Republican state school board nominee refuses debate, accuses organizers of ‘bullying’

In an email to the Utah Education Debate Coalition, Kris Kimball claimed organizers tried to “bully” her into participating. Coalition members say that’s not true.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kris Kimball speaks at the Utah State Capitol on Monday, December 19, 2016. Kimball, the Utah Republican Party’s nominee for State School Board District 7, refused to participate in a debate last week, calling her GOP primary opponent an “illegitimate” Republican candidate and claiming that organizers tried to “bully” her into participating.

The Utah Republican Party’s nominee for the District 7 state school board seat refused to participate in a debate hosted by Utah Education Debate Coalition last week, calling her GOP primary opponent incumbent Molly Hart an “illegitimate” Republican candidate and claiming that organizers tried to “bully” her into participating.

“I refuse to be coerced or manipulated into participating in an event that goes against the principles of ethics and integrity,” Utah State Board of Education candidate Kris Kimball wrote in an email May 23, hours before the debate was scheduled to begin.

The email was addressed to Royce Van Tassell of the Utah Education Debate Coalition. Van Tassell also emceed the debate that evening, which was livestreamed through the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics.

Explaining her stance, Kimball wrote in the email that she conveyed her decision not to participate in the planned debate to organizers “on many occasions.”

“Despite these clear and unequivocal refusals of your invitation, my boundaries have been ignored, disregarded and dismissed,” she wrote. “It is disconcerting to witness such blatant disregard for my autonomy as a candidate, a woman and as a representative of the Republican Party.”

She concluded the email by calling on organizers to “cease and desist any further gaslighting of the public and refrain from your continued attempts to bully me into participating.”

Debate organizers said they were “surprised” at Kimball’s email and refuted her claims about being bullied.

“We have been respectful, as we are with all [candidates],” said Van Tassell. “Inviting [them], indicating that, ‘These are the plans; these are the rules — we hope you will participate.’ ... I don’t think any of us would have understood our interactions the way Kris Kimball described them.”

Kimball did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Salt Lake Tribune.

‘We wanted to keep her apprised’

The Utah Education Debate Coalition has sponsored debates between Utah State Board of Education candidates since 2016. Participating organizations include the Sutherland Institute, United Way of Salt Lake, the Utah Parent Teacher Association, the Hinckley Institute of Politics, and the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools.

Kimball’s “cease and desist” message came days after Van Tassell had sent her and Hart an email on May 20 expressing gratitude for their candidacy and explaining details about the planned primary debate.

“I and the members of the Utah Education Debate Coalition have spoken to both of you about the debate series we sponsor every election season,” Van Tassell wrote. “Our only goal is to provide a platform for the public and State Board candidates to talk with each other.”

Van Tassell said that Kimball had declined the invitation prior to his May 20 email, but he had sent the message as a courtesy to keep her informed.

“We wanted to keep her apprised,” Van Tassell said. “We had said from the beginning, ‘We’re going to do this, regardless.’”

That was the last correspondence Van Tassell sent to Kimball before receiving her message on May 23 accusing organizers of “bullying and manipulation.”

Van Tassell said he’d consulted with other members of the coalition who had interacted with Kimball, including Elizabeth Garbe with United Way of Salt Lake City (whom Kimball had mistakenly referred to in her email as “Elizabeth Kirby”) and Stan Rasmussen with the Sutherland Institute. Both affirmed that they had maintained a “respectful” demeanor in all communications, he said.

Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute, said he was unaware of Kimball’s email until The Salt Lake Tribune inquired. Perry said that while the Hinckley Institute is part of the debate coalition, its primary responsibility is to provide a streaming platform for the debates.

However, Nick Cockrell, managing director of community engagement for the Hinckley Institute, told The Tribune that he had been cc’d on all communications between the debate coalition and candidates. He said none of the emails contained any “bullying.”

“That’s not at all what those emails were,” Cockrell said. “They were details about upcoming debates.”

Hart accuses Kimball of ‘political gamesmanship’

In her email, Kimball accused incumbent Hart of being an illegitimate GOP primary candidate because Kimball, not Hart, secured the Utah Republican Party’s nomination for the District 7 school board seat, she argued, giving Kimball “credibility and authenticity.”

“To suggest otherwise is to diminish the significance of our republican processes and the values we hold dear,” Kimball wrote.

While Kimball clinched the state GOP’s Republican nomination, Hart gathered enough signatures to make it on the Republican primary ballot. In an interview with The Tribune, Hart accused Kimball of “political gamesmanship.”

“It just doesn’t belong in education,” Hart said. “This has nothing to do with student’s education, and the future of education in Utah. It is so not pertinent to the topic at hand. And that’s what makes me a little disappointed.”

Hart said she had been looking forward to debating Kimball.

“I’ve been on the board and have had to make hard decisions and hard votes,” Hart said. “So, I was looking forward to the opportunity to talk about those things.”

Hart added that she collected over 2,000 signatures to secure her spot on the primary ballot, a process that is legal under state law.

“I just think it’s important that everybody, as many people as possible, participate in the primary,” Hart said. “And by limiting the information to the convention-goers, it just goes against what I stand for.”

The Utah Republican Party did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Kimball’s allegations against the Utah Education Debate Coalition.

In a May 2 news release about the party’s 2024 nominating convention, Utah GOP chair Robert Axson said the party believes “Utah Republican voters have a duty to continue learning about candidates” and invited “voters to get to know the candidates.”

Kimball has previously run for public office twice, vying for a seat in the Utah House of Representatives in 2010 and 2016, but she was unsuccessful on both occasions.

Whoever wins the GOP primary next month for the District 7 state school board seat will face off against Democrat John Arthur in November’s general election.