represents the status quo. Critchfield has emerged as the “establishment” favorite.

Durst will tell people who will listen that they should vote for either of his opponents if they approve of the direction of education in Idaho. Durst, a former Democratic legislator who now aligns himself with the Republican Party’s right wing, has carved out his niche with conservatives.

And those on that end of the political spectrum loathe what’s happening with education. They want nothing to do with critical race theory, common core or anything that they perceive is within sniffing distance of “liberal” indoctrination.

“This one is simple for voters … the contrasts are clear. Of all the races, this one probably is the most wide open,” Durst said. “I am the conservative candidate, and there is no question about that.”

In a race with three or more candidates, the most conservative candidate often wins. This one might be decided in North Idaho, which over the years has evolved into friendly territory for conservatives.

“People might be dancing on my grave after the early voting, but then votes will come from the north,” Durst said. “I could get as much as 50 percent from the north.”

Durst is an odd sort of candidate — a description he doesn’t run away from. He doesn’t play to crowds, or particularly care about being well liked. And he has no great interest in broadening his base for the primary election.

“I’m not built that way,” he said. “Of course, I want people to like me, but I’m not going to change who I am to accomplish that.”

A case in point was his appearance in a recent candidate forum sponsored by Idaho Business for Education. According to Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News, Durst made it clear from the start that he was not going to change his message to suit his audience.

“Mission accomplished,” Richert wrote. “Durst said a lot of things the IBE didn’t want to hear. He said he opposed the all-day kindergarten bill headed to Gov. Brad Little’s desk. … And he called out the IBE for opposing a school choice bill on constitutional grounds.”

Durst added a few more jewels in my conversation with him.

“I would be willing to push for a statewide prohibition on mask mandates in schools. I would be willing to push for a school choice system that would have public and private schools competing over dollars,” he said. “We need to get back to where we are trusting parents to decide what’s best for the students.”

The education system itself, he says, tends to be self-perpetuating. “It doesn’t care so much about the students or parents as much as the impact on itself.”

He views Ybarra, a longtime state superintendent, and Critchfield, the former state board president, as defenders of system.

Going back to his time in the Legislature, Durst has never been a fan of the status quo. If anything, he’s more of a rebel against the Republican establishment than he was as a Democrat in the House and Senate.

“I certainly was at odds with the Republican establishment,” he said. “In subsequent years, we have seen a wing of the Republican Party that is taking on some of the fights I took on as a member of the Legislature. They have fought that good-old-boy network that I personally don’t like.”

There’s a good chance that two-thirds of Republicans won’t like Durst if he wins the nomination and becomes state superintendent. But if he ends up being part of a conservative wave that hits the top levels of state government, there will be some big changes in store for public schools.

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Chuck Malloy, a longtime Idaho journalist and Silver Valley native, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly. He may be reached at ctmalloy@outlook.com.