The most expensive campaign in Wake County school board history ends today amid a flurry of increasingly vitriolic campaign mailers, much of it from groups not affiliated with the candidates.
Democratic incumbent Kevin Hill and Republican challenger Heather Losurdo have found themselves on the receiving end of hard-edged campaign mailers in the District 3 runoff battle. The stakes are high because the runoff will determine the political tilt of the nine-member school board, split at four Democrats and four Republicans after the October election.
More than $500,000 has been raised countywide, with the most contentious mailers in District 3 coming from a network of outside groups that have poured at least $70,000 into political pieces targeting Losurdo and Hill.
"We've been tough, but we've been fair, which is more than what the Republicans have done in general elections," said Dean Debnam, a local Democratic activist who advocates for progressive causes.
Debnam is the head of the N.C. Futures Action Fund, which has donated $105,000 to Common Sense Matters, a liberal group that has spent at least $55,000 on mailers since September attacking Losurdo. Most of the pieces have labeled her a "tea party extremist" based on her speeches at tea party events.
A recent mailer accused Losurdo of embellishing her resume and included a picture of the New Orleans strip club where she briefly worked in 1993. The words "strip club" are highlighted and bolded.
Losurdo says she was a fully dressed cocktail waitress at the club who only served drinks. She has accused Common Sense Matters and other liberal advocacy groups of "character assassination."
Since the Oct. 11 general election that saw Hill fall 51 votes shy of getting a majority, conservative groups have become more aggressive at targeting the incumbent.
The state Republican Party has spent at least $10,858 on mailers helping Losurdo, including one that calls Hill "unfit for office." The mailer gives Hill "F" grades on neighborhood schools and notes he voted against hiring Superintendent Tony Tata and supported the now-eliminated practice of dismissing students an hour early each Wednesday so teachers could have professional development time.
"We're helping voters make their choices," said Rob Lockwood, a spokesman for the state GOP. "The mailers speak for themselves."
Civitas Action, a conservative advocacy group, sent out two mailers late last week.
One has an altered picture of Hill wearing a tie-dyedT-shirt and making a peace symbol. It also shows a drawing of a hippie bus, charging that Hill supports policies "that belong in the past." The other Civitas mailer shows Hill's picture on a faux-Wheaties box with the word "Wackos," referencing his support of the Wednesday early dismissals that critics called "Wacky Wednesdays."
Francis DeLuca, head of Civitas Action, said his group's mailers are different than those being sent by Common Sense Matters.
"Ours is talking polices and policy implications, theirs is talking about personalities," he said.
Losurdo and Hill have hurled some sharply-worded charges in their mailers, too.
Losurdo has called Hill the "leading proponent of forced busing in Wake County" and charged that a new Democratic majority could result in Tata being fired or resigning as superintendent.
Hill has said that, though he didn't originally vote to hire Tata, he thinks the superintendent is doing a good job and doesn't support replacing him.
Hill has argued that a Losurdo victory will result in board Vice Chairman John Tedesco becoming the new chairman. Losurdo has said she will be an independent voice from Tedesco.
On Monday, Losurdo got help from likely Republican gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory, who made a robocall to voters on her behalf. Hill made his own robocall Monday for his campaign.
Ultimately, DeLuca said, all the attention generated by the political pieces will have a positive effect today.
"More people will vote because they know now there's an election going on," he said.