Inside the Ridiculously Vicious and Increasingly Nasty Local Elections in Bucks County

From satanic rituals to mudslinging school-board campaigns to an anonymous gossip column straight out of Bridgerton, what the heated politics in Philly's most purple collar county say about the state of, well, everything.

bucks county

What’s happening in Bucks County is happening across the country, as local politics have gotten increasingly fiery. Illustration by Jon Krause

“I realize what I’m doing is very unorthodox,” said Shannon Harris as she stood at the podium holding a ream of handwritten notes, her voice quavering as she addressed a September meeting of the Central Bucks School Board. “But what I’m going to be talking about today is corruption.”

Public comment at school-board meetings is supposed to last just three minutes per person, but Harris, wearing a white sweater over a long blue dress and speaking with the urgency of someone trying to preempt something terrible, had plenty of time to lay out her insidious theory. Through a bit of procedural chicanery, she’d enlisted other people to sign up for speaking slots and then had them yield their time, leaving her with more than 10 minutes — an eternity in public-comment time.

“I recently came upon a video from a doctor which to me explains why CHOP leveraged the county and Doylestown Hospital to do their bidding,” Harris said before playing a three-minute conspiracy-laden clip from that video that managed to get more and more detailed with every word while simultaneously making less and less sense. The gist was that COVID and flu vaccines could paralyze young children, which the government knew in advance but, for reasons that were never quite explained, declined to do anything about. It was all part of a plot to do … something. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and Doylestown Hospital, Harris alleged, were part of a “money grab” for testing. And so on. And so forth. (For what it’s worth, Doylestown Hospital says it has lost more than $50 million due to COVID.)

Eventually, Harris approached something resembling a conclusion: “Can I stop the CDC?” she asked. “No. But what I am recommending to you is, you object to the use of vaccines in the health and safety plan. … And I’m just warning you. I’m warning you with the evidence that I have.”

As Harris returned to her seat in the conference room — past a wall emblazoned with the school district’s teaching goals (“We expect our students to be complex thinkers, self-directed learners and effective communicators”), half the audience, unmasked, began to cheer. The rest, masked, situated on the other side of the aisle of a conference room bifurcated like a chamber of Congress, had been muttering and rolling their eyes for a while now.

Just two years ago, this would have been a profoundly strange speech to hear at a meeting of the Central Bucks School Board, the body that determines policy and curricula for the third-largest school district in the state and its more than 18,000 students. Those meetings usually lasted a crisp hour, included somewhere between one and three public commenters, and, according to past minutes, tackled such topics as approving a new sewer connection for one of the district high schools and rejecting a company’s bid for a sports-field renovation “due to lack of information submitted on the turf product.”

Since the start of the pandemic, though, the board had become the site of a twice-a-month scene that even the most outrageous writers on Parks and Recreation couldn’t dream up.

{ Dramatis personae }

  • The anti-mask-mandate contingent, of whom Harris, with her frequent exhortations that mask-wearing is a “satanic ritual,” was among the most vocal
  • The pro-mask contingent, including the five Democratic candidates running for school board
  • The actual school board, split 4-4 on partisan lines ever since August, when moderate Republican John Gamble cast the tie-breaking vote to make masks optional and then resigned after receiving a death threat. (While technically nonpartisan, the school board adheres to that label much the same way the Supreme Court does, which is to say not at all.)

Lately, meetings have tended to proceed along the same script, with one side suggesting the other isn’t taking the pandemic seriously enough and is putting kids at risk and the other suggesting that the pandemic is overblown and masks are akin to child abuse, the end result being the same — kids at risk. Both sides implore the school board to “trust the science,” the disagreement being what, exactly, “the science” entails. At an August 2021 meeting, held right after Governor Tom Wolf’s administration issued a masking order that preempted the board’s earlier mask-optional decision, 80 people signed up for public comment, the board president threatened to clear the room after anti-mask community members shouted down the chief medical officer of Doylestown Hospital, and one woman equated masks to gas chambers during the Holocaust. The meeting adjourned at 11:46 p.m., after more than four hours.

“I wasn’t really involved in politics on any level,” says Diana Leygerman, “except just following it because I enjoyed it as a sport.” That changed with the pandemic.

Bucks County is hardly an outlier. Across the country — from Florida to Virginia to Minnesota and beyond — meetings have featured disruptive parents, screaming parents, crying parents, arrested parents. There’s an eerie sameness to the outbursts — from the “protect our children” buzzwords that crop up repeatedly to the pained yelling of grown men and women to the modest school boardrooms where the scenes play out. If it feels as if this could be happening anywhere, that’s because it could be.

Passions were first inflamed over school closures in the early months of the pandemic. Recently, they’ve turned toward mask mandates and, increasingly, critical race theory, the once-obscure legal framework that’s become a catch-all term on the right for any instruction that suggests systemic racism exists in America. In Bucks, parents eagerly awaited the local elections in November, hoping for a kind of resolution: Was this group of new school-board attendees reflective of a vocal minority in an otherwise moderate community, or the newly not-so-silent majority? Political pundits looking for tea leaves to read in the all-important suburbs ahead of 2022 found themselves asking the same question. Suddenly, sleepy school-board races had national implications.

Judging by the amount of pointed coughing whenever someone’s allotted three minutes of testimony expired, there were plenty of smoldering embers of resentment from the past year by the time that September meeting in Central Bucks was held. Many of the attendees believed, though, that there had been signs of progress. People muttered their sarcastic remarks under their breath rather than screaming them. There was no mention of Satan, and only one surreptitious “Heil Hitler!” salute from a member of the crowd (the implication being, seemingly, that issuing quarantine orders for COVID-positive students was akin to Nazism). As the parents gathered in the parking lot at 10:30 p.m. to recap the meeting, I mentioned to James Bender, a teacher dressed in a pink checkered shirt who also happened to be one of the Republican candidates for school board, my surprise at seeing a uniformed police officer watching over the proceedings. It turns out that was a sign of progress, too. A few meetings back, Bender told me, there had been even more of them.

If you subscribe to the theory that the suburbs are now Democratic strongholds, this level of acrimony at school boards can be more than a little disorienting. After all, the local governments of Philadelphia’s four collar counties are now controlled by Democrats, breaking decades of Republican power. Democrats have erased a voter registration deficit of nearly 50,000 in Bucks since 2000 and now outnumber Republicans by 10,000. The lone Republican U.S. Rep left standing in the Philly ’burbs is ur-moderate­ Brian Fitzpatrick, co-chair of the bipartisan “Problem Solvers Caucus.”

So how is it that Bucks is routinely having school-board meetings that would feel more at home in Marjorie Taylor Greene’s district than Fitzpatrick’s? Well, for starters, even though Bucks has swung Democratic in the past two presidential elections, it has done so by slimmer margins than in any of the other suburban counties. (In 2020, Biden carried Bucks by just four points; that’s still a lot of Trump voters.) Demographically, it’s well suited to act as a holdout: There aren’t many new millennial arrivals in the county, and the proportion of older residents, who tend to skew conservative, has grown in the past decade. Political polarization is increasingly falling along educational lines, and Bucks has a smaller percentage of residents with college degrees than Montgomery and Chester counties.

“We are truly a microcosm of the country,” says Danny Ceisler, a Bucks County resident who ran for county district attorney in 2020 before ending his campaign when he was called up from the Army Reserve after the January 6th insurrection. There are the farmlands of Upper Bucks; post-industrial, urban and (relatively) diverse Lower Bucks; and the suburbia of Central Bucks, with wealth and elite schools. With that makeup, Ceisler says, it’s only natural that the county should experience the same fights that are playing out nationwide over masking policies and critical race theory.

Of course, this right-wing energy hasn’t spawned from nothing. This is a county that’s home to something called The Trump Store in Bensalem that sells nothing but Trump-themed memorabilia, including “Q Rabbit Hole” and “Not My President” tees for $22 apiece. Last November, a flotilla of trucks, buses, and other decked-out vehicles took to the streets of Doylestown for a “Bikers, Cars & Truckers 4 Trump” rally. One community member, Jim Worthington, owner of the luxe Newtown Athletic Club gym and organizer of the biker rally, chartered three buses to Washington, D.C., on the day of the Capitol insurrection. (Worthington has said neither he nor any of the bus riders was anywhere near the Capitol at the time of the riot.) Pennsylvania is second only to Florida in total residents charged in the insurrection, and by now, you can probably guess which county leads the Commonwealth in alleged insurrectionists.

While just six Bucks residents were charged in the aftermath of January 6th — their alleged crimes ranging from violent entry and disorderly conduct to assaulting or impeding a federal agent — it’s possible to see a certain continuity between then and now. Indeed, the idea of election theft that prompted hundreds of Bucks County residents to hop on buses to visit D.C. on January 6th isn’t so different from the fears over masking or CRT raised at school-board meetings: The nation is purportedly under attack, with unhinged liberals poisoning foundational freedoms and attempting a takeover of the country. The pollen of conspiracy is in the air, in other words, and it has a way of floating down to the local level.

It’s not a coincidence that many of the parents testifying at Bucks County school-board meetings use QAnon-adjacent language around stopping child abuse or that there’s a panic over sex education, with parents suggesting that teaching teens about contraception and masturbation is borderline pedophilia. On ReOpen Bucks, a website that has advocated against coronavirus restrictions since the start of the pandemic, there’s a blog post comparing the exceedingly rare side effects of COVID vaccines to child sacrifices to the pagan god “moloch,” yet another prominent QAnon trope.

The dog whistles are there, if you know what pitch to listen for.

I meet Diana Leygerman, one of five Democratic candidates running for the Central Bucks School Board, at a Panera Bread off a busy road in Feasterville. Like most of the people vying for spots on the school board, Leygerman, who has blond highlights framing her face, a tattoo of a swallow on her wrist, and a chirpy, slightly caustic demeanor fitting for a high-school English teacher, didn’t come to her candidacy toting a history of community involvement.

Diana Leygerman in her classroom. / Photograph by Drew Dennis

“I wasn’t really involved in politics on any level,” she says, “except just following it because I enjoyed it as a sport.” That changed with the pandemic. “We were bored at home in quarantine, there wasn’t much else to do, and so you were on Facebook,” she says. And on Facebook, parents like Leygerman — who has two kids in the Central Bucks district — were avidly following the schools debate.

What she found troubled her. By the summer of 2020, districts were deciding whether they could safely reopen for the upcoming year. As Leygerman tuned into the board meetings, a few things became clear: The school board had final say on all health protocols; only a couple of people on the nine-member body seemed to have much background in medicine or education; and there was a large contingent testifying at each meeting who, she says, “didn’t really believe in COVID and were very loud.” Leygerman felt the scales needed balancing. So after the board member representing her region resigned in December, she decided to enter the fray.

Jamie Walker, a former teacher and mother of three who opposed not just masks in schools but all school closures in general, was also getting energized. Like Leygerman, she had little previous involvement in school-board affairs, other than once signing a petition to help her neighbor — a Democrat, no less — get on the ballot. But Walker would soon become a ubiquitous presence — in real life, at school-board meetings, and online, on Facebook.

From the start of the pandemic, Walker didn’t see why the virus should stop schools from operating normally. Nor was she especially worried about her family’s exposure. “I clean my house with Lysol; I wash my hands all the time,” she says by way of explanation.

She soon fell in with a group of like-minded parents. When the county commissioners closed outdoor playgrounds in the name of social distancing in March of 2020, she and a few others decided to flout the rules (on this, they’d eventually be vindicated) and show up anyway. Those technically illicit playdates were the early meetings of what would become ReOpen Bucks, described on its webpage as a group “of thousands of community members in Bucks County, PA, who believe that the excessive response to the COVID-19 pandemic is unwarranted and harmful.” For Walker, the group, which maintains an active Facebook presence with nearly 10,000 members, became her community. “I’ve made a whole new group of friends from this experience,” she says.

Acts of playground civil disobedience aside, it was really the decisions surrounding schools that galvanized Walker and other parents. In June, the county’s health commissioner, David Damsker, had initially suggested that parents could choose to send their children to in-person school for 2020-’21, with masks optional and at least three feet of distance between students. But by August, Central Bucks had announced that the start of in-person school would be delayed until October and grades seven through 12 could attend at most two days of in-person school per week. Plus, masks would now be required, thanks to the Wolf administration issuing its first universal masking order.

For Walker, the news was devastating. “Virtual instruction was horrible for my family,” she says. “I was up every single night thinking, ‘How am I going to educate my children?’” She felt that masks were overrated — “My kids never wore masks, and nothing has ever happened” — so when the district required face coverings, she enrolled her kids in a private school that, unlike Central Bucks at the time, offered mask exemptions. (Walker eventually sued the district in 2021, with Shannon Harris and two other parents, over its masking policy.)

The shifting policies birthed divisiveness. Parents aligned with Leygerman ideally wanted kids in school, but they say the health department wasn’t following the CDC (on this point, there’s no dispute) and was headed by a rogue scientist who couldn’t be trusted. Parents like Walker felt Damsker was following the science — ­that is to say, not caving to the overly cautious dictates of the CDC, but instead, at a time of only moderate transmission in Bucks, following the World Health Organization, which said mask-optional policies and three feet of distance could be sufficient. Walker would come to believe that the district and health department were stonewalled by intransigent unions and teachers into an unjustifiably timid position. (The school district maintained that it had to delay reopening until October simply because it was short-staffed, an explanation that satisfied precisely no one.)

Each side started to mobilize. Walker­ learned how to make public-records requests and began shooting them off to the school district; she posted images online that read, “A masked child is an abused child.” Liberal parents clustered into Facebook groups of their own — their response to the ReOpen Bucks group. At public-comment sessions, the public came bearing many, many comments. The parent-to-activist pipeline was operating in full force.

When the school board convened months later in the summer of 2021, by now in person, to tackle how the district would handle the next school year, this much was clear: Parents had been plugged into the school-board drama for months, assembling personal stockpiles of grievances. Now, it was time for the board’s consequential decisions about how the new school year would unfold. And whatever side you were on, it was easy to find something to get mad about.

The fights ramped up in early summer, and they weren’t limited to Central Bucks.

In Pennsbury, where the school board is run by Democrats, a lawyer employed by the district, Peter Amuso, went viral for the wrong reasons when he repeatedly interrupted parents testifying about critical race theory and diversity and equity. Amuso cut the testimony short and bellowed at three consecutive parents: “You’re done!”

In response, a former school-board member named Simon Campbell — who with three other district residents sued Pennsbury in federal court, alleging censorship — gave a sore-throat-inducing speech of his own, shouting at the board: “I’ve got news for you, School Board President Benito Mussolini, your power does NOT supersede that of the U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment rights of the citizens of this great nation!” Campbell uploaded his and Amuso’s speeches to YouTube, where they garnered nearly 900,000 views, and later made the rounds on Fox News and Newsmax.

While you could find fraught testimony about masks and CRT in virtually any Bucks school district, none experienced a more protracted battle over curriculum than Pennridge, a district of 7,000 students bordering Central Bucks to the northwest. There, the first sign of something amiss came when board members and parents started raising questions about a diversity and equity committee that had been in place since 2020, tasked with matters like ensuring that the school district celebrated diverse holidays. “This work was going on for almost a whole year and nobody batted an eye,” says Adrienne King, a parent in the district and one of the members of the committee. (Last year, King ran unsuccessfully for the Pennridge school board.)

In June 2021, the all-Republican board soured on the endeavor. Their complaints: It was unbalanced; it was bleeding into the classroom; it was CRT.

“You’ve got a lot of concepts here that were covered — microaggressions, implicit bias, white privilege, equity of outcomes, social justice, social architecting, the myth of meritocracy,” said board vice president Joan Cullen — not without controversy herself, having been photographed in Washington, D.C., on January 6th and having posted on social media her belief that systemic racism doesn’t exist — at a curriculum committee meeting this summer. “These are all things that are discussed in critical race theory.” In August, the board voted to disband the committee.

The parental angst didn’t end there. When Pennridge shared a proposed curriculum revision three years in the making, the reaction was a wave of outrage, with parents focused on a perceived lack of “balance.”

They highlighted supplemental curricular resources, such as links to the New York Times’s 1619 Project — the Pulitzer Prize-winning magazine issue that argued the true founding of the United States ought to be dated to the year the first slaves arrived on American soil — and an e-book on what one parent called the “Marxist Black Lives Matter movement.” They critiqued an English course that assigned Black authors like James Baldwin and Zora Neale Hurston, claiming there was too much “focus on oppression of racial minorities.” One parent got up before the board to impugn a unit on global warming, explaining, “I’m concerned because this hasn’t been proven. … This sounds like it’s somebody’s political views.” Cullen objected to a teacher having incorporated Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility in class. (Fair enough on that one.)

“A heated meeting at the school board, like the House of Lords over in Britain? I’m all for that,” says venture capitalist Paul Martino. “I actually think that’s good for democracy.”

This campaign ultimately prompted a few changes. In one high-school English class, the name of a unit titled “Dreams and Oppressions” was changed to “Dreams and Challenges.” A discussion question that asked students to consider how “the oppression of one affects the oppression of many” was struck entirely. Two optional books by Black authors were replaced with five new options, four of them by white authors. (Global warming, at least, was left unscathed.)

The whole episode revealed something fundamental about the CRT debate. Yes, there was a contingent of parents who had misperceptions about concepts like social justice and what was going on in the classroom. Cullen herself said, “We shouldn’t be teaching other children that they’re the cause of someone’s suffering,” which everyone could agree with, except, as the district was quick to point out, nobody was teaching kids that in the first place.

But while this kind of misconstrual often gets the most attention, the truth is that plenty of parents did, more or less accurately, describe the situation inside the schools. Pennridge wanted to teach students about oppression in society. The problem is that many of the (mostly white) parents in Pennridge don’t believe such oppression exists. As one of them put it during public comment, “The district could easily, and with my support, educate students by adding more culturally diverse material, but not with the current premise that our society is racist and un-inclusive. It’s a lie, and it harms everyone.”

Back in Central Bucks, fears about critical race theory produced their fair share of awkward moments, too.

At one school-board meeting, Debra Cannon, one of the Republican nominees for the board, gave an ambling recitation that appeared to be her own words but was in fact taken verbatim from No Left Turn in Education, an anti-CRT website that was founded by a parent in Montco’s Lower Merion School District.

At a different meeting, Cannon testified that in the school district, “demonic adults are recruiting, brainwashing, and participating in unconscionable behaviors with our children, and every one of you know it.” (Cannon didn’t reply to requests for comment for this story.)

But it was a second year of boomeranging health policy that produced the most furor. This past August, by which point kids 12 and up could be vaccinated, the Bucks County Health Department issued its recommendation for the upcoming school year: Masks were optional, parents weren’t required to report positive COVID cases to school districts, and asymptomatic students could return to class in as little as three days instead of the CDC-recommended 10. Two days later, the health department abruptly changed course, saying masks were recommended. Six days after that, Pennsylvania acting secretary of health Alison Beam sent a letter chiding county officials for disregarding “evidence-based public health best practices,” after which Damsker essentially vanished from public view.

“COVID has broken you people; it’s disgusting,” said John Gamble. He was probably talking about a voicemail telling him, “You should die,” but he could have been referring to any number of things.

The school board in Central Bucks took neither the state’s nor the county’s revised advice, voting 5-4 along partisan lines to make masks optional. Then, after Beam mandated masks in all schools, the board voted to create a carve-out, allowing for “medical exemptions” that didn’t require a doctor’s signature. (Ultimately, about eight percent of students would submit exemptions.)

It was in this climate that a man left John Gamble an expletive-laden voicemail, telling him, “You should die.” When Gamble resigned from the board shortly thereafter, he told the community, “COVID has broken you people; it’s disgusting.” (In October, the Justice Department convened a task force to specifically address the rising number of threats against school-board personnel and teachers nationwide.)

Gamble was probably talking about the voicemail, but he could have been referring to any number of other things.

In May, in advance of the primary election, the mother-in-law of Diana Leygerman’s Republican opponent, Jim Pepper, posted on Facebook about Leygerman, writing, “Voters … do your civic duty and due diligence. I believe the correct sequence is ready … aim … fire.” Democratic board member Jodi Schwartz posted a Facebook status that described her Republican colleagues as “four of the most vile people.” A left-leaning anonymous gossip column called Lady Whistletown’s Bucks County Tea, taking inspiration from the Netflix show Bridgerton, cropped up on Twitter and Facebook, posting blow-by-blow accounts of school-board meetings complete with nicknames for the anti-mask cohort (Jamie Walker as “Confused Countess,” Debra Cannon as “Loose Cannon,” etc.). “To the naked eye of most citizens of the Ton, School Board Candidate Jim Pepper might seem terribly bland. Luckily for you, Dear Reader, This Author has a keen eye for finding the insidious spice in a tasteless dish,” reads a typical excerpt. It was Gossip Girl, suburbia edition.

More than once, the conflict trickled from virtual barbs into real life. At a press conference held in July in support of mask mandates, pro-mask parents and students were accosted by anti-mask counter-protesters who screamed, “You’re all sheep!” and “Fauci is a Hitler!” over their speeches. These were Facebook comments incarnate. One woman, holding a “No Mandatory Masks” sign, infiltrated the area by the podium to position her sign in the camera frame. In response, a pro-mask guy tried to cover her sign with his, and the duo proceeded to chase after each other in the background of the speech, partners in a kind of demented tango. Meanwhile, somewhere in the fray, a New Britain township supervisor with a poster reading “Masks Save Lives” was caught on camera using her sign to whack one of the counter-protesters­ over the head.

For Leygerman and her fellow Democratic candidates, the campaign turned into an all-encompassing affair: weekly meetings as a candidate slate, strategic door-knocking on weekends with addresses provided by the local Democratic Party, audiences with elected officials, forums with endorsers. “I have buttons with my name on them,” said Tabitha Dell’Angelo, a College of New Jersey professor with two children in the district. “It’s ridiculous. I’m running for school board. But the expectation for us is very high.”

Tabitha Dell’Angelo (left) and Mariam Mahmud at the board building in Doylestown. / Photograph by Drew Dennis

The added attention meant having to confront attacks — no matter what side you were on. On a now-deleted website called “No Q in Bucks,” someone made a series of videos attacking Republican candidates for school board, including Dan Ring, a pharma executive and incumbent, despite the lack of evidence that he has anything to do with QAnon.

Meanwhile, the Democrats were up against a more professionalized operation. Before the May primary, a political action committee called Bucks Families for Leadership unearthed Leygerman’s old tweets — the selection included one likening all Trump voters to Nazis and another opining that the “Soviet immigrant community” (of which Leygerman is a part) is “filled with vile racists” — and created a sleek website (also now deleted) to showcase them. In huge letters, the site declared, “Diana Leygerman is simply unfit to lead.” Leygerman says people soon started calling the school where she teaches, trying to get her fired.

The man behind the PAC, Paul Martino, is a Doylestown venture capitalist who in the past has donated to Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. Lately, Martino has turned his attention to school boards. He created a PAC called Back to School Pa. in June of 2021, seed-funding it to the tune of $500,000 and getting another $220,000 in donations, most of it from a PAC with ties to Philly-area billionaire and school-choice advocate Jeff Yass. The idea was to cut $10,000 checks to smaller PACs across the state that would then support candidates who pledged to keep schools open. Martino insists his PAC is nonpartisan and concerned only with opening schools — “If I wanted to start an anti-CRT group or anti-masking group, I would have spent my money on that” — but it hasn’t always played out that way. A WHYY report found that Martino has overwhelmingly given to PACs that endorsed Republicans. And many of the smaller PACs that received checks have gone on to produce attack ads that make no mention of keeping schools open and instead focus on the hot-button issues Martino says he isn’t preoccupied with: masking and CRT.

Paul Martino at his Doylestown home. / Photograph by Drew Dennis

Martino chalks this up to his PAC’s decentralized structure. “We have no editorial control over what those individual PAC leaders decided to go run on,” he says. But there’s at least one PAC for which that’s unlikely: Bucks Families for Leadership, which has received $100,000 since its inception in August 2020, all from Martino. In addition to the website about Leygerman, it produced a mailer, stylized as an edition of a newspaper called The Daily Guardians, praising the five Republican Central Bucks board candidates for “rejecting curriculum that divides us.” On the mailer’s reverse was a different faux newspaper, The Daily Hypocrite, assailing the Democratic candidates for “masking the children, the curriculum, and the truth.” Not mentioned: keeping schools open.

Martino says he stepped away from day-to-day operations of Bucks Families for Leadership once he started the statewide PAC in June and that while he saw the newspaper mailer before it was sent, he had nothing to do with its content. Either way, the fact that keeping schools open wasn’t mentioned makes sense when you think about it: Why would you talk about something that hadn’t been in doubt for the better part of a year in Central Bucks? The debate had moved on to more fertile fields of angst.

The website showcasing Leygerman’s tweets, on the other hand, is a different story. That, Martino says, he was directly involved in. And while he disavows the attempts to get her fired, he otherwise has no regrets.

“Literally 100 percent of the things in Unfit to Lead are her words,” he says. “If the attack ads on me were only in my own words, I’d feel pretty good about that.”

Martino says he knows he’s going to be “labeled the bogeyman who poured gasoline on the fire,” but he points out that many of the fights had been going on for months, well before he ever got involved. Besides, Martino doesn’t necessarily think fire is a bad thing. “A heated meeting at the school board, like the House of Lords over in Britain? I’m all for that,” he says. “I actually think that’s good for democracy.”

Having watched hours of school-board meetings in the past few months, I think that’s a highly debatable proposition. But what’s undeniable is that in a community as small as Central Bucks, the situation has sown distrust everywhere. Your kid might be classmates with the kids of the guy spending thousands of dollars to attack you or the person writing screeds about you on Facebook.

After one school-board meeting, Tabitha Dell’Angelo spent a few minutes outside talking to T.J. Kosin, a member of the anti-mask-mandate squad who has been caught up in a controversy over his past ties to the Three Percenters militia group. (Long story.) When Kosin mentioned that their kids had class together, Dell’Angelo tells me, she tensed up. “Those kinds of things make me nervous, because it’s like they’re paying attention to where our kids are,” she says. Someone had already been posting on a Facebook page about whether her son was wearing a mask in class.

Meanwhile, Kosin tells me he felt similarly about Dell’Angelo and his kids. “You know, Tabitha’s son has been in class with my son,” he says. “On the first day of school, he started asking my son a lot of questions about our family’s political views. And I thought, literally, that this kid was using my son — like I guess he’s an operative.” Kosin admits that that “shouldn’t be the first thought”; maybe the kids just wanted to talk politics together. But the fact remains: That wasn’t what initially went through his head.

On Election Day, Leygerman and Dell’Angelo fanned out to polling places across their district. It was rainy and dreary, and the experience was demoralizing.

When Leygerman tried to hand out campaign literature to voters, they often asked, “Democrat or Republican?” When she gave her answer, her fliers wound up back in her hands. Dell’Angelo ran into a friend at the polls who wore a huge school-board button — bearing the name of her opponent.

Actually, she ran into her opponent, too: Dan Ring. This being the first time they’d ever met in person, they exchanged some civil small talk. “Although I think she and I have diametrically opposed views on certain issues, she’s a nice person,” Ring tells me later, a hint of surprise in his voice. It turns out Dell’Angelo the human was different from Dell’Angelo the CRT-loving, mask-mandating caricature she’d been portrayed as online. Ring can relate to that; he says his own record was twisted out of context. “I voted for masks to be optional, and then people will take that to extend to I don’t care about children, which is crazy,” he says.

But then, that’s politics, isn’t it? And if the past year and a half taught people in Bucks County anything, it was that for better or worse — okay, for worse — school boards are politics, too.

“I can’t say I’m heartbroken,” Leygerman says of losing her school-board race. “I’m a little relieved, to be honest.” She pauses, then starts to laugh. “A lot relieved, actually.”

After the day of showing face at the polls, the five Democratic candidates gathered to watch the votes come in. By late evening, it was clear that, as in so many other races across the county and the country, the results were going to be a disappointment for liberals. The official count later confirmed it: After months of campaigning, only Dell’Angelo and Mariam Mahmud, a pediatrician vying to become the sole person of color on the board, would come away victorious. (As for the rest of the board, it would be shifting rightward with a new 6-3 Republican majority that included Debra Cannon, the parent who made the “demonic adults brainwashing kids” comment.)

A few days later, on the Saturday after the election, the Democratic candidates, mercifully candidates no more, host an outdoor party at a friend of the campaign’s house in Doylestown to thank everyone who’s volunteered on their behalf. Kids are jumping on a trampoline and zooming across the giant backyard on a zipline. Speakers blast “Temperature” by Sean Paul and “Single Ladies” by Beyoncé. There are stacks of pizza boxes, coolers of White Claw seltzers, and two custom cakes, each with five frosting balloons and a message reading, “Thank you!”

Two hours into the event, the ex-candidates address the crowd of 50 people. Leygerman warns everyone that in defeat, she’s about to really unleash her tweets. Dell’Angelo gets teary-eyed explaining how after years of feeling alone in Bucks County, she’s finally “found my people.” Everyone smiles. Everyone laughs. Everyone does a good job concealing the fact that in the end, this isn’t so much a celebration as it is a wake.

After her speech, Leygerman gives a private accounting of the results. “I can’t say I’m heartbroken,” she says. “I’m a little relieved, to be honest.” She pauses, then starts to laugh. “A lot relieved, actually.” (This is a rare point of bipartisan agreement: Dan Ring, having lost to Dell’Angelo, tells me a few days after his defeat that he’s “happy to be closing this chapter of my life.”)

Alongside Leygerman’s relief, though, is a longer-term sense of fear. If this election was a referendum on the future of Bucks County, it didn’t provide much in the way of peace of mind. Even before the election, Leygerman had her doubts that the fissures caused by the campaign would disappear overnight. “There doesn’t seem to be a good end to this,” she says. “Where does it go? We’re just gonna fight forever, until we all die.”

Martino offers a similar metaphor: “Look, we fought it out,” he says. “We were in the boxing ring. We both ended up bloody. Are we going to shake hands and move on? Or are we going to go to the next boxing ring next door? I don’t know.”

Moving on could prove difficult. The masking issue may wither away now that all school-age children are eligible to be vaccinated, but CRT, and untold culture-war issues yet to spawn, awaits. Plus, Martino has said he wants to keep his Back to School PAC active, even if it means finding a new issue. Sure sounds like he’s looking for that next boxing ring.

At least Leygerman will be spared the fate of having to sit through it all on the board. Not so Dell’Angelo. She is at once optimistic and pragmatic about what’s facing her: Outnumbered six to three, there’s not much she and the other Democrats are going to be able to accomplish if the trends of partisanship hold firm. Still, Dell’Angelo holds out hope that the fearmongering — the people who presented her as wanting to indoctrinate children and force them to wear masks forever — was just a campaign tactic. “I’m hoping they know that’s not true,” she says.

In a few days, the Central Bucks board will hold its first meeting after the election­. It won’t exactly presage smooth waters ahead: A speaker will get up and rattle off a bigoted diatribe against transgender students, and another will spout conspiracy theories about the Jewish community. Meanwhile, a group of English teachers hoping to attend a conference titled “Equity, Justice and Anti-Racist Teaching” will find that their trip has mysteriously disappeared from the list of staff conferences the board had previously voted to approve.

But none of that has happened yet. Back at the party, there’s still reason to believe something might change. As Dell’Angelo and I are talking, a group of kids nearby starts calling out someone’s name. Sitting in the grass is a 13-year-old boy in a beanie. He has a tissue in his hand and moves it to his face: bloody nose. Dell’Angelo yells from afar: “Are you okay?” With the hand not holding the bloodied nose, the kid gives an unconvincing thumbs-up. Dell’Angelo turns back. “Sorry,” she says. “I gotta go take care of him.” She runs off toward her son.

Published as “What on Earth is Going on in Bucks County?” in the January 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

This story originally misstated the substance of testimony at a school-board meeting in Pennsbury.