Mary Lou Bruner stood before the Texas State Board of Education in 2010 to talk about textbooks. She was concerned, she said during her testimony, that the state's curriculum was being controlled by outside forces.
Her statements were introduced by board member Lawrence Allen, a Democrat: "You believe ... people from the Middle East are buying, using their dollars, to persuade textbook publishers to put more ... "
"I think the Middle Easterners are buying the textbooks!" Bruner said, wide-eyed. "They're buying everything else here."
"So, they're buying the, the morality of the ... "
"I think they're using their influence to get what they want in the textbooks," Bruner nodded.
That was more than five years ago, and the tables have since turned for the 68-year-old retired schoolteacher from Smith County. Back then, Bruner was just a citizen airing her grievances before the state's public officials. Now, she is poised to sit on the board herself -- and to wield the kind of influence she once associated with "Middle Easterners."
Bruner received 48 percent of the vote in a three-person GOP primary for a seat on the Texas State Board of Education on Tuesday (March 1), falling just short of the 50 percent needed to claim victory. She will compete in a May runoff against Keven Ellis, a chiropractor and city school board president who earned 31 percent of the vote.
The chosen Republican candidate is expected to beat her Democratic opponent in the general election, the Houston Chronicle reported. And given the support she has received so far, that candidate will most likely be Bruner.
Members of the state board of education wield considerable influence over Texas curricula. The board changed the state's social studies standards in 2010 after it decided that the previous standards had a liberal slant, but even these revisions garnered a D rating from the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
"The document distorts or suppresses less triumphal or more nuanced aspects of our past that the board found politically unacceptable (slavery and segregation are all but ignored, while religious influences are grossly exaggerated)," read the institute's review of Texas standards. "Complex historical issues are obscured with blatant politicizing."
These curriculum guidelines dictate how publishers write textbooks for Texas schools. And as the state has an outsized market, the content of those textbooks can influence materials nationwide.
This looming reality has left many concerned about Bruner's candidacy, and not just because of her documented aversion to Muslims. In Facebook posts originally reported by the Texas Freedom Network, a nonpartisan watchdog group monitoring the far-right, Bruner shared her views on a number of subjects.
On climate change, she wrote in June: "Climate change has nothing to do with weather or climate; it is all about system change from capitalism (free enterprise) to Socialism-Communism. The Climate Change HOAX was Karl Marx's idea."
On the Civil War, she wrote in 2014: "Slavery is not the Reason for the Civil War. by (sic) Mary Lou Bruner ... . Historians waited until all of the people who were alive during the Civil War and the Restoration were dead of old age. THEN HISTORIANS WROTE THE HISTORY BOOKS TO TELL THE STORY THE WAY THEY WANTED IT TOLD."
On the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, she wrote in November: "Many people believe the Democrat Party had JFK killed because the socialists and Communists in the party did not want a conservative president."
As recently as October, Bruner declared in a post that President Barack Obama used to be a gay prostitute:
"Obama has a soft spot for homosexuals because of the years he spent as a male prostitute in his twenties. That is how he paid for his drugs. ... Since he supports gay marriage, he should be proud of his background as a homosexual/bisexual. He is against everything else Christians stand for, he might as well be for infidelity."
Speaking to Breitbart last month about these statements, she said, "I don't intend to apologize for my opinions because I still believe my statements are accurate."
Bruner holds a easters of Education degree from East Texas State University and worked as a teacher and counselor in Texas public schools for 36 years. Her campaign website states that if she is elected, she will "advocate for a return to traditional education," "promote conservative curriculum standards aligned with Texas values" and "protect the children's textbook fund from lobbyists."
In a phone conversation with The Washington Post on Thursday, she accused the Texas Freedom Network of launching a "smear campaign" against her. Referring to her failure to reach the 50 percent level that would have avoided a runoff, she said: "They stole that election from me," Bruner said with anger in her voice. "Every day, I'm misrepresented. I got 48 percent of the vote, and I got it out there telling people the truth."
She would not answer questions about statements made on her Facebook page, and instead lamented the state of journalism and politics: "I'm just not interested in giving an interview to The Washington Post, because Washington is where all the corruption is. I don't think Washington cares about the people of the United States of America. The majority of them up in Washington are corrupt. The majority."
"The press is going after me with barrels of ink," Bruner said, "and I'm just one little person."
Dan Quinn, communications director for the Texas Freedom Network, laughed at the idea that the organization "stole" the election. "Welcome to the game," he said in a phone interview with The Post.
While Bruner has never held public office before, Quinn thinks her campaign is being buoyed by tea party and social conservative groups that have spread the word through a vast network of email chains and newsletters. "I have a hard time believing that most people in east Texas think Obama was a gay prostitute," Quinn said. "Those kinds of comments are so outside of the mainstream, but most people in the mainstream don't vote. The people who vote in primaries are the conspiracy theorists. Not all of them, but a good number of them."
Social conservatives have dominated the state board of education for some time -- the seat for which Bruner is running used to be occupied by creationist Don McLeroy -- but few have been quite as outspoken or inflammatory as Bruner. "The others are a bit more careful about how outrageous their public comments are," said Quinn, who had "no doubt" that if elected, Bruner would "bring her agenda with her" in curriculum discussions.
With that, the fight over Texas textbooks -- and in turn, textbooks across the country -- is expected to rage on. Last October, a former teacher in Pearland, Texas, prompted an apology from McGraw-Hill Education after she disclosed in a viral Facebook post that her 15-year-old son's public school textbooks referred to slaves as "workers" in its "Immigration" chapter. "This is revisionist history, retelling the story however the winners would like it told," the mother, Roni Dean-Burren, told The Post at the time.