RALEIGH — The Strategy Group, a Washington political consulting firm, has made a name for itself by designing effective mailings to aid Democratic candidates. Among its clientele: President Barack Obama, former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and current Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
But these days, the firm is targeting mailers to North Raleigh, focusing on a race that historically hasn't been politically high profile: a school board runoff in Wake County's District 3.
The winner of the Nov. 8 race - between Democratic incumbent Kevin Hill and Republican challenger Heather Losurdo - will determine the political tilt of the Wake school board. It is even being watched at the U.S. Department of Education.
The Strategy Group, hired by a group not officially connected to Hill's campaign, wants to make sure he comes out on top. Meanwhile, Republicans are rallying behind Losurdo.
They've raised at least $40,000 for her cause - three times what all District 3 candidates raised in 2007, the last time the seat was contested. They've got a tight-lipped campaign, but they're airing television ads targeted at 70,000 voters, a fraction of whom will actually cast a ballot.
They'll mount a robust campaign to get those voters to the polls on a day when nothing else is on the ballot.
Money pours in
In 2007, District 3 candidates raised just $13,345. That campaign was waged mostly by the candidates themselves. They debated about year-round schools and whether a parent or a career educator would be a better school board member.
That race could have gone to a runoff. But the second-place finisher agreed enough with Hill that she didn't request one.
This year, District 3 candidates have raised at least $70,000 - and that doesn't include the amount raised by the political parties and the outside groups to pay for mailers. Much of the most heated rhetoric has come not from the candidates but from these outside groups, particularly those with ties to Democratic activists.
Policy in the balance
All of this centers around one issue: how the county determines which students attend which schools.
Over the past two years, the Republican school board majority eliminated the use of socioeconomic diversity as a factor in student assignment. The change prompted protests, arrests, a federal civil rights investigation and a review of the accreditation of Wake's high schools.
The District 3 runoff will decide what happens next. Four Democratic-backed candidates won seats in the Oct. 11 general election, meaning the future makeup of the nine-member board is locked with four Democrats and four Republicans.
Republicans are fighting to prevent changes made during the past two years from being undone. A Hill victory would leave Democrats in control for four years. Only Republican-held seats are up on the 2013 ballot.
Losurdo, a former head of the Northern Wake Republican Club who earned about 40 percent of the vote in the October election, argues that a Hill victory would lead to more "forced busing."
"If my opponent wins this race," she said, "the county could see more busing than it has ever faced."
Hill, who denies Losurdo's assertion, is basing his appeal on his decades of service in Wake schools.
"I would like to think that our citizens would like to have at least one educator with K-12 experience on the board of education," said Hill, a former Wake County principal. He received 49.7 percent of the votes in October, 51 votes short of the majority needed to win.
Calls and letters
In a small, storefront building earlier this month in North Raleigh, Losurdo and her campaign staff told volunteers they could still win. Losurdo suggested volunteers call WRDU-FM, a local conservative talk radio station, to help build buzz.
Campaign organizers asked for donations and got volunteers to agree to make phone calls, knock on people's doors and hang signs.
Former school board candidate Donna Williams, who is helping Losurdo in the runoff, said they're going grass roots because they can't compete financially with Hill and all the groups who are aiding his cause. The TV ad campaign is relatively small.
"We're just going to have to do what needs to be done, talking to as many people as we can," Williams said.
Meanwhile, last week in an office suite on Six Forks Road, volunteers for Hill clustered at stations throughout a room dotted with coffee pots and remnants of quick meals.
A mother and college-age daughter sit side-by-side to call people judged likely to vote for Hill - if they get out of the house to vote.
Staffing the phones
Across the room, Bayleaf resident Rita Roberts, 65, continues her pitch: "We need somebody with years of experience, who knows how to deal with different people from different cultures." She lives near Hill and likes to tell callers what a difference he could make as part of a board majority.
"I think this is important; it's for saving our children's lives," Roberts said.
Hill's organization, fueled by $24,055 in donations as of last month, is getting help from the Wake County Democratic Party and groups such as Common Sense Matters. That group has spent more than $52,000 attacking Republican candidates in local elections.
Mack Paul, chairman of the Wake County Democratic Party, credited an $82,000 get-out-to-vote effort in the election of the four Democratic school board candidates this month. That effort included five full-time staffers, who now are working on behalf of Hill.
A Democratic field office in Apex - a Wake town that doesn't even border Raleigh, let alone District 3 - will remain open through the runoff, despite having achieved its goal of helping Democrat Susan Evans defeat Republican school board Chairman Ron Margiotta.
The size and reach of the Democratic campaign has given Republicans fodder.
During a recent strategy meeting with volunteers, campaign staff passed around the donation plate, saying they needed every dollar they could get for the runoff. To save money, Losurdo's campaign is reusing signs.
Instead of working at rented phone banks in office parks, Losurdo's volunteers were encouraged to make calls from their homes.
"They say it's the Republicans who are rich, but it's the Democrats who have the money here," said Williams, a close friend of Losurdo's who is helping organize her campaign.
Is Obama watching?
Susan Bryant, chairwoman of the Wake County Republican Party, did not return several calls requesting comment. She has accused Democrats of waging a "billion-dollar campaign" and personally involving Obama in the Margiotta race.
Obama visited an Apex business owned by Wake County Commissioner Erv Portman on Sept. 14, but he made no mention of the school board race.
"Obama and all the other Dem bigwigs will be in Ron Margiotta's school board district today, and such things do not happen by chance," Bryant wrote in a September GOP newsletter. "Obama and Gov. Bev (Perdue) have been busy raising money for their Wake candidates for months."
Republican charges of Obama's efforts to influence the school board elections were fueled last week by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who, while in the area for other events, said he was watching the runoff "very, very closely."