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School Board candidates turn to outside help

This article first appeared in the Orlando Sentinel. View original here
27 Jul

School-board candidates still knock on doors, deliver yard signs and write fundraising letters. But for glossy mailers and catchy websites, many are turning to outside help to get their names out to voters.

"The challenge in school-board races is there's no name recognition, they're on the bottom of the ballot and direct mail has to be targeted to people who are likely to vote," said Dick Batchelor, a management consultant who is heading efforts to renew a sales tax for school construction.

In contrast to the staggering war chests amassed by candidates for some elected offices, school-board campaigns are local affairs that tend to stay in the tens of thousands of dollars. That usually means enough money for one or two bulk mailings of postcards, some yard signs and lots of door-to-door campaigning.

Some local candidates are paying for outside help as a way to get the most out of their donations.

"Being the first time running for office, it was a little intimidating," said Linda Kobert, a co-founder of Fund Education Now and one of four candidates for Rick Roach's seat on the Orange County School Board. "It made good business sense" to hire someone to help shape the campaign, she said. "I've been able to spend my time walking neighborhoods instead of finding a graphic designer who can make a back-page ad."

She is one of at least three Central Florida school-board candidates who tapped graphic designer Kit Pepper to help with some combination of mailings, signs, websites and advice. She helps volunteers figure out which houses to visit, writes campaign spots and reminds candidates of deadlines for paperwork. Fees can range from a few thousand dollars to more than $10,000.

"All campaigns, no matter who they are, unless they don't have two nickels to rub together, has to have somebody like me to do layout and design and printing," said Pepper, a former Winter Park resident who has been doing political print work for more than 30 years. That need exists because the post office has strict rules for bulk mailing that require the help of a professional, she said.

Pepper, who lives on a farm in Alabama, describes herself as a graphic artist who has political expertise and bristles at the term "consultant," which she associates with martini lunches and the good ol' boy network. She said she focuses on the look and feel of campaigns, not the politicking.

Kobert used Pepper to redesign her website and develop her printed materials. Joie Cadle, an Orange school board member running for re-election, has turned to Pepper for palm cards, signs, stickers and a mailer.

"There is no possible way I could reach all the people I represent without being able to mail them," said Joie Cadle, an Orange County School Board member running for re-election in a district that stretches from Winter Park to the outer reaches of east Orange County. While the days of friends assembling mailers in living rooms is over, candidates still do plenty on their own.

"There's still a lot of hands-on I'm doing myself," said Daryl Flynn, an Orange County incumbent facing one challenger. Recently, she's been sticking labels on index cards and attaching them to bags of candy kisses to hand out at a hobnob. Pepper helped her secure a spot on a digital billboard, among other campaign tasks. Cadle is attaching stakes to nearly 1,000 yard signs and delivering them.

Dana Loncar, a consultant who worked on school-board campaigns in 2010 and 2012, said it only makes sense that candidates in a growing county like Orange would hire professionals to help target voters.

The phenomenon is not limited to Orange County.

In Seminole, incumbent Karen Almond has used Pepper in the past.

But this election season she wrote her own materials and hired a friend to send out mailings countywide. "I've done enough campaigns in my life," she said.

Not all candidates have the same level of outside help.

Regina Hellinger, a former public-school teacher running in District 3 against Kobert, doesn't have a resource like Pepper, but is paying a friend of a friend to manage her campaign. "I'm a teacher who is dedicated to having a positive impact on education. In order to get to do that, I need someone who knows political campaigns," she said.

And both Joshua Katz, a teacher running against Cadle, and Rich Sloane, a candidate for Diane Bauer's open seat in Seminole County, say they are relying on a network of volunteers to help their campaigns.

"It's a steep learning curve, but I don't feel I'm at a disadvantage," Katz said.

Sloane, director of community relations for UCF's College of Education, said his first run for office has been eye-opening.

"It's a very intense, very expensive, very time-consuming process," he said. "You see what goes on behind the curtain."

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