Saturday, November 18, 2017
Politics

Campaign styles, funding differ greatly in Pinellas School Board race

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Janet Clark might be the least political politician running for office in Pinellas County.

She was an unknown when she ran for the School Board eight years ago, scoring a stunning victory over a 14-year incumbent who had more money and more endorsements. She raised $3,500 — about enough for some yard signs — and spent election night at home in her pajamas.

Her 2004 win was called a fluke. Fast-forward to 2012 and Clark, 58, is a two-term incumbent in District 1, a countywide seat. But her shrugged-shoulders attitude to campaigning hasn't changed much.

"I really, truly think it's a crapshoot," she said of elections.

Despite tough competition from three better-financed opponents, she's raised almost no money. Her plans for election night include a Toastmasters class and then home.

Standing in stark contrast to Clark are opponents Elliott Stern, 73, a retired businessman, and Jim Jackson, 67, a retired college professor.

Both men have waged aggressive campaigns, raising more money than nearly any other political candidates in Pinellas County. They have thrown a substantial amount of their own money into the race. As of Friday, Stern had tossed in about $36,600. Jackson had given himself $46,358, according to campaign finance reports filed in July. His latest reports weren't available Saturday.

The money has helped Stern and Jackson pay for a blitz of yard signs, mailers and television ads. Jackson also has moved large billboards to strategic points around Pinellas and started negative robo-calls about Stern last week. Jackson said he believes he is fighting for the No. 2 spot Tuesday behind Clark — the top two vote-getters advance to the general election, assuming no one gets more than half the votes Tuesday.

At stake is a School Board seat that pays $40,457 a year.

A third opponent in the race, Shelly Ladd-Gilbert, 42, a small business owner, said she's taken a grass roots approach, introducing herself at neighborhood events and chamber meetings. Much of her campaign has been self-financed, though not on the same scale as Jackson or Stern.

According to the latest campaign finance reports, Stern raised $58,945, including his self-loans. Jackson, based on the July reports, had pulled in $54,773, with his loans.

According to the latest reports, Ladd-Gilbert came in third, with $24,630, while Clark was last. Her campaign chest had just $4,661.

Much like her campaign style, Clark isn't an aggressive board member. She's often quiet during board meetings, speaking only when she feels strongly about an issue. She was one of former superintendent Julie Janssen's toughest critics on the board. She's been a strong proponent of the anti-testing resolution passed by many Florida school boards, including Pinellas.

But she hasn't had much to say about the district's much-criticized superintendent search, other than that she prefers to interview the three finalists before considering other options, such as a new national search.

Stern, who retired from Raymond James & Associates, a financial services company, has touted his business experience, saying the board doesn't need another former educator. Five of seven board members, including Clark, are former teachers.

He has received support from leaders of the business-led nonprofit Pinellas Education Foundation. Donations have come from foundation leaders, such as Craig Sher, former chairman; Jim Myers, current chairman; retired Progress Energy executive Jack Critchfield; Ditek Corp. executive Bob McIntyre and philanthropist Gus Stavros.

Jackson said he believes board member Peggy O'Shea, a commercial arbitrator, already brings a business perspective to the board. He's received contributions from educators, school counselors and librarians.

Supporters include state Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg; political consultant Steve Lapinski; Ray Tampa, former president of the NAACP; and Linda Norris, City Council member in Oldsmar.

Ladd-Gilbert said she has a blend of business and academic experience — she was a teacher for nine years and has run a small business, a preschool with 17 employees, for nine years.

Stern and Jackson said they need money to get name recognition in the nonpartisan race.

Clark pointed out that she has won two elections without raising or spending a lot of money.

"I personally think that elections are money pits," she said. "I'm not sure they're reaching the public that way."

Ladd-Gilbert said she's relying on word-of-mouth to get her name in front of voters.

Jackson said he believes Clark will be in the top spot, no matter how little money she raises.

Clark comes first on the alphabetical ballot and, as an incumbent, she's better known. Jackson also believes voters confuse her with Deborah Clark, the county's supervisor of elections.

"Janet's not campaigning, she doesn't have to. She's won twice before," he said.

Stern said Jackson, too, has name recognition, having run for the District 7 seat in south Pinellas in the last election. Jackson raised a substantial amount in that campaign — $42,623 — but lost to Lew Williams, who died in December.

Clark, for her part, seemed surprised that her opponents assume she'll make it onto the November ballot.

"I'm kind of going to wait for the primary," she said.

Staff writer Rebecca Catalanello contributed to this story. Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at [email protected]

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