On Town Meeting Day, all three incumbents in the Burlington school board elections were ousted by newcomers who crushed them when it came to raising cash.
Helping two of them along in no small way was a familiar name: Lenore Broughton, the conservative donor who’s channeled large donations to conservative candidates and causes through the Vermonters First super PAC. Broughton gave $1,000 apiece to Scot Shumski and David Kirk, successful candidates in Wards 4 and 7, respectively.
Both men stood out among the school board candidate pool for their opposition to the proposed 2015 school budget, and their criticism of the current board as being ineffective stewards of that spending plan. (Tuesday’s campaign finance filings also show Broughton contributed $10,000 to Vermonters First last August. She also gave $1,000 to the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs, which advocated, unsuccessfully, for the defeat of the three gun control items on Burlington's Town Meeting Day ballot.)
Broughton made her contributions to Shumski and Kirk on February 25, one day after the last campaign finance filing deadline leading up to Town Meeting Day. Until then, Shumski had largely financed his campaign through loans he took out and donations under $100; Kirk also took out a loan and he received $790 from Shumski in two installments on February 11 and 19 for a joint ad in the North Avenue News. Contributions made after the February 24 deadline aren't disclosed until two weeks after the election.
Shumski, who raised a total of $2,702 and spent an additional $1,000, unseated Bernie O’Rourke by a wide margin — 1,096 to 558. Shumski said he's been friends with Broughton for more than a decade and he welcomed her generosity. Raising a hefty amount of money was necessary, according to Shumski, given the low-profile nature of school board races and the fact that he was taking on a current member of the board.
"A hard and fast rule about incumbents is that it's difficult to unseat them," he said, adding: "No one was doing any articles on me, and no one was shining the spotlight on me."
But Shumski said he also thinks the money was just one factor in his victory. "I think what you saw in my election was the perfect tsunami in that I was able to raise money — and money helped me to get my message out — but I also went and knocked on every door. It was everything. It was hard work, it was money and it was my wife taking care of my children."
Shumski spread the wealth, too, donating several hundred dollars apiece to the only two Republican candidates for city council — Kurt Wright and Tom Treat. He gave to these other candidates, Shumski said, because they share his vision for "fiscal management." And having likeminded allies on the school board and city council will help him, he said. "It's important to have a group that wants change on this board."
The Vermont Secretary of State’s office hadn't received a campaign finance report from O’Rourke as of Wednesday afternoon — final disclosures were due Tuesday — and he couldn't be reached for comment. O’Rourke’s last report, filed 10 days before the election, showed he had raised $700. In Ward 4, 1,188 people voted against the school budget, while 638 voted in favor.
In Ward 7, Kirk brought in $2,417. His opponent, incumbent Linda Deliduka, said she raised less than $500. State law only requires candidates who raise more than that amount to submit disclosures. Kirk finished 100 votes ahead of Deliduka, receiving 722 votes to Deliduka’s 621. The school budget was also defeated by a large margin in Ward 7.
"I wasn’t willing to do that for a job that I don’t get paid for," Deliduka said, referencing the amount of money her opponent raised. One big donor, Deliduka pointed out, can achieved outsized influence in the arena of school board races. "That was a relatively inexpensive way to get a lot of candidates in," she said. "She [Broughton] got a pretty good bang for her buck."
Shumski and Kirk used their unusually deep coffers to make the typical purchases: lawn signs, newspapers ads, campaign literature. Kirk didn't return a request for comment.
Kyle Dodson ousted Katharine Chasan from her school board seat in Ward 1; he also raised more than twice as much money as she did. Dodson brought in $1,605, most of which came from small donors who gave less than $100. Chasan raised $700. The victor received 395 votes to his opponent's 227.
In the city council races, the New North End featured the only two seriously contested raises. By far the most cash was funneled into the Ward 4 race, where Republican Kurt Wright, a consummate politician, came out ahead of Carol Ode, a Democrat and well-known community member. Wright raised $5,696 — including a $430 donation from Shumski’s campaign — while Ode raised $4,734.
That may sound like a lot for a local race where door-knocking is the primary campaign strategy, but lawn signs, local ads and campaign literature can add up. Both Ode and Wright spent roughly $1,000 for print ads in the North Avenue News. Wright spent more than $1,000 on lawn signs alone; Ode spent roughly $1,500 on mailings and absentee ballots to residents. Wright, a current state representative who’s served on the city council in the past, received about 300 more votes than Ode did.
In Ward 4, Bianka LeGrand, a Democrat and first-time candidate, beat Republican Tom Treat, also a newcomer, by roughly 100 votes. LeGrand raised $2,810, with support from the Burlington Democrats, Mayor Miro Weinberger, and several other prominent Democrats.
The Secretary of State’s office hadn't received a report from Treat as of Wednesday, but his February 24 filing shows he had raised $656, including $430 from Shumski.
Mayor Weinberger’s PAC, Partnership for Burlington’s Future, raised $24,300 to push for four ballot items — raising the city tax rate, incurring debt to fund waterfront redevelopment, purchasing a hydroelectric dam, and a redistricting proposal for the city. All four items passed. In 2012, the PAC raised more than $35,000.