A few years ago, in Wake County, N.C., Kevin Hill wanted to get involved in his community, so he ran for his local school board.
The campaign team consisting of Hill and his wife, with the help of some friends, raised about $6,000; he won the seat in the 2007 election. He's hoping to retain that seat in a runoff election Tuesday, but this time his campaign is a little bigger.
"[It went] from me and my wife to about 300 people," Hill says. "It's been mind-boggling to me that, for a school board race that is nonpartisan, the amounts of money that has been raised."
Those 300 volunteers, who manage phones banks and even a website, have raised a financial war chest of $42,000 to get him re-elected.
In fact, this year's election has been the most expensive school board campaign ever in Wake County. It's not just in North Carolina. All over the country, small-scale, local school board races are attracting big money and big media attention.
Hill's opponent, Republican Heather Losurdo, has raised almost $80,000. Much of that money is coming, not from local residents, but from private interest groups from outside the county and even outside the state.
Like Hill, Losurdo said she too was surprised when the money started coming in to both campaigns from outside interest groups and special interest groups that "don't have a skin in the game."
Thomas Goldsmith, who's covered the race for the Raleigh News & Observer, told weekends on All Things Considered guest host Laura Sullivan that what's at stake is the controversial issue of school assignments. The system dictates where lower-income students from downtown Raleigh should go to school. It was created to help failing schools by equalizing the student population between affluent and low-income students.
"The people in suburbs were increasingly angry about what they felt was the predilection of the board to give all of the good [assignments] to Old Raleigh," he says.
The school board is supposed to be nonpartisan, but Republican candidates swept the board in 2009. Now Democratic candidates want back in. This is one reason, Goldsmith says, that outside groups and donors from both parties have become involved. Even the local Republican and Democratic parties have donated money to candidates.
"The Republican Party, in particular in 2009, saw it as a vehicle to increase the party's reach in other elections up to and including the presidential election," he says. "So this year, the Democrats came back with lots of money."
The campaigns also adopted more of a 24/7 campaign style, Goldsmith says. They responded more quickly to opponent statements, initiated news stories and even brought "opposition research" to news organizations, often characteristics of larger campaigns.
Small, local elections have certainly changed in the past decade, he says.
"[The people involved] are ostensibly part of a scheme or plan to elevate national parties' influence in control in Wake County," Goldsmith says. "In many ways, so goes Wake County, so goes North Carolina."
And So Goes The Rest Of The Country
Just this year, there have been high stakes local-level elections in Colorado, Texas and New Jersey. In all of these races, there are important issues at stake like school vouchers, evolution and school assignment.
Those issues are making little elections very important, says William Howell, the Sidney Stein Professor in American politics at the University of Chicago.
"At the national level ... when you have these polarized parties, it's really hard to make headway on a particular issue," Howell told NPR's Sullivan. "So it's not crazy to think that if what you want to do is advance a particular issue you ought to push at the local level."
Those seemingly local issues, that also have national scope, then get more attention as the local debates grow louder, Howell says. He says that's a strategy now from organizations and interest groups that want to get an issue on the national stage.
"There's a logic to it," he says. "It isn't just that local politics is less polarized than national politics, it's that to make headway at the local level you don't [generally] need big money to do so."
But now, as seen in Wake County, there is big money being put into some local elections. Howell says, however, he doesn't think spending $50,000 or more is going to become standard practice in the future for small elections.
"There are 1,500 school board elections that occur around the country, and most of these continue to be low salient affairs where lawn signs and a collection of friends are going to get you elected," he says.
LAURA SULLIVAN, host: It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Guy Raz is away. I'm Laura Sullivan.
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SULLIVAN: A few years ago in Wake County, North Carolina, Kevin Hill ran for his local school board.
KEVIN HILL: In 2007, we had a campaign committee of two, my wife and I.
SULLIVAN: He teaches at North Carolina State University and he wanted to get involved. He and his wife made some phone calls, sent out some fliers. He put in $2,000 of his own money and was thrilled when friends threw in some cash too.
HILL: In total of fundraising, I think we raised a little bit, closes right around maybe the $6,000 mark, and that was it.
SULLIVAN: Hill won, and now he's running again, hoping to hang on to his seat on Tuesday. But this time around, his campaign team is a little bigger.
HILL: Yeah. From me and my wife to about 300 people.
SULLIVAN: Three hundred volunteers are now helping to get Kevin Hill elected to the school board. They're managing phone banks, a website and a financial war chest of $42,000.
HILL: It's been mind-boggling to me that for a school board race that is nonpartisan, the amounts of money that has been raised has been raised.
SULLIVAN: But much of that money, it's not coming from local residents, it's coming from party organizations and private interest groups from outside the county, even outside the state. They've spent almost $100,000 more trying to get one or the other elected. That's our cover story today: the influence of big money on little politics.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Tea Party (unintelligible) I'm not ashamed of that.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: For years, Wake County children have been bused many miles from their homes. Now there's a new bipartisan plan that will stop forced busing and enhance...
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HEATHER LOSURDO: But I say it's time to make the future of our schools as bright as possible. I'm Heather Losurdo.
SULLIVAN: Heather Losurdo was just as surprised as Kevin Hill when the money started coming in. Losurdo spoke with reporter Dave DeWitt from member station WUNC.
LOSURDO: Yes, I was taken aback a little bit was the outside interest groups, special interest groups, that came into Wake County that don't have what's been called skin in the game. Their children aren't in our schools. They don't pay our taxes. They're not in this community.
SULLIVAN: It's Wake County's most expensive school board election to date.
THOMAS GOLDSMITH: I'm not sure where, except for maybe Los Angeles or New York, you would see this kind of spending.
SULLIVAN: That's Thomas Goldsmith. He's been covering the race for the Raleigh News & Observer. Here's some background. The school board's supposed to be nonpartisan, but Republican candidates swept the board in 2009. Now a slate of Democratic candidates want back in. Thomas Goldsmith says what's at stake is the controversial issue of school assignments where lower-income students from downtown Raleigh should go to school.
GOLDSMITH: The people in the suburbs were increasingly angry about what they felt was the predilection of the board to give all the good stuff to Old Raleigh where I grew up.
SULLIVAN: The thing that's sort of incredible about this race is just the amount of money. But some of this money that's coming in is coming from outside Wake County, right?
GOLDSMITH: Some of it is. And it gets very tricky. But there's a gentleman you may have read about recently in The New Yorker named Art Pope, who is the owner of a big regional variety store chain. He has put money into these races. Another gentleman named Bob Luddy - and these are both Republicans - have put money - has put money in. And we're talking about, you know, tens of thousands of dollars. This is not millions of dollars.
And this year, we had a couple on the Democratic side who also put in tens of thousands of dollars. The Wake County Democratic and Republican Parties have put money in. We have 527s that are getting involved, and the 527s have spent tons of money on mailers, getting increasingly vituperative as the campaign went on.
SULLIVAN: Is that a new thing for Wake County to see in these recent elections, so much outside money into its small local sort of school board county elections?
GOLDSMITH: Yes. I mean, the schools were thought to be good. In fact, when this new board came into power in 2009, they did a survey, and 95%, almost, of parents said they liked their school. The Republican group, which came into power, was largely suburban. They were expressing the feelings of many people who lived outside Raleigh in the old parts, that they were getting less of what they should.
And I think there's no doubt that the Republican Party, in particular, in 2009 saw it as a vehicle to increase the party's reach in other elections up to and including the presidential race.
GOLDSMITH: So this year, the Democrats came back with lots of money and more of a sort of 24/7 campaign style, you know, responding to anything anyone said, and initiating news stories, bringing us opposition research.
SULLIVAN: Opposition research in a school board election?
SULLIVAN: I don't know if it's just me, but, you know, I picture school board election, you've got an involved parents scrounging up a couple hundred bucks, asking the in-laws maybe for some, you know, some money to pass out some yard signs and some fliers. I mean, that's not what we're talking about here, is it?
GOLDSMITH: No. The Democratic Party has five paid employees. They have four regional offices. They have phone banks. They have robocallers. I want to say that in District 3, which is this one remaining of nine districts, they're spending $82,000 on get out the vote efforts.
SULLIVAN: How much money?
GOLDSMITH: Eighty-two thousand.
SULLIVAN: Wow. You grew up in Raleigh. You've been a reporter.
SULLIVAN: For many, many years covering a lot of these races. When you covered school boards 10, 20 years ago, was it very different?
GOLDSMITH: Yes, entirely. I mean, I remember covering a school board in Tennessee and a member who was an older lady turned to me and said, now, don't you put that in the newspaper, during a meeting. So these people are much more aware of media environment, and they are ostensibly part of a scheme or plan to elevate national parties' influence and control in Wake County. And, by many accounts, as goes Wake County, so goes North Carolina.
SULLIVAN: And perhaps, so goes the rest of the country.
FERRELL GUILLORY: Tip O'Neill's old dictum about all politics is local doesn't really apply in our country much anymore.
SULLIVAN: Ferrell Guillory is the director of the Center on Public Life at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
GUILLORY: We have seen in North Carolina, from my experience, and looking around the South in particular, an increasing involvement of outside the state groups, whether party groups or political groups or fundraising groups, and it's become an element of our national politics now.
SULLIVAN: Just this year, there have been high-stake school board elections in Colorado, Texas and New Jersey. There are important issues in all of these races: school vouchers, evolution and school assignment, like in Wake County, North Carolina. But there's also national party politics at work, which is making little elections very important, according to William Howell.
He's the Sidney Stein professor in American politics at the University of Chicago.
WILLIAM HOWELL: At the national level, within Congress at least, when you have these polarized parties, it's really hard to make headway on a particular issue. And so it's not crazy to think that if what you want to do is advance a particular issue, you ought to push at the local level. And so we see that. And then the other side comes in and tries to counter that, and you have big debates about evolution, about collective bargaining, about how much to spend in schools, which are national in scope. And those are the kinds of local elections that are attracting big money, not the kind of school board elections that remain fixated on the future of the football team at the local high school.
SULLIVAN: Are you saying that there are organizations that want to push a particular agenda, but if they can't get it done at the federal level, that they will then go down, not even just to the state level, but all the way down to the local level to get their issue across?
HOWELL: Yes. Yes. I think that that's right. There are state level initiatives to try to affect change that occur precisely in the aftermath of federal failure. Immigration reform, right? So the Republicans are talking about this great deal, about how they're going to back the building of a fence or not.
HOWELL: Governor Perry is talking about like having to - the states having to step in where the federal government failed. And that has to do with government initiatives, state governments. But it also plays out among interest groups who want to affect the composition of state governments, want to affect the composition of local school boards. Teachers unions play a big role in national politics, but they also organize and try to affect the outcomes of lots of local elections.
And there's a logic to it. It isn't just that local politics is less polarized than national politics. It's that to make headway at the local level, you don't, as a general matter, need big money to do so. That said, there are moments when both sides converge and square off, and it attracts national attention. And the more attention that's paid to the local election, the more incentives both sides have to pump money into it because they want to show that their side wins.
SULLIVAN: Is this where we're headed now, where we're going to have to spend - you're going to have to spend $50,000, $100,000 on campaigns in order to become a member of a school board?
HOWELL: I don't think in the main that that's going to be the case. There are 15,000 school board elections that occur around the country, and most of these continue to be low salient affairs where lawn signs and a collection of friends are going to get you elected. And a willingness to serve is going to put you in good stead. That said, again, I think what we can expect is increasingly showdowns where they reach stalemate at the national level devolving to the local level. And we'll see these things increasingly flaring up around the country. That isn't to say that it becomes sort of standard practice.
SULLIVAN: William Howell and Ferrell Guillory at UNC both agree that if your school board election is getting hot and you can't muster the 50 grand, there's always your school's PTA. It's still taking volunteers. And national party politics don't seem to have filtered down to bake sales yet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.