Thursday, April 26, 2012

Smear tactics and school board campaigns: part 2 . . .

. . . in which we learn that negative campaigning in the Delaware Education Civil War has now become the classless norm for all sides . . .

You will recall that yesterday I went into great detail on the character assassination of Valene Harris, candidate for Christina School Board.

Today, Voices 4 Delaware Education PAC's mailer in support of Ms. Harris started hitting mailboxes:

To be clear:  I think the flier is going to end up costing Ms. Harris votes (although you never know), but I also think that the publication of such a flier was inevitable.  More on that in a moment.

John Young (both of Transparent Christina and a sitting member of the Christina School Board) offers several responses.  This one interests me as a starting point:

Do you think this endears you to the BOE that, if you win, you will have to work with 6 of its members?

Interesting question, but possibly not in the manner John intends, because in many upstate districts we've already seen sitting school board members actively campaigning against people who eventually won seats on their own board.

In last year's Red Clay elections, no fewer than three of the sitting board members teamed up in support of another incumbent to campaign against the challenger--who won the seat.

Likewise, in one upstate election this year a glance at one candidate's financial report will show a sitting board president having donated to the cause.  Do we ask that question of the board president?  How do you sit down and work with the other candidate, if your chosen one loses?

The answer is that you just sit down and do it.  That's politics.

Oh, by the way, don't try the link above.  As I have been writing this, John has pulled the post.  The new one concentrates not on Valene Harris but on Voices 4 Delaware Education:

Super secret money now in play, any questions?

I have a few:

Who is Voices 4 Delaware Education Action Fund?
What is their tax status? 501(c)4?
Who runs the organization?
Who funds the organization?
Since there are no action words in my mailer today like vote, elect, re-elect etc this must be an issue piece no?
If it is about issues such as the abject failures of the CSD BOE, who is funding the dissemination of this message?
Why are they inside a shell company?
Why won’t they expose their identity and own their views?
Absent that transparency, will Valene Harris disavow their support?

The problem I have with all this virtuous angst is that "super secret money" has been in play for years and years and years with regard to Delaware elections.

So the same questions, unfortunately, could be asked of multiple school board and General Assembly candidates in years like, say, 2007-2011, when the DSEA Advocacy Fund for Children and Education dumped over a million dollars into school board and political campaigns across the State, while also legally laundering funds into various incarnations of the Working Families of Delaware PAC.

Here are some highlights, which anyone can verify via the Delaware Department of Elections PAC page by entering the keyword "DSEA" and the year range 2007-2011:

Funds raised by DSEA AFCE (these numbers are probably low; report totals don't add up):

2007:  $148,522.63 (Including $32,500 directly from DSEA to its own PAC)
2008:  $383,000 (Including over $300K from DSEA to its own PAC)
2009:  $138,932.02 (By this point Dept of Elections figures show over $561,000 aggregate contributions from DSEA to this PAC over the previous several years)
2010:  $167,304.90 (Mostly direct from DSEA)
2011:  $207,839.00 (Including another $70K plus from DSEA to its own PAC)

That's how much raised in five years to be spent influencing Delaware elections?

Ah, uh . . . over a million dollars. . .

And how much was spent?

2007:  $63,691.38
Highlight:  over $20K shipped back to DSEA to pay DSEA staff (to work on political campaigns?)
2008:  $712,000 plus
Highlights:  Nearly $30,000 in polling (how much of that was push polling?)
2009:  $38,757.51
Highlights:  Over $16K laundered into yet another PAC (Working Families of Delaware); political contributions to BOTH the DE GOP and Dem parties, as well as over two dozen candidates including school board candidates in Christina, Red Clay, Colonial, and Cape Henlopen, all of whom benefited from the max direct contributions and the ubiquitous DSEA/Working Families glossy fliers)
2010:  $202,677.70 plus
Highlight:  dozens of additional candidates supported and over $16,000 sent to Belden, Russonello & Stewart of Washington DC for "polling" (They proudly list DSEA as one of their favorite customers) and another $20,000 to Public Policy Polling for same.
2011:  $32,798.14
Highlights:  Over $16,000 for glossy mailers for dozens more candidates.

Please note:  these numbers are low.  You have to go dig back through at least four different interlocking DSEA-controlled PACs and a whole cartload of "independent expenditures" reports that are often not rolled up in the other totals.

And the DSEA PACs have been equal opportunity donators--Republicans and Democrats alike, anybody who can later be counted on.

Now it could be argued (a) that at least I can know who contributed this money, and (b) who is supporting all these candidates.

The fact of the matter is that Voices 4 Delaware Education will have to file all the same paperwork; you only get know about any of this after the fact.

It is also often argued that one "side" in the Delaware Education Civil War is "wall street" and the other "side" is teachers, and that it is preferrable to have "teachers" shaping our elections with hundreds of thousands of dollars annually than to have corporate leaders doing so.

Two fallacies there.

1--The teachers, after they pay their mandated dues, have absolutely no say in how the money is spent once that money is turned over to the PAC.  In fact, it would be illegal for them to have any say in it at that point.  A small group of essentially faceless people makes those decisions and is accountable to virtually no one once the checks are signed.

2--Many of the people raising the outcry about "super secret money"--politicans, school board members, and bloggers--had no qualms in previous years about taking their own "super secret money" and benefiting from fliers and mailers and emails and polls over which they maintained the carefully required fictitious position that they had not "coordinated" any of this between the PACs and their campaigns.  This is the position that those folks are now criticizing when other people do it.

The system, folks, has been contaminated downward from presidential races all the way to school boards, and it is filthy corrupt now.

But here are two dirty little secrets people don't like to discuss:

1--It was DSEA that monetized school board elections in Delaware, and $1,000,000 of political contributions and PAC spending five years later it is more than a bit disingenuous to pretend that somehow the other "side" is now violating a pristine system.

2--The corporate spending in these elections mirrors everything shabby and wrong with our general election system; fliers like the one condemning the Christina School Board are the logical extension of a process that has long been in motion, and . . .

. . . which nobody on either "side" seems to want to rise above, while those of our children not lucky enough to have effective parental advocacy are the only losers.

Disclaimer:  I am supporting and working for Joanne Johansen's campaign for the Red Clay School Board this year.  Today we got a mailer in favor of Joanne from the same Voices 4 Delaware Education Fund, which--thankfully--was all positive and did not attack her opponent, who is a gifted teacher and a good man.  Joanne is NOT the candidate endorsed by RCEA/DSEA; draw what conclusions you will.


pandora said...

I am trying to understand these school board elections, but I'm not getting it. I keep feeling as if I'm missing something.

Why all the sudden attention? School Board elections use to be sleepy little things, barely noticed. Very few people knew they were political. Hell, very few people knew about them, period.

The way most board members campaigned and won was to build their support in certain areas and hope everyone outside their area forget to vote on election day - and that was a pretty effective strategy.

So... why all the hoopla?

BTW, that mailer is embarrassingly unprofessional.

Steven H. Newton said...

My best guess is this:

About five years ago, DSEA took a hard look at current educational trends in Delaware, didn't like the way things were going with choice/charter (all the things we have been discussing) and decided to mobilize.

The first year they really got heavily involved in school board races, they won big, electing two candidates each in Red Clay, Christina, and Cape. A large part of the reason they won was shock value: nobody else had ever organized or poured money into these races.

You can't even ever find campaign filings for most candidates prior to that, because very few ever exceeded the $2,000 threshold for filing.

And DSEA has been remarkably successful: since 2007 all but one candidate in Red Clay that they have endorsed and supported financially has won election to the board.

And I'm not saying they did anything wrong, but where they made a gigantic mistake was to start bragging, statewide, about their intent to control majorities on key school boards and to oppose a lot of different pieces of "reforms."

There is both a lot of support for those reforms with people who don't talk much and there's a lot of money on the line--millions of dollars at a time when state budgets are declining.

So there were (a) large interests out there with dollars to spend in the elections; and (b) candidates who did not like part or all of the DSEA approach. Naturally these two ended up together because there is no other source of funding in the State that can match the money DSEA throws into these campaigns.

And it is HUGE money compared to the miniscule numbers of people who vote. Last year's Red Clay election was close to a record (might have been the record, I didn't go back to look it up), but the 2,500-odd people who voted represented less than 2% of the population eligible to vote. The losing candidate there would have steamrollered any other candidate in the state, because he got over 1,100 votes, and the highest vote total after that was in the 300-400 range.

But thousands of dollars were spent in several districts over that election.

Why the hoopla? Last year's well-publicized stand-off between DOE and Christina Board of Education would be a major example of why this garners so much attention: rightly or wrongly DOE and THE POWERS THAT BE saw the Christina Board as endangering tens of millions of dollars in Federal aid.

That DOE was not necessarily using that aid wisely did not come into the picture.

Add that to Citizens United, which gave the DE business community a venue to organize a PAC to counter DSEA, and you have today's situation.

How do we get out of this box? I honestly don't know. I don't think moving the elections to November would do anything but make it worse; I tend to agree with kilroy that doing away with at-large voting would be a good thing if we have sub-district residency requirements for candidates. Why shouldn't a Red Clay board member from the city be voted on by people who live in Hockessin and vice versa?

Here's a random thought: maybe school board elections and school referenda should be required to happen on the same day. Over 10,000 people voted in Red Clay's last referendum, and we'll be lucky to see 25% of that come out on May 8.

Ed Diagnostician said...

Steve, good post.

Your point about how Joanne is not endorsed by the Union yet the flyer was non confrontational and more professional illustrates the concern with the CSD flyer to me. The 501(c)4, Voiced 4 Delaware Education Action Fund funded both NON union endorsed candidates issues with these flyers yet one was much more pointed and confrontational. Is it a function of union support or as you say the legacy of some charged previous decisions by the BOE.

The 501(c)3 veriosn of Voices 4 Delaware Education's lead registrant is on the Henrietta Johnson Medical Centers Board of Advisors. Our board voted unanimously to give Henrietta Johnson FREE access to space in our district offices for a low cost/free medical clinic.....and this is the thanks we get? A trumped up news release blasting our BOE?

I call it super secret because I want the faces behind the 501 (c)3 and 501 (C) 4 to just come out to our board meeting and confront us to our faces.

They wont.

They're cowards.

The money is absolutely on all sides. I support the sides that supports our educators. I own that view. I despise the side that, in my opinion, has no credibility in the arena of helping or fixing education yet continues to foist their ideology upon our public schools.

Let the battle continue. Oh, and that post is likely to come back, I am doing additional research first.

downwithabsolutes said...

THe issue I have with the edreformers vs. the unions is that the edreformers are still this nebulous beast. What do they want? Yes, on a macro level we know they want "better schools," but some of the individuals are so shadowy and there's such secrecy in their actions, it makes me wonder.

As far as the teachers' union, yes, they entered the Board election fray because previous leadership in Red Clay was running the District into the ground financially. I don't need to name names. You know who I'm talking about. Rather than sit back and watch the District sink, the union had an a-ha! moment and said "Maybe we can affect some change here." And they did. The union is teachers.

I agree with some of your comments above. DSEA has paid a minimal role in our campaign for Kenny Rivera. THey're sending one mailer to Red Clay members on Kenny's strengths. Everything else has been paid for by donations to Kenny's campaign.

So, while some tactics may be the same, I see the motivations of the edreformers and unions to be so opposite. Actually, I still can't comprehend the motivations of some of the edreformers.

Steven H. Newton said...


I don't want the battle to continue; I want the battle to end, not in some sort of pyrrhic victory by one "side" or the other, but with the de-politicization of public education in Delaware.

Yeah, I know I'm an incurable optimist.


I know why RCEA got involved in Red Clay School Board elections, although I think the motivations were more complex than just financial concerns.

But it's not RCEA but DSEA that is pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into statewide elections. And while "the union is teachers," the DSEA Advocacy Fund and Working Families for Delaware (both of which list their mailing address as DSEA headquarters) are legally completely separate from DSEA.

Once DSEA transfers hundreds of thousands of dollars of their members' dues to the PAC, their members lose ALL control of how that money is spent. And who is controlling it, and how much less faceless and accountable are they to the general public than the ed reformers?

On tactics v motivations--that sounds very close to an "end justifies the means" argument, Mike, and fails to acknowledge that DSEA was engaging in these tactics for several years before the ed reformers responded.

I intentionally did not mention Kenny by name in the article because I did not and am not making any allegations about his campaign. So far this season, with the exception of the push poll (which you seem to have affected quite handily), Voices has mailed out one flier for Joanne that is positive, and DSEA is going to mail out one flier for Kenny, which will also be positive.

I suspect that part of the reason that we are seeing things unfold differently in Red Clay than CSD this year is that there has been a continual dialogue about what's kosher going on between the campaigns. That's apparently worked so far.

Both John and Mike,

In about two weeks I intend to do some of my own research on the "ed reformers"--ironically, I do disagree with you that they are a shadowy group. Just get the list of attendees from and meeting between DEDOE and USDOE in the past year and you'll have 90% of all the names involved.

Ed Diagnostician said...

My definition of shadowy is pretty basic: Voices 4 Delaware, both the (c)3 and (c)4, are nameless and faceless.

Just put all of your employees of import (directors, managers, etc on your internet masthead to let people decide to support or not support you on the merits of your positions. For me, having to connect the dots to prove it's Rodel, while easy, just allows the public discourse to take on the shaky/shadowy, why are you really doing this actually hurts them IMO and as long as they stay in what I am calling the shadows, I will leverage fact alone that as a blogger in addition to their addiction to not using research to support their fallacious and private $$ motivated solutions to fixing public schools..

Coolspringer said...

Eeeeek .... Voices 4 Education needs to be careful - I find their efforts on the school board materials misguided at best. It's making me very uncomfortable.

Ed Diagnostician said...

It appears Ms. Saffer has publicly denounced the votenoonvalharris site: