BARRINGTON, Ill. — This leafy, affluent village outside Chicago is known for its suburban amenities: handsome homes, good schools, and a long but easy commute to the Windy City. It’s a quiet place, though history was once made here in a decidedly unquiet way: Baby Face Nelson, the notorious gangster, was cornered and killed in 1934, taking two FBI agents with him. That shootout was nicknamed the “Battle of Barrington.”
Today, Barrington feels gripped in a new battle, far less dramatic but arguably with more at stake, for this little community and, less obviously, for the nation.
The outlines of the conflict were clear one gray April day at the intersection of Main Street and Route 59 in the heart of downtown. On one corner, braving the chill, was a cluster of about a dozen residents urging voters to reelect incumbents, including Leah Collister-Lazzari, to the School Board. They toted signs with a hint of the election’s driving controversy: “No book bans” and “For all the books” — a reference to an effort to ban certain books from the school library.
But this low-key crew had competition gathering across the street.
That well-dressed crowd, with balloons and American flags and “Born in the USA” as their soundtrack, was louder, more numerous, and soon had taken over the other three corners of the intersection. They were pushing a slate of conservative newcomers to town politics for the board of education, hoping to flip its majority to the right.
Taking note of the Springsteen anthem booming from across the way, one of Collister-Lazzari’s supporters muttered to another tensely, “They haven’t listened to the words of this song, have they?”
Collister-Lazzari and her supporters felt engulfed, all but confined to the village gazebo where a town banner proclaiming “We Belong to Each Other,” fluttered overhead. That unsettling feeling has grown familiar of late. The village they knew had become a front in something much bigger than Barrington.
“It’s terrible, and it’s just so divisive,” Collister-Lazzari said, reflecting on friendships broken by the political divide. “That a small local election is getting national coverage, it’s not normal, and it doesn’t bode well for the future.”
What had come to Barrington was a local extension of a well-funded effort by national political operatives to reshape American politics at its most fundamental level: control over how children are educated in public schools. It is a smartly chosen battlefield, rich with dividing lines including how to accommodate — or not — trans and queer students and their needs, which version of American history should be told, and what books students should be allowed to read.
Around the country, conservative-aligned groups have harnessed parental angst, already at a high pitch amid the pandemic, to gain seats on school boards. Now, those groups are fueling more contentious races with cable TV-amplified controversies, candidate training, and a flood of campaign money beyond what many municipalities have ever known.
Liberals, long-allied with teachers unions and public school groups, see a dire threat to public education as they have known it and have scrambled to keep up. Conservatives see it otherwise, of course. To them, the conflict in Barrington heralds long overdue change.
In Barrington, residents think their experience should be a warning bell for towns all over.
“In our community, which is really friendly and really nice, it got a little rough,” Terese Kenan, 56, a local landlord. “I definitely would like to see the temperature come down. I don’t think it’s coming down anytime soon, though, based on how things are going here.”
Barrington’s municipal elections, which are nonpartisan, weren’t always an exciting affair. Collister-Lazzari noted that her first year on the School Board, after her election in 2019, was largely what she had anticipated when she ran: quiet, polite, and focused on local district issues.
Then came the COVID pandemic.
As American life ground to a halt, school shutdowns nationwide stretched from weeks to months.
It was a trying time. Family homes abruptly became both offices and classrooms. At school board meetings, frustration and anger boiled into the open, and conservatives were soon the loudest voices demanding that schools reopen. They also demanded that when children returned to classrooms, masks should be optional — a notion that sparked deep divides among parents.
The transforming potential of such conflicts was underscored by Republican Glenn Youngkin’s win for governor in 2021 in Virginia, a state that had previously looked solidly Democratic. His victory was interpreted as a referendum on education.
To those on the right, it seemed a model to replicate, a prime political opportunity to build on even as COVID concerns ebbed.
One group, the 1776 Project PAC, formed in early 2021 with a mission of supporting local board candidates taking on school programs supporting diversity and inclusion.
Since 2021, the PAC has expanded its push to move school boards to the right and has spent nearly $4 million to support local candidates, with nearly $1 million of it coming from one Illinois-based megadonor, Richard Uihlein. It’s a small sum by national election standards but a huge amount to pour into school board races, where fund-raising often stays in the hundreds of dollars.
Other like-minded groups have grown nationwide including Moms for Liberty, a parent-driven advocacy organization that was formed in opposition to school mask mandates and COVID-related closures but now focuses on defeating trans- and LGBT-inclusive school policies. Moms for America Action, which has an antifeminist mission, also makes school board candidate endorsements.
National Republicans have taken note of the groups’ local successes.
In Washington, D.C., House Republicans took up the banner quickly upon taking over the majority of the chamber this year, passing a “Parental Bill of Rights” in late March that would, among other things, require parents to be told what pronouns or gender identity their child is using at school.
Barrington was surprised to find itself a case study in this political crossfire.
Democrat Representative Mike Quigley, who represents Barrington, said he has long viewed local political races like those for school boards as no place for national politicians. But these races were now on his radar.
“We used to say all politics is local,” Quigley said. “All politics is national now.”
District 220, as it’s known in the state, is located at the politically purple, northwest edge of the reliably Democratic Chicago suburbs. It’s a middle- to upper-class collection of villages like Barrington that include stately mansion communities, sprawling farmhouse estates, and modest subdivisions. Many of the residents say they moved to the area specifically for the schools, which are considered some of the best in the state, boasting prominent alumni including Boston Mayor Michelle Wu.
The two incumbents in this year’s race were first elected in 2019. Collister-Lazzari, a lawyer and real estate broker, and Barry Altshuler, a local pediatrician, were longtime parents and volunteers in the district who ran for the board when they became empty nesters and had some time to spare.
But their expectations for public service were shattered with the pandemic. During the height of the COVID lockdowns, school board meetings grew so volatile that members received police escorts to their cars.
Motivated by the growing clash of values, a group of conservative parents formed a political action committee to support candidates in local races in late 2020, calling themselves Action PAC. In 2021, two of its candidates won Barrington School Board seats.
Meanwhile, local concerns tracked — and were fueled by — the national conversation. By summer 2022, board meetings were still explosive, but with new topics. Books, largely those with LGBT content, dominated a series of summer meetings.
At one, Nelda Munoz joined a parade of parents as she spoke of her dismay when she learned that her middle schooler had been given a summer reading list that included “Gender Queer,” a graphic novel of the author’s exploration of their gender and sexuality that includes some explicit scenes. The next day, a clip of her remarks on Tik Tok was picked up by the conservative favorite “Libs of Tik Tok” Twitter account, and eventually got more than 1 million views. The superintendent explained that the summer reading e-mail received by parents did not specifically recommend “Gender Queer,” but that the novel had been included in external book award lists provided to middle schoolers. That explanation did nothing to tamp down the controversy, which continued online and in person all summer.
In the end, the existing board narrowly voted to keep the disputed books in the high school library. But the controversy had energized a slate of political challengers who saw an opportunity to flip the board if they could oust Collister-Lazzari or Altshuler. Munoz filed to run.
Action PAC presented a slate of local parents for the three open seats: Leonard Munson, a local businessman; Katey Baldassano, a business owner and longtime education professional; and Matt Sheriff, a sales professional. All three said they considered the School Board to be “dismissive” of community input and not focused enough on improving the schools.
They explicitly denied supporting book bans, though all were in favor of greater restrictions on some books, including “Gender Queer.” Sheriff got involved after a friend at his gym showed him the sexually explicit images in one of the books available to high schoolers — “he started showing me images and I couldn’t believe it,” Sheriff said.
Munson was an outspoken advocate of reopening schools and optional masking during COVID lockdowns. In his campaign, he also cited declining test scores, though the school district remains among the best in the state.
Money and outside resources poured in to back them. Action PAC raised over $60,000 for its candidates in the School Board, Library Board, and Village Trustee races.
They also applied for endorsements from the conservative groups that had sprung up nationally. That included the 1776 Project PAC, which sent out campaign messages supporting the insurgent Barrington slate.
“This is something [that] if conservatives get mobilized and they get out to vote, they can hang their hat on,” 1776 Project PAC founder Ryan Girdusky said in a preelection interview.
But the three board challengers rejected the notion that they had national or political ties, arguing they were the victims of a left-driven smear campaign to paint them as “extremists”.
“We aren’t political operatives,” Baldassano said in a preelection interview. “We are three parents who want great things for our kids and our neighbors’ kids.”
Action PAC instead argued the liberal side of the race was the one with partisan firepower behind it.
They had some evidence for this charge. Democrats and left-leaning groups had taken note of the heavy activity on the conservative side, and, with the support of Governor J.B. Pritzker and the state Democratic Party, dedicated money to school board races. The money helped pay for get-out-the-vote text messages in Barrington supporting Altshuler and Collister-Lazzari.
It felt, on both sides, like an existential struggle, with the future of Barrington at stake.
Candidates saw nefarious motives hiding behind their opponents folksy veneers. There were stories of broken friendships and of neighborhood divisions over yard signs.
With those hard feelings and passions came another import from national politics: downright nastiness.
Activists flinging personal attacks showed up at School Board forums; some mailers, and social media comments, had a vicious edge. Altshuler, a longtime and well-regarded pediatrician, was repeatedly called a pedophile for his position on the books in the high school library. Even one of Collister-Lazzari’s adult children was attacked in Facebook comments. And one resident who spoke out in favor of keeping the controversial books received a one-word Facebook message from a stranger: “Pervert.”
Shahnaz Kelleher, a 42-year-old full-time mom and caregiver to aging parents from Deer Park, had trouble holding back her emotions as she recalled the toll the whole experience had taken.
“You always assume, like, those things can’t happen here,” Kelleher said. “These are our friends, these are our neighbors, these are our kids’ soccer coaches.”
Conservatives said they were also being smeared and caricatured, lamenting mailers and comments that painted them as extremists.
“Our competitors … they are controlled by unions,” Sheriff said. “The governor of Illinois came straight out ... and called us conservative crazies. … He threw a half a million dollars into local school board races and accused us of having dark money.”
Pritzker had said of his investment in such races on CBS’s “Face the Nation” in March: “They’ve got a lot of extreme right wing candidates, frankly, on the crazy end of things. ... We just want to make sure that people know who they are and know not to vote for them.”
On election day, the inflamed local politics yielded higher-than-usual turnout in the School Board race. That was apparent at the largest polling place in town — located, as it happened, at the exact spot where Baby Face Nelson was gunned down in that other Battle of Barrington. Voters of all persuasions lamented how national themes and outside forces had afflicted their once tight-knit community.
“This is symptomatic of a kind of conflict in the country,” said Matt Moraghan, a 44-year-old Barrington resident and librarian, speaking of the conservative forces. “It’s a minority voice, but it’s so loud.”
Two couples who declined to provide their names, meanwhile, decried in dramatic terms the “sexualization of our children” and inappropriate content “foisted” upon younger kids.
Chrissy Sullivan, 37, a full-time mom who sends her school-aged children to a local Catholic school, said the campaign has brought some groups together in common cause, but also divided the town.
“It’s opened up all of our eyes to the fact that we should have a voice and we should use our voice,” said Sullivan. “But at the same time, it’s caused us all to think that our beliefs are the only beliefs that stand.”
Miles Jackson, a 60-year-old retiree from North Barrington, said he was dismayed by the way the local furor over books had distorted the race.
“It’s one book,” Jackson said. “It’s not the issue that the School Board should be focusing on. The fact that the United States is one of the worst of the first world countries in math and science education, that’s what I want my School Board focused on.”
In the end, a campaign marked by sound and fury yielded little in the way of change.
With polls closed, Collister-Lazzari, Altshuler, Kelleher, and their supporters gathered anxiously around Chicago pizza at a dimly lit dive bar. A visibly tired Collister-Lazzari drank white wine as her husband pulled up vote totals on his phone and a fellow candidate for village board, Brian Prigge, updated results on his laptop. The early trends had them feeling glum, but suddenly there was a change in mood — they had pulled ahead in the vote, and knew that mail-in ballots would likely favor them in days to come.
Across the parking lot, the conservative candidates were gathered in a large restaurant, packing a private suite of rooms and bar upstairs. The mood was celebratory, even raucous; the only sign of the defeat that lay ahead was in the expressions of some of the PAC leaders huddled over a laptop and iPad. They barely interacted with those around them. And by the time the Globe reporter left around 9:30 local time, the chances of the election results turning in their favor were slim.
Ultimately, Collister-Lazzari and Altshuler and another like-minded candidate held on, winning their seats by a few hundred votes. They were potentially helped by Munoz, who drew roughly 1,000 votes and may have siphoned away support from the other conservatives.
Action PAC members were unchastened in defeat. They blamed early and mail-in voting, echoing a national Republican refrain.
“Last night we saw what happens when the most powerful people and organizations in the state of Illinois work together to wrest control of the schools, libraries and local offices from the parents and taxpayers,” Action PAC wrote the day after the election. “Let’s take some time to dust ourselves off and think about next steps.”
As Collister-Lazzari and Altshuler relocated to a nearby home to gather with close friends a quiet dismay still hung in the air. They had won, but something they value more — the old peaceful Barrington they knew and loved — seemed lost.
“I really want to bring the community together, and I’m just having a hard time thinking, ‘Oh, that’s going to happen,’” Altshuler said. “That’s what I’m going to spend the next (several) months on. Just really trying to … heal that divide.”