If Chris Bentley being elected to the Hesperia Unified School District school board surprised you, you weren't alone.

"I'm stunned, I'm amazed, I'm literally humbled by this experience," he said Thursday.

The only thing the stay-at-home father had hoped for was to not be humiliated when the returns came in.

A controversial and outspoken critic of the HUSD, with no financial backing, no endorsements and no help from political veterans, Bentley had been outspent, out-organized and seemed to be a long shot at best.

At least, it seemed that way until the moment the votes began to be counted.

Victory

While other school board, city council or water board candidates gathered at Election Day parties held in local homes and restaurants, Bentley and his family went to the Victor Valley Mall, where they bought new shoes for the family's four children. They had dinner at Olive Garden and did some comparison-shopping at local electronics stores.

"It was about 9 o'clock when I got home," he said. He figured he'd get it over and check the results, the first of which had been posted online by the San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters shortly after 8 p.m. What he saw seemed surreal: He had captured 27 percent of the votes counted so far, which were mostly absentee and early voting ballots at that point. "With the next numbers, I'm going to find out that the glass slipper doesn't really fit Cinderella."

But it didn't work out that way: As the numbers continued to come in over the next 14 hours, Bentley's lead held steady, even as candidates Chris Lindsay and Anthony Riley eventually switched places as the number two and number three vote-getters. When all the votes were counted at 12:38 p.m. on Wednesday, it was official: Bentley had gone from being a gadfly whose intention was to push former school board member and new school board candidate Eric Swanson to answer some tough questions had beaten Swanson -- and the rest of the six-person field -- and been elected to the school board.

"I filed papers the day after Swanson wrote his letter [to the editor] and started campaigning on the bus issue," Bentley said. "I thought Eric owed the public some explanations for [the California Charter Academy], ExCEL and some of the things the old board did."

Bentley's victory was a decisive one: He received 7,283 votes, or 24.87 percent of the vote. The next runner-up, Riley, received 20.82 percent of the vote and a total of 6,098 votes.

As for Swanson, Bentley beat him by 2,878 votes and almost 10 percent of the total vote.

How he won

"I was literally my own political operative," he said. "I asked smart people for political help, but I ended up doing it on my own."

While Riley benefited from phone banks manned by members of the Hesperia Teachers Association, which endorsed him and paid for much of his $56,227 (and counting) campaign expenditures, Bentley -- who self-financed his campaign to the tune of $10,536 -- did his networking on the sidelines of football fields at area parks four nights a week while his son played.

"I wasn't trolling for votes; you have two hours to kill, what are you going to do?"

What he did was talk to other parents, many of whom had children in the HUSD and many of whom had frustrations with the school district that they shared with Bentley, whose own frustrations with the school district have made him a thorn in the district's side for the past three years.

"I do believe I struck a chord with what I was trying to say," he said. And he related to potential voters as a father, not as a politician. "When people look at me, I think that's the best thing about me, that I'm a dad."

And he didn't follow the traditional route to power in Hesperia. He sent no mailers and made no cold calls.

"I think anybody who hears me talk recognizes I'm passionate about education," he said. "Hopefully people saw in me the kind of advocate that they'd want."

A new day, a new Bentley?

His passion has come across as acrimonious or even outright hostility to more than one person in the district. As a result, he's got plenty of critics and is a regular punching bag on the HesperiaStar.com and VVDailyPress.com forums.

But Bentley says he's also had a quieter core of supporters as well.

"I got the quiet thumbs-up from very many teachers," he said.

Bentley says he recognizes that how he's conducted himself when he was just advocating for his own children -- his "constituency of four," as he's called them -- can't be the way he handles himself when his actions can potentially affect the 21,064 students in the HUSD.

"That's the $64,000 question right there: Do I change?" he said.

Getting "7,283 votes was a humbling experience," Bentley said.

"I need to learn how to get along with people better," he said. "There's more potential for collateral damage to other kids now."

And he's already started working on it: "I went back to a [football] field last night and apologized" for comments he had made during an argument with another parent. "I was tired of my kid paying for a stupid mistake I did."

As for the clashes he's had in the past with HUSD employees -- a dispute with administrators at Maple Elementary School in 2005 snowballed into conflict with officials at the HUSD district office and finally his run for the school board -- Bentley said he's calling a truce.

"I will listen to anyone, any time, anywhere," Bentley said. "I'm not out to get anybody."

And he's going to try and prove that almost immediately, with site visits to all of the HUSD's schools, meeting with principals and staff, asking them what's working at their sites and what's not.

When he's sworn in next month, he hopes to work together with everyone in the HUSD community, to help keep parents better informed and more included, create greater transparency in the district and make more prudent and more informed decisions than he says the school board has been making of late. And he knows he'll need the community's cooperation to do it.

"December 8 is a new day," Bentley said. "It's a new day."

Beau Yarbrough can be reached at 956-7108 or at beau@hesperiastar.com.