Andy Harris, GOP $ Turn “Nonpartisan” School Board Races into Political Power Grab; New Annapolis PAC Push for Partisan Control of Cecil Co Schools

November 1, 2022


Campaigns for seats on the five-member Cecil County Board of Education are, by law, nonpartisan and candidates usually run low budget, mostly self-financed campaigns. But not this year, when Republican elected officials and a new political action committee created by former County Finance Director James Appel are promoting three GOP-aligned school board candidates on the general election ballot. Rep. Andy Harris (R-1) gave the PAC the maximum donation allowed by law, according to state Board of Elections records.

Direct donations by County Executive Danielle Hornberger and her closest local political ally, County Councilor Jackie Gregory, indicate they are looking to install new school board members who will side with them on fiscal and other issues. In her two budgets as county executive, Hornberger provided the bare minimum level of school funds required by state law, after cutting budget proposals submitted by the current school board. If her allies take over a majority of the board, they could cut the proposed schools budget for her, before it even reaches her desk, so she would not have to take political responsibility for school spending cuts in the overall county budget. Hornberger and Gregory are expected to seek re-election in 2024.

Gregory has also been highly vocal in post-midnight musings on social media, claiming the schools and current school board members are subjecting children to inappropriate sexual and racial content without parental consent. (Dr. Jeff Lawson, the schools superintendent, has strongly refuted such claims.) Gregory also condemns the local teachers association, which endorsed the opponents of her favored candidates.

The beneficiaries of the GOP efforts are two challengers to incumbent board members and one man seeking an open seat on the five-member Board of Education (BOEd). (Terms are staggered, so two other seats on the board are not contested this year.) The GOP favored candidates are Renee Luther Dixon (District 4); Russ Johnson (District 5); and Justin Vest (District 3). Dixon and Johnson have also appeared at sign-waving events promoting the campaigns of GOP candidates for governor (Dan Cox) and Congress (Andy Harris.)

All Cecil County voters cast ballots for all district seats, not just the district where they live.

–Russ Johnson, a real estate agent running in District 5, says in campaign statements posted online that his top priority is “to get politics out of the schools.” His campaign received $1,500 from County Executive Danielle Hornberger’s political campaign fund; $600 from the political campaign account of Jackie Gregory (R-5) the vice president of the County Council and political soulmate of Hornberger; and $500 from the Cecil County Republican Women’s Club, of which Gregory is the vice president. He also received $45 from the Cecil County Conservative Slate, a Hornberger/Gregory aligned and financed group of GOP candidates for Cecil County Council seats. There was also a tossed salad of money and “in kind” services donations shifted around from his fellow GOP-favored BOEd candidates, Dixon and Vest.

(In contrast, Johnson’s opponent in District 5, Diana Hawley– the current president of the BOEd and a longtime volunteer in school parents’ associations—is primarily self-financed by multiple donations to her own campaign. She also received donations of $200 and $250 from two local residents while obtaining an “in kind” donation of Halloween candy, valued at $211, to give to children at a trunk-or-treat event.)

–Renee Luther Dixon, who operates a horse-riding program focused on children and received a lavish, free house and barn from a TV home makeover show, stated her top priorities for the schools involved transgender matters. Responding in writing to a candidate questionnaire from Capitol News Service, Dixon declared that her top concern was “The transgender agenda being pushed upon our children needs to stop. A minority should not be pushing their agenda onto our children which hurts our children and then in turn makes the pharmaceutical companies rich.”


In her political campaign in District 4 , she received $1,500 from Danielle Hornberger, $600 from Gregory; $198 from County Councilor Donna Culberson (R-4), a close Hornberger acolyte; and $500 from the Gregory-led Republican Women’s Club. Vincent Sammons, GOP Central Committee member and multiple online personality partisan gadfly, gave $40, as did Rebecca Hamilton, the Hornberger-supported winner of the GOP primary for the District 2 seat on the County Council.

(In contrast, her District 4 opponent William Malesh, a current board member and a former teacher, is almost entirely self-financed, with $1,380 from his own pocket. He received a personal donation of $50 from Phyllis Kilby of Colora (who is running as a write-in independent candidate for County Council against Culberson.) He also received an “in kind” donation, valued at $1,487, from the state teachers association of a photo session for a “snapshot” of him for campaign literature.)

–Justin Vest, who homeschools his children, told conservative blogger Brian Griffiths in a candidate questionnaire that his political hero was “Joe McCarthy”—the former Wisconsin senator who led the “witch-hunts” of the 1950s that falsely claimed the federal government and Hollywood were controlled by communists, leading to “blacklists” that barred his targets from keeping or getting jobs. For his District 3 campaign, Vest received $500 from the Republican Women’s Club and $45 from the conservative “slate.” His most recent campaign finance report to the state was stamped “preliminary,” so further disclosures of his contributions and spending may not be forthcoming until after the election.

(The other candidate for the open District 3 seat, Joe Ferdinando, who says he is fully nonpartisan and will not criticize other candidates, filed an affidavit of limited donations and campaign spending under $1,000.)

Meanwhile, a new Political Action Committee (PAC), “Maryland Alliance of Parents and Students,” was created in August by James Appel, who recently quit his job here as county Director of Finance to become a full-time political consultant. Even while pulling down a six-figure salary from county taxpayers, Appel only showed up for work here four days a week, or less, while continuing to operate a side business as an Annapolis political consultant, according to a Cecil Times investigation. [SEE the previous CECIL TIMES report here: ]

The PAC has so far raised $15,000 in the past month from just three donors: $6,000 from the federal campaign account of Rep. Andy Harris (R-1); $6,000 from Briarcliff Apartments, LLC, a Cockeysville real estate business that has donated in the past to campaigns of Republican Del. Kevin Hornberger (the spouse of the Cecil County executive); and $3,000 from the campaign fund of Bob Cassily, a former Republican state legislator who is now running for Harford County executive.

The PAC’s latest finance report to the state Board of Elections states that it has spent all $15,000 on “direct mail” costs. The first fruits of the PAC’s work began showing up in some Cecil County voters’ mailboxes in recent days: a glossy flyer promoting the candidacies of the three GOP-favored Cecil County School Board candidates: Johnson, Dixon and Vest.

“This is what the liberal teachers union who has endorsed our opponents has committed to teaching your kids: wokeism, racially divisive curriculum, and transgender curriculum…” the flyer states, above pictures of the three favored school board candidates. The flyer also includes smaller photos of other GOP candidates, including Cox and Harris.

Harris’ new PAC donation is not the first time he has tried to tip the financial scales for certain Cecil County candidates this year. He donated $1,000 to Gregory’s campaign fund, although she was not on the ballot for any elective office this year and had no need for the sudden infusion of political cash. But the real agenda became clear very quickly: on the same day she received the Harris money, she transferred $1,000 to the “slate” supporting three County Council candidates she favored. Gregory is employed by Harris as a district aide and it is unlikely that she would risk upsetting her boss by giving his money away without his consent.

(NOTE: SEE the Cecil TV website and YouTube channel to watch recordings of several school board candidate forums.

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2 Responses to Andy Harris, GOP $ Turn “Nonpartisan” School Board Races into Political Power Grab; New Annapolis PAC Push for Partisan Control of Cecil Co Schools

  1. Pamela Howard on November 2, 2022 at 11:26 am


  2. Ray on November 4, 2022 at 12:18 pm

    I love how they can name a PAC anything they want. They call it an alliance of parents and students and receive all of their funding from politicians and wealthy businessman Alan Gebhart (owner of Gebhart Properties which owns Briarcliff Apartments LLC). Where are the parents? Where are the students?

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