Candidate’s anti-transgender comments spark school board race in Madison

MADISON, Wis. — When the weekend started, Mary Jo Walters of Madison was running for a school board seat in the Madison Metropolitan School District unchallenged. Today, Shepherd Janeway has changed that.

“I’m trans-a-phobic,” Walters said in social media comments over the weekend, describing her platform. Calling herself gender critical, she said in an interview on Monday that it was her daughter who first called her that–a term she says “gave her hope” because her daughter didn’t know the correct pronunciation when she called her mother transphobic.

After seeing the social media outrage over the weekend, a trans, nonbinary teaching artist in Madison has stepped up to run against Walters.

“I was seeing a lot of commentary along the lines of, ‘Someone should do something,'” Shepherd Janeway, 26, told News 3 Now. “Without really seeing anyone else come forward, I decided to do something.”

Janeway, who says that their name on the ballot would be Shepherd Joyner, is a teaching artist affiliated with the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Whoopensocker program since 2018. They teach third and fourth graders art in an integrated arts education, where they also work closely with other teachers and artists.

They’ve also been a community organizer in Madison for years, they said, and as a result were connected to many others in local government interests.

“I’ve always been interested in local government and public office,” Janeway said. “I’ve always been someone who believes very firmly that we have an individual responsibility to do everything we can to ensure that the people who come after us have a better place to be than the place that we entered.”

The board seat both are now running for will be vacated by Chris Carusi in the spring, who announced last week that she wouldn’t seek another term, according to the Wisconsin State Journal. Three school board seats will be on ballots this Spring, with a primary in February if any of them have more than one announced candidate.

As of Monday morning, Madison’s city clerk’s office said neither Walters nor Janeway had yet filed formal paperwork. Janeway hopes to file Tuesday. Both have until January 4 to collect enough signatures in order for their name to be on the ballot.

Walters, a former candidate for lieutenant governor in Wisconsin, is a full-time caregiver who has three students in the district, as well as some teaching experience from the early 1990s. She wants to reverse the district’s decision to implement gender-neutral bathrooms, open a discussion about school safety, and–most prominently–has been clear in her anti-transgender position. She cited anti-transgender comments from Dave Chappelle and J.K. Rowling, in a prepared statement she read before an interview.

“I am sorry that I have to be the bad guy,” Walters said, when asked what kind of message she was sending to trans students in the school district. “But I do want them to know that there are people who actually don’t buy into the trans ideology. I’m sorry to say that.”

Janeway, meanwhile, said they were focused on educating themselves on the school’s current education policies and curriculum, and wanted to focus on supporting unions and the community if elected.

“I want to make sure that the school board maintains a healthy relationship with the teachers union,” Janeway said. “I believe that a strong union voice that is honored is the key to a healthy relationship between the board and the union.”

Photojournalist Lance Heidt contributed to this report.