Partisan money flows in Wake school board elections

Staff WritersOctober 2, 2009 

  • Today and Saturday are the final days of early voting for Tuesday's municipal and school board contests in Wake and Durham counties.

    In Wake County, voters can cast early ballots from 8:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. today at the Wake County Board of Elections office, 337 S. Salisbury St., Raleigh. That office will also be open from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. Saturday. In addition, voters can cast early ballots at Herbert C. Young Community Center, 101 Wilkinson Ave., Cary, from 11 a.m. until 7 p.m. today and from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. Saturday.

    In Durham County, voters can cast early ballots at the Durham County Board of Elections office, 706 W. Corporation St., Durham, from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. today and from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. Saturday.

    To get more election information for your home county, call or go to:

    Wake County: www.wakegov.com/elections/default.htm, 919-856-6240

    Durham County: www.co.durham.nc.us/elec, 919-560-0700

    Orange County: www.co.orange.nc.us/elect/, 919-245-2350

    Johnston County: tinyurl.com/ybjnssz, 919-989-5095

    CUSTOM FIT

    For a personalized, one-stop list of all the elections in which you are eligible to vote, go to www.sboe.state.nc.us/ VoterLookup.aspx .

  • When to vote and what's on the ballot

    The News & Observer is following Triangle municipal and school board races scheduled for Tuesday and Nov. 3. On Saturday, the paper will publish a Voters Guide with candidate information for the Tuesday contest.

    Races on the Tuesday ballot include:

    Wake County school board: Four district seats.

    Raleigh mayor and City Council: Two at-large and five district council seats.

    Durham City Council: Primary for two ward seats.

    Cary Town Council: One at-large and two district seats.

    The Nov. 3 contests include the Durham mayor and City Council general election, Chapel Hill mayor and Town Council, Carrboro mayor and Board of Aldermen, Hillsborough mayor and commissioners, Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board, and municipal elections in several towns in Wake and Johnston counties.

Wake County school board elections are officially nonpartisan, but campaign-finance reports on Tuesday's election show much of the cash flowing into the closely watched races breaks along partisan lines.

Candidates who oppose current school board policies are getting money, both directly and indirectly, from a number of Republican public officials and businessmen. Candidates who support current board policies are getting donations from Democratic public officials.

Names such as state Sens. Dan Blue and Richard Stevens and Wake County Commissioners Lindy Brown, Paul Coble, Tony Gurley and Stan Norwalk are some of the people who've donated money to this year's school board candidates.

This year's races, with four of nine seats up for grabs and only one incumbent running, have drawn an unusual level of party activity. The vote is seen by both sides as a referendum on Wake practices including schools diversity, student reassignment and year-round schools.

"This election is clearly polarizing," said Norwalk, who has given money to two candidates who support the diversity policy. "First, the Republican Party came in and made it a partisan election, and then the Democratic Party came in. And I'm a Democrat."

Critics of the diversity policy are backed by the Wake Schools Community Alliance, a parent group and political action committee whose donors include Republican public officials such as Gurley, Apex Mayor Keith Weatherly, Holly Springs Town Councilman Vincent DeBenedetto and Morrisville Town Councilman Tom Murry. The group has raised more than $24,000.

The largest contribution to the alliance was $4,000 from longtime GOP donor James Fulghum III, a member of the John Locke Foundation board of directors and a frequent contributor to Republican causes. The political action committee gave each of the candidates it supports between $500 and $2,950.

Allison Backhouse, a leader of the Wake Schools Community Alliance, said the group got to know the Republican officials who support it during organizing meetings held across the county in January and February. Backhouse, a registered Democrat, said the party involvement amounts to a marriage of convenience for most of the neighborhood-schools supporters.

"The people that are involved in the running of our county are politically involved -- that's the way it is," she said. "As much as we parents want to see change in this thing, there are so many fingers that want to get into this to make it their own."

However, Backhouse noted, Republican public officials such as Coble and Gurley have long pushed for changes in school board policy.

"For years, many of these officials have stood up for what we are proposing," she said.

There's no equivalent group to the Wake Schools Community Alliance that's backing candidates who support the diversity policy.

Here's a look at the donors behind the candidates in Tuesday's Wake County school board election:

District 1 (Wake Forest, Rolesville and eastern Wake)

Chris Malone, who opposes the diversity policy, got $2,650 from the Wake Schools Community Alliance. Other notable donors included Carolina Hurricanes player Rod Brind'Amour, Coble, and Bob Luddy, a past board member of the American Conservative Union, who gave $2,000.

Rita Rakestraw, a supporter of the diversity policy, received $2,500 from current and former Democratic elected officials and $2,000 from the N.C. Association of Educators. Notable donors include Blue, Norwalk, state Sen. Josh Stein, state Rep. Deborah Ross, Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker, school board member Lori Millberg and former board member Beverley Clark.

Rakestraw also has received more than $1,000 from members of liberal groups in the Washington, D.C., area. She says those people are family friends stemming from her parents' involvement in the civil rights movement.

District 2 (Garner, Fuquay-Varina, Willow Spring)

Horace Tart, the lone incumbent in this election and a supporter of the current board's policies, has received most of his money from political action committees, including $4,000 from the N.C. Homebuilders Association and $2,000 from the N.C. Association of Educators.

Tart also received money from Capitol Broadcasting President Jim Goodmon, a registered unaffiliated voter who owns WRAL and several other media outlets.

John Tedesco, who says he supports neighborhood schools, received $2,700 from the Wake Schools Community Alliance and $100 each from Cary Town Councilman Don Frantz and state Sen. Richard Stevens.

Cathy Truitt, who opposes the diversity policy, has received much of her financial support from members of Greater Garner Advocates, a group of civic and business leaders who complain that the town's schools have too many low-income students.

District 7 (Northwest Raleigh, Morrisville)

Deborah Prickett, who favors neighborhood schools, received $500 from the Wake Schools Community Alliance and $510 from the North Wake Republican Club. Former Wake County Commissioner Gary Pendleton was also a donor.

Karen Simon, a supporter of existing school board policies, has received money from Brown, Goodmon and former N.C. Attorney General Rufus Edmisten.

District 9 (Cary)

Debra Goldman, who opposes the diversity policy, got $2,450 from the Wake Schools Community Alliance and $200 from Republican Women of Cary and Southwestern Wake County. Stevens, Pendleton and Frantz, all registered Republicans, were also donors.

Lois Nixon, who supports current policies, got her biggest donation, $2,000, from the N.C. Association of Educators. Other donors include Brown, Norwalk, Goodmon, former school board members Clark and Susan Parry, and former Wake schools Superintendent Bob Bridges.

keung.hui@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4534

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