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Saturday, June 19, 2021
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Jill Underly and Deborah Kerr took the lead in a crowded primary to become Wisconsin’s top education official. On election night, Kerr faced backlash over a racially insensitive Tweet. 

State superintendent race moves forward following Kerr’s racially insensitive Tweet

State superintendent candidates Jill Underly and Deborah Kerr advanced to the April election after a crowded primary on Tuesday. On election night, Kerr put out a racially insensitive Tweet and deleted her account the next morning.

Underly, who was backed by two former state superintendents and Wisconsin’s largest teachers’ union, took first place with 27.3 percent of the vote. Kerr, who has received backing from many Republicans despite calling herself a “pragmatic Democrat,” finished close behind at 26.5 percent.

Finishing third and fourth in the crowded field of candidates were Sheila Briggs (16 percent) and Shandowlyon Hendricks-Williams (11 percent), respectively. Troy Gunderson, Steve Krull and Joe Fenrick also ran, and each candidate earned less than 10 percent of the vote.

Shortly after the race was called on Tuesday, Underly’s campaign issued a statement on her victory and reaffirmed her commitment to reducing inequality in Wisconsin’s public schools.

“This campaign is about making sure every student has access to the high-quality education they deserve, every day,” Underly’s campaign tweeted. “I’m looking forward to making my case to the people of Wisconsin and getting to work on day one as Wisconsin’s next State Superintendent of Public Instruction.”

Kerr also released a statement late Tuesday night thanking her supporters and pledging to safely reopen schools if elected.

"I am truly honored by the support we received in today's primary election,” Kerr said. “Together, we will safely reopen our schools, close achievement gaps and advocate for every child, family and guardian in Wisconsin."

On election night, Kerr came under fire for a racially insensitive tweet. Madison Payton, co-host of the “Race Through Education” podcast, asked other people of color on Twitter to share their harmful experiences with the N-word as a healing exercise.  

Kerr, who is white, responded to Payton's Tweet, saying, “I was 16 in high school and white — my lips were bigger than most and that was the reference given to me.”  

She immediately received backlash for her comments, and Black women said that Kerr had blocked them, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She eventually deleted her Twitter account on Wednesday and released an apology.

“Yesterday I posted a tweet in response to a post that dealt with the issue of racism,” Kerr said in a statement. “While not intending the post to be interpreted as racist, the post was, itself, insensitive and so I shut my account down and removed the comment.”

After reading both Kerr’s comment and apology, Payton took to Twitter to express his frustrations.

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Two special primaries for vacant Senate and Assembly seats also took place on Tuesday.  

In Senate District 13, John Jagler won a three-way Republican primary and will now face off against Melissa Winker, who ran uncontested in the Democratic primary. The district was left vacant after former Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald was elected to represent Wisconsin’s 5th Congressional District last November.

Assembly District 89 was a similar story, with Republican Elijah Behnke winning a five-way primary to advance to the April election. He will face Democrat Karl Jaeger, who also ran uncontested. The seat became vacant after Rep. John Nygren resigned in December for a career in the private sector. 

Turnout fell drastically in the Spring Primary Elections, with just over 7 percent of registered voters casting a ballot. While there was only one statewide race, that number is a stark decline from the 72 percent turnout in last November’s presidential election.

Update: Kerr's campaign manager, Brandon Savage, resigned on Thursday, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

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