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Pinellas School Board incumbents ahead in re-election bids

So much for the anti-incumbent, anti-establishment mood.

In the four Pinellas School Board races, two incumbents coasted to re-election Tuesday, while the daughter of a former board member won big and the candidate who was endorsed by the board member he's seeking to replace took the most votes in a three-person field.

"It's obvious that the voters were not as disappointed as some people think," said District 6 candidate Brian Hawley, who lost to 20-year incumbent Linda Lerner.

Lerner took 60 percent of the vote over Hawley, a Largo Middle School teacher, while District 3 incumbent Peggy O'Shea snared 61 percent over retired teacher Greg Hunsinger.

In District 2, retired principal Terry Krassner — the daughter of former board member Lee Benjamin — trounced math-science coach Fonda Huff, taking 69 percent of the vote.

The District 7 race is headed for a Nov. 2 runoff.

Retired school district administrator Lew Williams won 39 percent, retired psychology professor Jim Jackson took 33 percent and lawyer Keisha Bell took 27 percent. The seat is now held by retiring board member Mary Brown, who endorsed Williams.

"Lew got a lot of support from the establishment," Jackson said from Georgie's Alibi bar and cafe in St. Petersburg, where he gathered with supporters after polls closed. "Now we'll have the opportunity, where there's just the two of us, to talk about the message … and the differences."

Williams spent election night with three dozen friends, family members and supporters in his Pinellas Point home, watching the returns on television. He accepted congratulatory calls even as he was mapping out the next phase of his campaign.

"I'll put a sign on your yard," Williams told one caller, "and I'll leave a couple by your door."

The new board members will take office Nov. 16. And they'll face enormous challenges, particularly in south Pinellas, where the district's return to neighborhood schools has left some reeling from high concentrations of struggling students. The next board must find a way to turn those schools around at the same time it cuts the district budget for a sixth year in a row and tackles a long list of politically tricky issues, ranging from new teacher evaluations to rising demand for more fundamental schools.

No one issue or theme dominated the campaign season, but the two incumbent board members, particularly Lerner, seemed to face a one-two punch: a throw-the-bums-out mood and perceptions that a once-acclaimed district isn't firing on all cylinders.

And yet the results suggested to winning and losing candidates alike that people may not be so frustrated after all.

"I think we can do a better job for everyone, but I don't think the dissatisfaction is that high," O'Shea said.

O'Shea's opponent, Hunsinger, didn't gain traction with a message that emphasized better student discipline and promised to be a "hands on" board member. Hunsinger said he's already considering another run two years from now.

"I don't give up easily," he said.

Lerner squared off against what many board watchers thought was a compelling candidate. Verbally hard-charging, Hawley impressed many who heard him speak or read about him. But he skipped nearly every candidate forum, raised no money beyond modest loans to himself and didn't knock on any doors. His first child was born in July, and Hawley said he did not have the time or know-how to campaign differently.

"A majority of voters were inclined to go with Linda's experience and dedication, and maybe rightly so," he said. "I have to respect that."

"I didn't want to take anything for granted, and I really didn't," Lerner said. "I hope (voters) saw a long-term incumbent who was doing a pretty good job."

In District 2, Krassner ran a low-key but effective campaign, raising more money than any candidate but Jackson and stressing school safety. She credited deep roots in Pinellas and 35 years in the district for her victory.

"Now the hard work really begins," she said. "I want to see what we can do to make (the district) one of the best in the nation."

Huff stressed the need for more fundamental schools. She also tacked to the political right, touting tea party support and blasting the teachers union for protecting bad teachers. She did not return a call for comment.

In District 7, it's a safe bet both the Williams and Jackson camps will be digging into the data to see which voters supported Bell — and how they can woo them.

"I have a lot to be positive about," Bell said. "A lot of people told me they supported my campaign and they weren't into politics before."

Bell said she'll take a few days to consider whom she might endorse for the runoff.

Times staff writer Jamal Thalji contributed to this report.

Pinellas School Board incumbents ahead in re-election bids 08/24/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 25, 2010 1:13am]
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