Four years ago, Fresno Unified trustee Carol Mills was public enemy No. 1 to Michael Der Manouel Jr., the outspoken and opinionated local Republican activist.
Today, as Mills seeks re-election to the school board, Der Manouel is her biggest cheerleader.
"Nobody is more surprised than me," says Der Manouel, a businessman and chairman of the Lincoln Club of Fresno County.
At the same time, the Fresno Teachers Association is supporting Mills' opponent, Andrew Doris, a longtime Republican who a few years ago reregistered as a "conservative" -- which isn't a recognized political party in California but does seem to represent his right-leaning political views.
The race includes a third candidate, Nicholas Montoya, who is a case manager.
So what gives in this up-is-down and down-is-up, politics-makes-strange-bedfellows school board race? More than anything else, the common denominator appears to be Superintendent Michael Hanson.
"I think the election really comes down to a referendum on Hanson," Doris says. "That's really the bottom line on what's happening here."
Der Manouel isn't quite as blunt. He says there are incremental improvements in the district, not just academically, but financially as well, that have come under Hanson's tenure.
Hanson, Der Manouel says, isn't perfect, but is getting better. But over the years nobody has been more effusive, more of a cheerleader -- and more outspoken -- in his support for the superintendent than Der Manouel.
"I think it would be a big mistake to elect trustees to the board who would get rid of Hanson," he says. "That's basically it."
So how did it get to this point? After all, the Fresno Teachers Association isn't known for supporting right-leaning school board candidates. And Der Manouel isn't fond of Democrats -- period.
Four years ago, he wasn't even fond of Mills, widely considered left-of-center politically. She was first elected as a trustee in 2004 with Fresno Teachers Association support, won the union's support again in 2008, and sought its backing again this year.
Der Manouel, in the meantime, was busy in 2008 penning missives attacking Mills.
In one, he called her "a micromanaging proxy for (then) teachers union President Larry Moore," who is now a trustee, though not seeking re-election. In another, he referred to Mills and fellow trustee Valerie Davis as "the usual recalcitrant members of the board." Davis is also now a Hanson supporter.
Even now, Mills has the support of several prominent Democrats -- among them Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea -- as well as unions such as the Central Labor Council of Fresno, Madera, Kings, and Tulare Counties. She also spoke this year at the annual Labor Day gathering of unions.
That wasn't enough to dissuade Der Manouel who, interestingly, is nowhere to be found among Mills' endorsers on her website.
"My point is her position regarding whether the superintendent is moving the district forward is more aligned with my position," Der Manouel says. "That's primarily why I am supporting her."
He adds that the support is only from him, and not from the Lincoln Club, which is a Republican organization that only endorses Republicans.
Mills is one who doesn't think the race is a referendum on Hanson.
"What I've done over the past four years is to reach out to people who weren't supporting me, and see if we can't work together and find some common ground," she says.
Der Manouel isn't the only Republican she has won over, Mills says. Another is retired corporate executive Peter Weber, who helped author Fresno Unified's 2004 turnaround plan, "Choosing our Future."
Other Republican supporters, she says, are businessman Richard Spencer and businessman and State Center Community College District trustee Richard Caglia.
Caglia says he is supporting Mills because they built a working relationship through the Fresno County School Trustees Association, an organization that includes representatives of school boards from around the county.
"For some people, they seem to want to make this a race about the superintendent," Mills says. "I tell people this is a discussion about who is the right person to be on the school board and who is best able to move the district forward, and I think that is me."
Doris' primary support is from the FTA, which in the past has proven to be a formidable campaign organization. The union's most recent campaign statement -- which covered the first six months of 2012 -- showed it had $284,090 in its coffers.
In 2004, two FTA-backed candidates -- including Mills -- were elected to the board, even as then-Fresno Mayor Alan Autry put up his own slate of candidates. Two years later, the union again flexed its political muscle, this time backing four successful candidates.
This year, however, the union turned away Mills in favor of Doris.
It was a strange switch considering Mills' Democratic Party registration and Doris' long history as a conservative. A self-described "William F. Buckley Republican," Doris says he won't be a rubber stamp for the union and even has concerns about tenure and the inability of districts to get rid of what he says are a few bad teachers.
Hanson seems the common denominator.
"They asked me pretty much point blank what I thought of (his leadership), and I told them I wasn't really impressed," Doris says of his interviews with the FTA.
What wasn't asked: Doris' political leanings.
"We look at who is the best candidate for the students and parents and teachers," union President Eva Ruiz says.
Ruiz didn't directly cite Mills' political drift toward Hanson as the reason the FTA dropped her in favor of Doris.
She instead talked about changes within the Fresno High-area district that Mills serves. Among them: displacing neighborhood students -- as well as teachers -- from Cooper Middle School when the International Baccalaureate middle school program was shifted to Cooper.
Doris also doesn't like those changes, but to him, everything flows from the top -- from Hanson. And he says the union shares those concerns.
"I heard things over and over about the culture of bullying and intimidation that comes down from the top," Doris says. "I suppose that's a leadership style, but I don't think it's the type of leadership style that should be present in a school district setting."
Der Manouel says it's the union -- and its focus on ousting Hanson -- that is the problem.
"I'm not saying Fresno Unified is perfect, or that Hanson is perfect," he says. "That's not true. But under very difficult circumstances, they are moving in the right direction."
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6320, firstname.lastname@example.org or @johnellis24 on Twitter.