May 23, 2022
For one Black school board candidate in Texas, election day ends with prayers, slurs and a razor-thin result
Late nights, personal attacksLewis decided to enter the race after a white school board member in a nearby district implied during public comments that hiring more Black teachers would lead to higher student dropout rates. The school board member had run on an anti-critical race theory platform last fall, and Lewis was worried that movement…

Late nights, personal attacks

Lewis decided to enter the race after a white school board member in a nearby district implied during public comments that hiring more Black teachers would lead to higher student dropout rates. The school board member had run on an anti-critical race theory platform last fall, and Lewis was worried that movement might also be gaining a foothold in Fort Bend County.

“I knew this election was going to be hard,” she said, “but I had no idea it was going to be this hard.”

All of the candidates running for a pair of seats on the school board, including Hamilton, said they believed the district’s diversity is one of its strengths. (Just 15 percent of the district’s students are white. The rest are split evenly among Black, Asian and Latino.) But only Lewis was outspoken in her support of district policies implemented in recent years with the goal of reducing racial disparities in student discipline and academic outcomes.

That position drew progressives to her side, while also making her a target. 

Last month, some community members circulated digital flyers, designed to look like candidate questionnaires, falsely claiming that Lewis supported giving students “easy access to porns,” seeming to reference Lewis’ opposition to attempts to ban books that contain descriptions of sex and LGBTQ storylines. 

Freedom Action Matters, a local conservative activist group that had endorsed Hamilton, separately posted a video last month in which one of its members accused Lewis of wanting to teach that some children are inherently oppressors. 

“They’re going to push CRT, they’re going to push the gender agenda, the LGBTQ agenda,” Hamilton, who was interviewed in the video, said. “All of that stuff is coming to Fort Bend ISD if I lose.”

Lewis called those accusations “ridiculous.”

“Nobody is trying to teach kids that they’re oppressors or victims because of their race,” she said. “Nobody is saying that.”

For weeks, Lewis sacrificed time with her husband and children to make sure her message was reaching Fort Bend residents. With help from her parents and other campaign volunteers, she spent several hours each day phone banking, fundraising and going door to door to ask for support.

School board trustee hopeful Orjanel Lewis waves to supporters as she teaches the last legal writing course of the semester while campaigning on Election Day on May 7, 2022, in Ft. Bend County, Texas.
Lewis, an attorney and college professor, waves to supporters as she teaches a legal writing course while campaigning. Annie Mulligan for NBC News
Seven-year-old Olivia Lewis completes crossword puzzles in the back of her mother’s car while her grandfather, Odell Pointer, looks on. Lewis is the daughter of school board trustee hopeful Orjanel Lewis and campaigned with her mother the entire Election Day on May 7, 2022, in Ft. Bend County, Texas.
Olivia Lewis, 7, works on crossword puzzles while her grandfather, Odell Pointer, looks on. Pointer said he was proud to cast a ballot for his daughter.Annie Mulligan for NBC News

She raised more than $21,000 for her campaign, including a $3,000 donation from a local teacher’s union — far more than what school board candidates have typically spent in years past, according to financial disclosures. Hamilton raised about $14,600, including $5,000 from a wealthy Republican donor who previously ran for Congress. A third candidate, another Black woman named Shell McClue, loaned herself $2,500 to print T-shirts and yard signs.

Even with the fundraising advantage, Lewis was feeling uneasy Saturday afternoon. She’d been hoping for a bigger election day turnout from neighborhoods where she’d been expecting significant support.

So, with hours to go until the polls closed, her campaign fired off a text message to thousands of likely voters in the area.

Writing in sharp, partisan language that Lewis had avoided up until that point, the text blast called Hamilton a “Trump wannabe” and told voters this was their last chance to stop him: “If you haven’t already voted and don’t vote today, you’ll have a Trump-style radical right-wing trustee and there won’t be anything else anyone can do about it.”

Soon, Lewis’ phone was buzzing with responses from some of the people who’d received the message. Most of the replies were supportive, but not all of them.

“Don’t message me again with your critical race theory bullsh—,” one person wrote.

Someone else replied by calling Lewis an anti-gay slur. Another wrote, “Kill yourself,” and used the N-word. 

Lewis’ children, oblivious, giggled and ran circles around her feet as she scrolled through the replies.

“It’s OK,” she said, shutting off her phone screen. “I just have to remind myself that I’m out here for the students, and that’s all that matters. Those messages don’t represent the people of Fort Bend County.”

Lewis spotted another voter across the parking lot. 

“Excuse me, ma’am, can I count on your support for school board today?”

The voter, an older Black woman,  smiled and shouted back: “Yes ma’am! I’ve got you.”

“See,” Lewis said, “that’s what keeps me going.”

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