In another universe, Edward Stephens is a political star.
He's young (24), engaged in the community, smart. A big, athletic-looking man, he graduated from the Park Hill School District in 2006, shows up at every school-board meeting, and works as an assistant electrical engineer in the nuclear division of engineering firm Burns & McDonnell.
In that other universe, Stephens' campaign for a seat on the Park Hill Board of Education — which elects two new members April 3, during a sensitive time for the district — would make his star burn bright.
He says he's neither a Democrat nor a Republican, and according to his platform, he's a low-taxes local-government-firster. He talks about how the Park Hill School District gets 4 percent of its funds from the federal government and he complains about the federal rules that come with it — not worth it, he says, the kind of answer that resonates with many a libertarian and tea partier.
There's just one problem with this would-be golden boy, and it's summed up by the four words The Pitch found on Stephens' personal Twitter account: "Race is the matter."
In a 70-minute phone interview with The Pitch, the candidate doesn't shy from that stance.
"We celebrate, and have celebrated for many years, a history month in our school district that is dedicated specifically to the accomplishments and the standards of the black race," Stephens, who is white, says. "Yet there is no month dedicated to the history and the advancement of the white race. That, to my mind, is abusive."
There's also too much emphasis, according to Stephens, on Native American history in the schools. "We should focus more as a district on programs that are going to focus on, basically, the white men that founded this country and built this country," he says.
KC Education Enterprise sent a questionnaire to the Park Hill school-board candidates, and in a written response (Stephens was one of two who completed it), Stephens named some of the challenges facing the Park Hill School District: budget accountability, student safety and "the population of Whites [capitalization his] dwindling."
"I don't want to see white people flee the Park Hill School District," Stephens explains. He sounds surprised when asked a follow-up question. "Why don't I? I don't think it's good for white people to flee."
He pauses again, as if the answer were self-explanatory, before silence goads him on.
"It's very simple," he says. "As the population of whites in a school, say, in one of our schools decreases, the number of free- and reduced- [lunch] students increase." OK, so the school ends up paying for more poor kids' lunches. That's unacceptable, he explains, because that just lures more poor people to Park Hill at a time when the district should, he says, "encourage" certain "economic groups" more than others.
He's not talking about black people specifically, he says, though he adds that they tend to be poorer.
"There is a link between the races and the preponderance of the free- and reduced-lunch program," Stephens insists. "It's there. It's in black and white. And I'm not willing to ignore that link, and I'm not willing to ignore that link to be politically correct."
This sums up the essence of the young contender's campaign — dogged, unafraid, politically incorrect. Also: hugely uncomfortable for many of the people around him.
"This kind of hate towards children and their families is horrific," Andres M. Dominguez commented in the "Citizens for Park Hill Schools" Facebook group. "This evening I mentioned his presence at public meetings and feel that he poses a threat to public safety and that whenever he is present security needs to be elevated."
Stephens has corkscrewed himself into controversy where another only recently receded. The Park Hill School District's long-standing superintendent, Dennis Fisher, is retiring. He won the Missouri Association of School Administrators' Superintendent of the Year award in 2011, and the ensuing search for a new candidate was heavily criticized by parents for its lack of community involvement.
The Park Hill Board of Education interviewed several superintendent candidates who requested that their names be withheld from the public, and then presented only one finalist at the end of its search: Scott Springston. He seems likable, many involved with the district say. But he comes from the much smaller Valley Center School District, near Wichita, and many parents wanted input into the hire.
Disgruntled parents blame the seven-member Board of Education, which spearheaded the process. So Stephens has made it a linchpin of his campaign to define the concepts of confidentiality and transparency as he runs to fill one of the two seats up for grabs April 3.
"Confidentiality means we are going to take a piece of information that the public wants, and we are not going to provide it to them," Stephens said of the hiring process in a forceful presentation at a recent candidate forum. "Think about what that means. Does that make you feel comfortable as a taxpayer, as a voter?"
Speaking of confidentiality discomfort, Stephens says he won't answer questions about the racial innuendoes that fleck his personal social-media presence. When asked what he means on his Twitter profile, @eestephens, that "Race is the matter," he dodges like a pro: "I'm not going to comment on that. The interview I'm doing with you is based on my run for school board. ... I'm not going to answer personal questions like that."
What about that public photo on his personal Facebook page, in which he's posing with a photo of Hitler at the Liberty Memorial? (The image appeared with a story about him on KCTV Channel 5.)
"I was simply standing there and had my picture taken next to it," Stephens responds. "I believe some people wanted to make more out of it than there was to make. By using the picture in conjunction with my political views, they [Channel 5] were able to paint a picture that was false."
But, uh ... Hitler?
"I'm not going to comment on that because it is not relevant to my run for school board," he says. What about just a yes or a no regarding whether Hitler was bad — which would have the added benefit of perhaps alleviating voter concerns? Stephens isn't having it. "There might be some people out there who are wondering that," he says. "But that's not why I'm running for school board ... . Just because a certain picture is generated just doesn't make it any more OK to talk about."
Whether he comments on it or keeps silent, the photo is out there on the Web, where any Park Hill student might find it. He still hasn't taken it down. His online footprint also includes a profile on vanilla-love.com, a Russian matchmaking service. "If you are single and dream to meet a beautiful wife from Russia," the site claims, "Vanilla-Love.com will provide you all the services needed, including special features."
Stephens, who is not married, minored in Russian at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla and recently traveled to Moscow. According to his KC Education Enterprise questionnaire, he doesn't have children who attend public school; according to the vanilla-love.com profile, he wants children someday. (Asked to confirm that the profile is his, he says, "No comment.")
Fred J. Sanchez, one of the other three board candidates, says he'd rather lose than see Stephens win.
"I've experienced and lived the '60s, and I've raised my daughters not to use their surname and their sex to get ahead in life," Sanchez says. "I thought that was all behind me, but it's apparently not. ... I feel that what's even more important than I win or lose is whether or not the patrons and the voters say up or down to Mr. Stephens."