TAMPA — It was a big deal in 2006 when Hillsborough County school administrator Ken Allen sank $65,000 into an unsuccessful bid to sit on the School Board.
This year, with the primary season not even over, four School Board candidates are at or past that level, with two fast approaching the six-figure mark.
Michelle Popp Shimberg ($97,000), Dipa Shah ($95,000), Melissa Snively ($67,000) and Paula Meckley ($65,000), all first-time candidates for public office, are generating more financial support than these races have seen in at least a decade.
"The money that you have to raise is ridiculous," said Stacy Hahn, who has a Ph.D in special education but just $32,000 in campaign collections.
Of course runaway fundraising is not unique to the Hillsborough School Board, where two seats are open and a third has seven challengers to an incumbent.
Consider Gov. Rick Scott, who has logged $5.6 million, not counting his Let's Get To Work organization. Or U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who raised more than $5 million — and then lost.
But other school districts are not seeing such high-dollar contests. In Broward County, a district that is larger than Hillsborough, 12 candidates on the ballot have campaign accounts ranging from $1,300 to $49,000.
Political consultant Brock Mikosky, who is advising Hahn, believes what's happening in Hillsborough is not a trend, but the coinciding of several unusual situations.
Shimberg, the fundraising leader, is a longtime school and community volunteer. And it doesn't hurt that her husband is from a family of developers and lawyers who are both financially successful and civically active.
Her donors are a virtual who's who of Tampa's elite. Included are a mayor and a former mayor, a member of Congress, the state's attorney general, the local state attorney, car dealers and a well-known shopping mall developer.
Throughout South Tampa there are Shimberg signs on private lawns, attesting to grass roots support as well.
"I've been overwhelmed and humbled by the support," Shimberg said. She even got a $75 check from Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, executive director of the teacher's union, despite Baxter-Jenkins' defense of Michael Weston, now one of Shimberg's opponents. Shimberg also received the union's endorsement.
Baxter-Jenkins said that, although she maintains Weston was treated unfairly when he lost his teaching job at Freedom High School, she has worked with Shimberg. "I like her as a person and she has the credentials to do the job well," she said.
Circumstances are different for Shah, who's running for the at-large seat held by April Griffin. In addition to the support she has won as a Brandon lawyer and a school volunteer, Shah benefits from her ties to the close-knit Indian community.
"They're very excited and they're very supportive," Shah said. "The community really rallied together." Recent events include a reception at Carrollwood's India Cultural Center, hosted by philanthropist Kiran Patel, and a meet-and-greet in New Tampa. In one three-week cycle, Shah logged $25,000 in donations.
Meckley, one of her opponents, and Snively, who is running in east Hillsborough's District 4, show broad support. Meckley's is from the South Tampa community where she distinguished herself as a volunteer in her three children's schools; Snively's is in the business community, where she served as head of the Greater Brandon Chamber of Commerce.
Although there is no incumbent in the east Hillsborough race, Snively is up against someone with name recognition: Christian conservative Terry Kemple.
While the dollar amounts might look impressive, comparisons can be misleading, said Patrick Manteiga, the La Gaceta publisher who is working with Griffin.
"You know, everybody has a chance," he said. "Because even at $90,000, for a countywide race, that's still not a lot of money." Put another way, the difference between $50,000 and $80,000 is the cost of one mailing, he said. "It's not make-it or break-it."
As much money as Shah is raising, no one — including Shah herself — can predict how voters will feel about her ethnic heritage. At the same time, Manteiga noted that incumbent Susan Valdes has been successful on election day despite modest fundraising, helped by both her name — her district has a large Hispanic population — and her vast network of contacts.
As for Shimberg, he said, "Michelle was going to be the front-runner before she even raised a dime. She has prepared for a lifetime to do this."
Supporters say that Shimberg has not only served in leadership positions at the school level and in the school districts' citizens' advisory committee, her family also helped many of the political leaders who are now returning the favor.
Contact Marlene Sokol at [email protected] or (813) 226-3356. Follow @marlenesokol.