RALEIGH — A year ago, as the Republican majority on the Wake County school board set its controversial course, John and Ann Campbell hosted an informal meeting for concerned parents at their North Raleigh home.
The topic: how to overthrow the conservative majority that voted to end the school system's diversity assignment policy. The discussion involved strategy, candidate recruitment and what it would take to put Democrats back in power.
For the Campbells, the meeting marked a transition from parents to activists. Soon, Ann Campbell began speaking at school board meetings, writing opinion pieces and opening her checkbook - wide.
A month before the Oct. 11 election, the Campbells emerged as the biggest donors to Democrats and to a political-action committee looking to unseat incumbent Republican board members, hitting the maximum contribution limit of $48,000, records show. And they gave an additional $10,000 to the Wake County Democratic Party for the school board race.
The couple's total contributions in the election are likely much more. The independent political groups that played a pivotal role have yet to report donors, and the runoff race in District 3 allows the Campbells to give $8,000 more to Kevin Hill, a Democrat who represents them. He faces Republican Heather Losurdo in the Nov. 8 runoff. The winner will determine which party will control the officially nonpartisan board.
The Campbells, pharmaceutical industry consultants and registered Democrats, are not first-time political contributors. But their big checks in the schools race surprised many top party officials and fundraisers.
"I've been involved in North Carolina and local politics for 20 years, and I've never met either one until the last year," said Mack Paul, the Wake County Democratic Party chairman.
The couple is being compared to other political big spenders, such as Art and Katherine Pope and Bob Luddy, Republicans who gave money to candidates who supported the school board's direction.
In the October election, the Campbells put more money in the race than Pope or Luddy did individually, according to the campaign finance reports filed so far. Their involvement is prompting public scorn from critics, including the Wake County GOP chairwoman, Susan Bryant, who has suggested they are trying to buy an election.
Despite their prominent role, the couple remains largely unknown. Even some of their co-hosts at a major Democratic fundraiser in August don't remember meeting them or hearing the Campbells' names.
The Campbells are intensely private, refusing repeated interview requests. Many fellow school advocates say they barely know them.
Private people who care
But those familiar with the Campbells suggest the "Art-Pope-of-the-left" label doesn't fit, describing the couple as parent-activists and public school advocates amid a time of great change in the direction of the Wake County school system.
"These are people who care about the issues and they haven't asked me to do anything," said Jim Martin, a Democrat who received the maximum contribution from the Campbells in his successful school board campaign in October.
"There's no think tank behind them," he added, referring to the Pope-backed conservative Civitas Institute.
The Campbells made their money in the Research Triangle Park, where they are well-known consultants in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries and well-connected entrepreneurs.
John Campbell earned an MBA from the College of William & Mary in Virginia and worked as an investment banker in New York. He left his job in 1997 as head of business development at drug manufacturer GlaxoWellcome, now GlaxoSmithKline, to start the Campbell Alliance, a management consulting firm that helps pharmaceutical and biotech companies market products. Tall and broad-shouldered, he is known for his laser focus and aggressive business style.
"He is very purposeful," said Joan Siefert Rose, president of CED, an entrepreneurial organization that counts John Campbell as one of its members. "Every meeting I've had with him starts on time and ends on time."
Ann Campbell, then Ann Whitmeyer, joined Campbell's company in 1999, leaving a Chicago consulting firm where she was a vice president. The former magnet school student and UNC-Chapel Hill alumna helped direct the company's day-to-day operations.
Months after joining the company, she separated from her husband of 16 years, with whom she had two children. She married John Campbell on Aug. 4, 2001. In 2004, she was named president of the company.
Over the next decade, the Campbell Alliance expanded rapidly and counted among its clients industry giants such as Pfizer, Novartis, Genentech, SAS Institute and Abbott Laboratories. The number of employees hit 250, including 85 in the Triangle and revenue topped $50 million a year.
But earlier this year, the Campbells sold their business to InVentiv Health in New Jersey and stepped down as the top executives in September. They remain with the company as part of a team focusing on strategic growth.
The company's success helped give the Campbells financial security. They live in a home valued at more than $1.5 million near Falls Lake. They own a vacation home on Lake Gaston.
Ann Campbell's daughter graduated from Enloe Magnet High School in 2010. Her son is a student at Ligon GT Magnet Middle School. The Campbells were among top donors to the Enloe parent organization.
Before the school board race, records indicate the Campbells were less politically active. In nine years, the couple gave about $45,000 to political candidates and committees at the state and federal levels, less than what they put into the school board race this year, according to campaign finance reports.
Quiet aid to Democrats
The earliest contributions went to state Sen. Dan Blue for his unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate in 2002. Blue's son, Daniel Blue III, a Raleigh lawyer, is a close friend of John Campbell. The two briefly worked together at the Campbell Alliance.
"Their involvement is more about policy than politics," said the younger Blue. He refused to talk more about the Campbells, calling them "private citizens" who don't want the spotlight.
The couple didn't start making major contributions until 2008 when they gave $8,000 to Democrat Richard Moore's unsuccessful bid for governor and $25,000 to Barack Obama's presidential campaign and affiliated political committees.
Of the two, Ann Campbell appears more politically active. She made more contributions than her husband and signed petitions to clean up Falls Lake and keep the one-cent sales tax to fund public education amid state budget cuts, records show.
The same applies to the Wake schools debate.
In a lengthy opinion piece published in The News & Observer in March, Ann Campbell urged a centrist approach to student assignment, saying "what's on the line is the very foundation of our region's future." She cited her business credentials and membership in the Great Schools in Wake Coalition parent group, and she blasted the school board majority and accused it of following a political agenda.
"To take back our community's future and reputation, we simply must put a stop to narrow-minded, ideological divisive partisanship on our school board," she wrote.
Campbell also expressed concern about how the new assignment policy would affect magnet schools and the possible creation of high-poverty schools. She reinforced that theme before the school board at meetings in May 2010 and in October.
But one line from the original draft of her editorial that didn't make the published version may offer the best explanation of why she and her husband took a sudden financial interest in the school board races: "Waiting for reason to prevail is not working; rational people can no longer remain silent before this threat."
Staff researcher David Raynor and correspondent Sabine Vollmer contributed to this report.