RALEIGH — Conservative businessmen Bob Luddy and Art Pope were the largest contributors in fall's Wake County school board elections, which ushered in a majority pledged to eliminate the district's diversity policy.
Final campaign finance reports show more than $340,000 in hard and soft money was spent during a contentious contest for control of North Carolina's largest school district. The majority - about $190,000 - boosted the fortunes of the four Republican-backed candidates who won.
Combined, Luddy and Pope provided $38,000 either to individual candidates or to the Wake County Republican Party's efforts in one of the most expensive campaigns in school district history. But Pope downplayed the influence he and Luddy had in the newcomers' victories.
"They were not elected by Bob Luddy or by myself," said Pope, a former Republican state legislator and head of a family-owned chain of retail stores. "They were elected by the overwhelming majority of the voters in their districts."
Wake County Republican Party Chairman Claude Pope Jr., a distant cousin of Art Pope, said campaign cash alone didn't guarantee political success in the school board race.
"As much money as you can spend, it won't help unless you have good candidates and a good issue," said Claude Pope, who has vowed to revive Republican fortunes by concentrating on local elections.
Opponents of the new school board majority said the reports show that Luddy and Art Pope, two influential critics of public education policy, are behind the new direction for Wake schools.
"It seems to confirm that Mr. Pope and Mr. Luddy played a really active role in electing the school board, and you'd think that their views would carry a lot of influence," said Chris Fitzsimon, executive director of N.C. Policy Watch, a liberal think tank.
The dividing lines
The nominally nonpartisan school board election broke largely along party lines, with most Republicans backing the four candidates who advocated neighborhood schools while many Democrats backed candidates who supported maintaining the district's diversity policy.
The winners in the four suburban districts on the ballot tapped into parental discontent about a broad range of issues: mandatory year-round schools, busing for diversity and the weekly early dismissals that detractors called "Wacky Wednesdays."
Supporters of the diversity policy didn't have any donors who provided as much money as Luddy and Art Pope.
Luddy, president of a company that manufactures kitchen ventilation systems and the founder of a charter school and private schools, donated $23,000 last year, campaign records show. Of that amount, $18,000 went to school board candidates and the Wake Schools Community Alliance, a parents' group critical of the diversity policy, while $5,000 went to the Wake Republican Party.
Luddy said he gave money to candidates he thought would improve Wake's graduation rate. He called it "laughable" to think he's influencing school board members because of his campaign contributions.
"I don't think a contributor in any way can dictate what a politician will do," Luddy said. "The reason we contribute is to get the best candidates and hope they're successful."
Art Pope, who founded the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank, pointed out that he didn't give any money directly to school board candidates.
Pope provided $15,015 to the Wake GOP, which spent nearly all of the money it collected last year on campaign mailers that supported the four school board newcomers and other Republican candidates.
Pope said he's annually one of the largest donors to the state and county GOP.
A claim of influence
School board candidate Rita Rakestraw, who lost her election bid last year to Chris Malone, said Luddy's and Pope's money helped swing the election for the four Republican-backed newcomers.
"It is alarming that Mr. Luddy and Mr. Pope can influence the outcome of the election," Rakestraw said. "These two men gave an extraordinary amount of money to candidates who are willing to resegregate our schools and focus solely on parents' convenience, not student achievement."
But Art Pope said making him or Luddy "a right-wing boogeyman" ignores how voters rejected the "left-wing policies" of the losing side.
Last fall marked a massive expansion by both the county Republican and Democratic parties in the school board races.
The Wake GOP spent nearly $70,000 in campaign mailers last fall.
While the mailers were for all GOP-endorsed candidates, the school board hopefuls were the major beneficiaries.
Jack Nichols, chairman of the Wake County Democratic Party, said it spent more than $60,000 on campaign mailers.
But the GOP mailers came on top of those sent by the candidates and by the Wake Schools Community Alliance, a parent group that spent more than $55,000. Supporters of the diversity policy didn't have an equivalent group to the Wake Schools Community Alliance.
The closest equivalent was Wake Citizens for Good Government, a political action committee formed by several local Democrats that spent nearly $14,000 on an unsuccessful television ad against the winning school board candidates.
Nichols said last year's contest might not have been winnable for Democrats. He said they'll work harder for the 2011 election when the other five school board seats are on the ballot.
"We had a steep leaning curve," Nichols said. "If we had spent twice the amount, I don't know if it would have made a difference."
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