Two of the three so-called “pro-reform” Denver School Board candidates who ran as a sort of political slate backed by hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions won their races Tuesday night in an all-mail election. In essence they handed victory to not only themselves, but also to Mayor Michael Hancock who had thrust himself into the spotlight to back the controversial slate. The two victories mean reform-minded school board members who support an education reform strategy spearheaded by former DPS Superintendent and current U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet — and now being carried out by his successor, Tom Boasberg — will maintain a 4-3 advantage on the board.
At-large candidate Happy Haynes, the former chief community engagement officer for Denver Public Schools and a former city council member, easily won her race with 53,639 votes, stomping her closest opponent, school volunteer Roger Kilgore, by 43,307 votes. Community leader Jacqueline Carole Shumway finished third in the at-large race with 9,837 votes; Denver Public Schools teacher Frank Deserino finished fourth with 8,891 votes; and engineer John Daniel finished last with 7,884 votes. Haynes will succeed reform-minded Theresa Peña who did not run for reelection for the at-large seat.
Denver District 1 candidate Ann Rowe, the founding co-chair of A+ Denver, clobbered opponent Emily Sirota, a self-employed community social worker and the wife of progressive talk show host David Sirota, by 7,080 votes, despite a last ditch media blitz by Sirota that landed her in the national spotlight. Sirota publicly decried the involvement of big money in the school board race and contributors who were in favor of privatizing public education through charter schools and autonomous schools of innovation. Sirota had argued for reforms within existing community schools.
Rowe will take reform-minded Bruce Hoyt’s open District 1 seat.
In District 5, in northwest Denver, incumbent Arturo Jimenez narrowly won re-election, defeating his heavily funded opponent Jennifer Draper Carson, a former growth and development consultant with Greatschools.org, by only 144 votes. Draper Carson was the only one of the three so-called “slate” candidates to lose, but she had not officially conceded as of press time Thursday afternoon due to the closeness of the race. There are reportedly 239 rejected ballots that could potentially be cured, therefore affecting Jimenez’s small lead.
Many of the campaign contributions to “pro-reform” candidates came from the oil and gas and financial industries, which caused speculation that Denver’s high rollers were trying to weigh in with their ideological bent towards a more conservative direction in the schools.
From a political standpoint, the school board race had some implications for Bennet, who instituted the school system’s reform-minded approach called the Denver Plan in 2005. If Bennet’s initial plan fails, some surmised, it might stain his political career. Bennet, who was elected to the U.S. Senate last year, continues to preach school reform in Washington, aiming to bring many of the Denver Plan’s reforms to federal legislation. His proposals include merit-based licensing of teachers and promoting school flexibility and innovation. Without a reform-minded majority on the school board, much of Bennet’s legacy — carried on by Boasberg — could be lost.
Bennet himself never endorsed any candidates in this year’s school board race, but his wife, Susan Daggett, is listed as having made modest donations to the three “slate” candidates, including $2,200 to Haynes, $600 to Draper Carson and $100 to Rowe.
The mayor also went out on a limb for the three candidates, publicly endorsing them. On Tuesday night, after making remarks at Haynes’ election night party at Bogey’s on the Park in City Park, Hancock told The Colorado Statesman that the election was always about the students, not politics.
“It’s a victory for Denver and it’s a victory for Denver’s kids,” said the mayor. “I supported candidates that came out and said this is about our children first, and tonight I think the people of Denver have spoken very clearly that it is indeed about the children, and we want representatives on the board of education who stand for children first without politics.”
Haynes, who raised $230,037 over the course of the race, acknowledged afterwards that there had been some criticism over campaign financing, but shrugged off the idea that money bought the election.
“There have been a lot of controversial issues, and issues about campaign fundraising and all of that, but at the end of the day, it is all about the kids and we have a lot of work to do in Denver Public Schools,” Haynes said to a room full of supporters on Tuesday night.
Her closest opponent, Kilgore, believes money played a significant role in the race.
“Money was big,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Statesman. “As a first time candidate I had to get my name out and articulate my vision and substance. Money buys name recognition and can hide substance.”
Sirota, who had tears in her eyes at her election night get together, blamed her loss on her opponent’s big war chest— Rowe raised $196,845, Sirota raised only $87,293. She even appeared on the MSNBC, which highlighted the issue of big money in its “Last Word” segment with Lawrence O’Donnell.
“Money happened,” she lamented on election night. “I didn’t make it about money, they made it about money. We had an incredible influx of support in the last couple of weeks and if we had had that three months ago, this would have been a completely different race.”
At her election night party at the Wellshire Inn Tuesday night, Rowe celebrated with a beer in her hand. “I think the voters talked, and we all walked and we all got out there, I worked really hard to raise money,” she said, pointing out that 60 percent of her contributions came from residents of southeast Denver. “There are folks who gave more, and I was the beneficiary of that, but these are people who are committed to Denver and have been for a long time.”
Sirota also benefited from large campaign contributions, including $46,580 from the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, and from the endorsement of Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, Sirota’s former boss, who headlined a fundraiser for her.
In District 5 in northwest Denver, the closeness of the race didn’t daunt Jimenez. He declared victory on Wednesday, sending an e-mail to supporters that stated, “We did it!”
“This election was a close, hard-fought race against big money from out-of-district and out-of-state interest groups, but with your help we overcame,” he wrote.
Jimenez was referring mostly to the involvement of Stand For Children, a Portland, Ore.-based education reform organization that helped the “pro-reform slate” candidates with thousands of dollars for canvassing operations. Following the election on Tuesday night, the organization released a statement offering their congratulations to their hand-chosen candidates.
“We are thrilled that Denver voters overwhelmingly supported Anne Rowe and Happy Haynes in last night’s election,” stated Kayla McGannon, interim executive director for Stand for Children Colorado. “With Anne and Happy in office, Denver’s kids will have a board that will continue to fight for their future.”
Even if Draper Carson officially loses in northwest Denver, the close election against an incumbent marks serious progress for education reform, McGannon said.
The northwest Denver school board race was marked by its own individual controversies after Jimenez demanded that the “slate” candidates denounce an ad by Latinos for Education Reform that accused him and fellow board member Andrea Merida of being against reform. The ad, which ran in some local Hispanic newspapers, endorsed Draper Carson, Rowe and Haynes, and attempted to isolate Jimenez and Merida form the northwest Latino community.
Jimenez also benefited from the endorsement of former Mayor Wellington Webb, who endorsed Jimenez despite supporting the “slate” candidacies of Haynes and Rowe. Jimenez also received a campaign contribution of $24,000 from the DCTA, and $6,000 from the Colorado Education Association. In total, the candidate raised $68,073. In contrast, Draper Carson raised a total of $177,440 as of the last filing reports.
Jimenez believes he will remain victorious despite a possible recount, noting that Draper Carson “graciously” called him on Tuesday night to congratulate him on his win.
“We talked about how we can collaborate to bring our community together to work on behalf of all of our kids…” Jimenez wrote in his e-mail. “Elections are hard, but working to improve our schools is even harder.”
Draper Carson did not return multiple requests by The Statesman seeking comment.
New board members will be sworn in Nov. 17 at the end of a regularly scheduled board meeting.