Few politicians have experienced as much pain this year as one Jeff Essary. He inflicted much of it on himself.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration in early August suspended Essary from the school board in the tiny Eastern New Mexico town of Floyd. He and the other four board members had refused to comply with a public health order requiring kids to wear masks in school.
Two weeks after his removal from office, Essary became grievously ill with COVID-19. He needed a long stay in Roosevelt General Hospital in Portales to recover.
Essary had declined to be vaccinated and said he didn’t believe masks were effective in stopping the spread of COVID-19. After rejecting these precautionary measures, he publicly lambasted the quality of care he received from the hospital staff.
Essary said he was wrong on that score. His COVID-19 infection was so severe he couldn’t breathe. Panicked, he said, he unfairly lashed out at the medical staff.
“My situation was quite advanced and is scary,” he wrote to me while hospitalized.
As he recovered, Essary sought his old seat on the board of the Floyd Municipal Schools, enrollment 230.
He lost the election this week to Kenneth Reed by a count of 85 to 29, according to the Roosevelt County Clerk’s Office.
Essary didn’t return my calls about his defeat. Reed wouldn’t comment on whether Essary’s defiance of the state health order was a factor in their race. Reed also declined to discuss his own position on the state mandating masks in schools.
Essary was the only ousted school board member from Floyd to lose in Tuesday’s election. Two others who were removed from office by the governor’s administration were victorious.
Vicki Banister ran unopposed, and Charlsea Lee defeated her opponent, 71 to 39.
The other two Floyd board members who were suspended by the state weren’t on the ballot this year.
Floyd, for now, doesn’t have a school board. Stan Rounds, a veteran school superintendent, is overseeing the district’s administrators under a makeshift system devised by the state Public Education Department.
But Floyd’s newly elected school board members will be seated upon their swearing in, scheduled for Jan. 1.
Rounds and PED staff members will help them with the transition to a fully functioning school board. This will include “creating and maintaining a safe school environment for students, educators and families” in the COVID-19 era, said Nora Meyers Sackett, the governor’s press secretary.
“Should the newly formed board once again fail to adhere to the state’s public health and safety requirements, PED will again suspend school board governance,” Sackett said.
When the new board takes office, Democrat Lujan Grisham will be accelerating her 2022 reelection campaign. Her staff’s ouster of the Floyd school board will be a campaign issue for the eight Republicans jockeying for the nomination to oppose Lujan Grisham in the general election.
One of them, Louie Sanchez of Albuquerque, said Lujan Grisham interfered with a duly elected school board that intended to leave decisions about masks up to parents.
Advocating for local control and unchallenged parental authority might be effective planks in a platform for the Republican nomination. They won’t work well in a general election.
About 1,600 new cases of COVID-19 were reported Thursday in New Mexico. That was an increase of more than 400 from the previous day.
Kids and employees in the even smallest school districts can’t be fenced in. Going unmasked can be a parental or individual decision that endangers other families, especially as infections increase.
Essary said COVID-19 made him so sick he was afraid for his life. But he wrote me from his hospital bed he had not changed his position on state mandates.
“I still hold fast and true to my stance. It should be up to the individual, parent or guardian of children on how we go about [COVID-19’s] handling. I still don’t personally believe in the vaccine or masks as a prevention, but if that’s the way you feel, that is your right as an American.”
Red, white and blue individualism in a pandemic might sound reasonable to some. In truth, it puts innocents at risk.
Parts of New Mexico are without running water. Impoverished kids in the bigger cities often are shifted from couch to couch, having no consistent place to live. People living in those dire conditions are far more vulnerable than adults who claim personal choice should rule in a pandemic.
If rancher and rebel Jeff Essary can contract COVID-19 in a small town, what are the odds of infection for classrooms full of kids who are shuffled from home to home?
Floyd might be a rallying cry for many politicians. Essary’s story is something more important — a cautionary tale.
Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-986-3080.