Postmortem: the 19-year-old who ran for School Board (DC)

We are just about one month past the 2016 General Election. We have all had time to sit, reflect, and digest the results of the Election. For most people, last month was the culmination of a tough 18 month Presidential campaign trail. We watched many individuals battle it out in the Primaries, and came down to our nominees with the General Election, watched far too many campaign ads clog up our televisions, and faced what many are calling a “political upset”. Needless to say, it is finished (at least for now).

For me, last month’s election was a little different — it was personal. While I was very engaged in the Presidential Election, and very clear on where I stood with each candidate, there was another race that had my attention. If you voted in the District of Columbia you had the task of voting for a few things on the ballot: Presidential Electors, Councilmembers, ANCs, and of course, Members for the DC State Board of Education. Yes- I am the 19-year-old who ran for the DC State Board of Education (At-Large).

Tony Donaldson, Jr. 19-year-old former candidate for DC State Board of Education (At-Large) on Election Day 2016

The last few weeks, I have been receiving a lot of questions mainly from people who are simply curious as to what’s going on in my head, how I felt about the results, and where do I go from here. I decided to simply devote a little bit of time to putting my thoughts into words and sharing them with you all. I’ve received countless messages of support and well wishes following the Election, and I am eternally grateful for those and, I believe I’ve had just enough time to reflect in order to share a well-rounded response to our campaign for the DC State Board of Education.

At the end of March 2016, I remember sitting in my dorm at Drew Hall (recently closed the Spring Production of SARAFINA at Howard University), and I called my mom. She was at work, she answered the phone and I said, “Mommy, I’m gonna run for the School Board.” She paused for a second and then asked, “When?” I told her my entire plan of how I intended to accomplish this for the November Election. The call ended with her simply saying, “Let’s do this!” Of course, this was after many nights of praying and talking with mentors and community members all across the city. I remember calling a friend of mine who had successfully ran for ANC, she was young, and I figured she had insight that could be useful being as though I had never ran for political office. After telling her my plan she asked 2 very specific questions that I distinctly remember: 1. Do you think you have resources to run a city-wide campaign? To which I responded, “I think so.” 2. Are you afraid of losing? That second question hit me for just a second and I remember looking around my dorm, glancing out the window to the Howard University football field, and a million thoughts ran in my mind for 1 second and I responded, “No.” So it was pretty definitive that I would run for the Board of Education (At-Large).

The next week, my grandmother (Treasurer for Friends for Tony Donaldson) and I headed to the Office of Campaign Finance to file the paperwork needed. I remember having conversations in the office with people who were stunned to learn that I, 18-years-old at the time, was launching a city-wide campaign. In the coming days we went public. It was probably my fault for announcing our campaign on April 1, 2016 (April Fools), I think a lot people thought I was joking. Until they saw more information on April 2nd and they thought, “Oh, you’re serious?”. Yes, I was very serious and I think that’s where a lot of people messed up.

If you’ve ever been on a campaign in Washington, DC you know that collecting signatures for ballot access is a major part of the campaign. In order for my name to simply appear on the ballot I needed to collect 1,000 signatures from registered voters. This was almost terrifying to me, I had never done this before. I’ll spare you the story and our tactics (I may need them again in a few years). When it was all said and done, my name was on the ballot along with Mary Lord (9 year incumbent) and Ashley Carter.

It was then that I realized I was the youngest and only African American candidate to appear on the ballot for this seat. I had already made a huge accomplishment, and I could’ve stopped there. But there were about 3 more months before Election Day. I feel comfortable enough to share that the incumbent, Mary Lord, was very unpleasant the very first time we met at ANC 1B Meeting (I happened to be a resident of 1B09, and attended meetings regularly even before the campaign. Sure enough Ms. Lord was showing up just as the petition had came out to collect signatures. I’d call her a “fair weather” politician…) After an awkward exchange of forced pleasantries, she went on to say, “You know, I think you’re MAD for running for MY seat.” It was then that I wanted to make it clear to Ms. Lord and every voter that this race was never about one person, it was about a system that was constantly failing students each and every year. I ran because I had great ideas to bring to the table, and although there are those who feel like age means a lot but I have said and held true to the fact that Mary Lord was extremely out of touch with the students. I think her 9 years on the Board is much to celebrate, but it was time to bring some fresh ideas to the table. In that, Ashley Carter and I shared.

The most discouraging part of this campaign was to meet so many people who were not willing to hear my ideas because they could not look beyond my age. I heard it all: you’re too young, you need more time, I’m not voting for a 19-year-old, and you don’t know anything. I was shunned by many people, but then there were those who stopped to listen and I turned their perplexed faces into smiles because they could see 1. I genuinely cared, and 2. I had a plan. It was noted time and time again that if you compared the policy of the 3 candidates, I was the only candidate with a clear and realistic platform that could move all of our schools in the right direction. The critics were very open in sharing that they would not vote for me, but luckily I had thick skin and that did not stop me. When I met those people, I listened to what they had to say, told them I thought they were wrong (and gave reason), watched them leave unmoved because they had tuned out everything I had to say, and I still smiled.

There were a lot of long days and sleepless nights. I had cried my share of tears, and there was even a moment where I thought about giving up. I sat up late one night with my bestfriend, Thomas. I said, “Tommy… why am I doing this?” I went through a list of what-ifs and possibilities and Thomas looked at me and said, “You have come too far…” He was right. I had to remind myself that it wasn’t about me, it was about the issues and the students.

We went through several different candidate forums across the city where I was able to share my ideas. One thing I am proud of is my ability to clearly articulate my point of view. I knew I could connect with voters at the forums because they could see and hear my ideas. Many people were open and could see that the incumbent needed to move on and my other opponent seemed to represent a new face of Washington, DC. Late into the race I learned that Carter was a registered Republican in DC. Although the SBOE is nonpartisan, this spoke a lot about her mindset. She spoke at a rally for Trump and said, “[Trump] is something we can all get behind.” That rubbed me the wrong way, however I knew that was not what THIS race was about and did not make that a talking point of mine, unlike the incumbent who whispered it to voters just as an FYI to undermine Ashley’s race. Hell, she even whispered it to me.

Needless to say, it was a long campaign and the night before Election Day, I got minimum sleep. I woke up, headed out, and was at the polls from the time they opened until a little after 8pm. My family and I headed to celebrate and there was just a burden that was lifted after the polls closed that night. I had waited until I was en route to check the Early Vote numbers, and was simply surprised that I had even gotten that many votes from Early Voters. As I arrived at Sandovan’s and sat at the table, I looked at the first precincts to report — in complete honesty, it didn’t take me long that night to realize that I would not win our race. I stayed hopeful, knowing that I had already won.

I won in the hearts of so many people who gave me a chance. I was not upset that night, I did not cry, I did not frown, I was overjoyed. When all the votes were counted, 49,896 voters in the District of Columbia voted the 19-year-old for DC State Board of Education (At-Large). In my very first political race, almost 50,000 people stood behind me. It was not enough to be elected, but it sure was enough to make a hell of a lot of noise all across the city. I had connected with countless people who have changed my life because of the race we ran. I could not be more proud of our efforts.

The winner, Ashley Carter, had always been pleasant to me throughout the campaign, in fact we spent more time together at early voting polls, candidate forums, and other events talking about the need for change and not throwing around nasty campaign tactics in hopes that baseless endorsements would sweep us to victory. We shared a lot of ideas, the only thing that was different were our backgrounds. Yes, I still believe I am more connected to the city and the students in our schools and would have been an incredible voice to add to the Board of Education. However, as I shared with Ashley when I reached out to congratulate her on her victory, “ I wish you nothing but the best as you serve our city. As long as you hold true to the city, fight for what’s right, and keep the students first- I will support you.” I meant that.

(It had recently came out that she used images of students for campaign material without parental consent, and I hoped she would rectify that issue, as well as was more open on her political views, but I don’t hold that against her.)

Sure, there were days after the election where I did not want to do anything, I didn’t want to speak to anyone, I wanted to be alone. I needed time to reflect, and so I took that time. It had been a long journey that I was very proud of but I needed to rest and prepare for what was next. I spent time replying to each and every message of love, returning phone calls and doing post-election interviews. Then it was back to business as usual. I am going to continue to work in my community and with the students who motivated me to run in the first place. I am hopeful about our future.

What’s next? The sky is the limit. I pray to God each and everyday that he use me as he sees fit. I’m a vessel and I know I have a mission and a purpose. Every moment of my life is preparation- I did not waste time with this campaign, this is part of the journey. It is only the beginning of what I know will be a lifetime of adventures.

Special thanks to all of those who supported along the way. GOD, my master and creator, my family, my friends, Mommy, Kiki (Kam), Destiny, Ray, Grandma, Grandpa, Daddy, Thomas, Melissa, Ron, Bishop and Lady Muse, The Ark of Safety Christian Church and everyone who played a role in this mission.

What’s my advice for ALL young people? Ecclesiastes 11:9–10 (The Message Bible):

9 You who are young, make the most of your youth.
Relish your youthful vigor.
Follow the impulses of your heart.
If something looks good to you, pursue it.
But know also that not just anything goes;
You have to answer to God for every last bit of it.

10 Live footloose and fancy-free — 
You won’t be young forever.
Youth lasts about as long as smoke.

Love you madly,

Tony Donaldson, Jr.