School race sets donation record
By MONIQUE FIELDS, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- For a first-time candidate raising campaign cash, it helps to be a member of a prominent political family.
Tiffany Todd, the 24-year-old daughter of the chairwoman of the County Commission, is running for her late father's seat on the Pinellas School Board. She has raised a record amount of money for such a race: more than $75,400.
Campaign finance reports filed at the Supervisor of Elections Office on Friday show that Todd raised $28,700 during the final two weeks of the campaign. She spent more than $24,000 on radio and television advertisements, as well as mailings.
Mary Brown, her opponent, has raised less money during the entire campaign than Todd raised in the last 20 days: $27,300. Brown raised $8,000 between Oct. 12 and Thursday.
The winner of Tuesday's race will fill the District 4 seat that had been held by Todd's father, Tom, who died June 28th. Janice Starling, who was appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush to fill the vacancy, was defeated in the primary.
The campaign reports illustrate the vast differences in the campaigns waged by Todd, the daughter of county Commissioner Barbara Sheen Todd, and Brown, 67, who narrowly lost another School Board race four years ago.
Of the more than $75,428 raised by Todd, $8 of every $10 came in $500 contributions, the maximum allowed. Nearly $4 of every $10 came from outside Pinellas; more than $4 of every $10 came from the construction industry.
Brown raised just more than one-third as much money as Todd, and most of it came in much smaller amounts. Less than $2 of every $10 Brown raised came in $500 contributions. She raised just $1,330 from outside Pinellas and reported no money from the construction industry.
Neither Todd nor Brown could be reached for comment.
Todd's fundraising efforts surprised some who closely watch School Board races.
"Wow," said County Commissioner Susan Latvala, a former School Board member. "It's a huge amount of money in a very short period of time."
The previous record was set in this fall's primary, when incumbent Max Gessner raised more than $65,000. Gessner was defeated by Mary Russell, who raised less than $7,000.
Darryl Paulson, a professor of government at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, said there is an obvious reason Todd has been successful at raising money.
"This is money for Barbara Sheen Todd and Tom Todd," he said. "It defies imagination that without political experience at her age and running for the first time that she would be able to generate this amount of money on her own."
A Todd campaign consultant said the money is needed.
"It's very expensive to communicate a message among over potentially a half-million voters in Pinellas County," said Jack Hebert, a consultant for the Mallard Group. "Honestly, $75,000 isn't a lot of money in terms of politics and communicating messages."
Early on, many of Todd's contributions came from contracting businesses that usually ignore School Board races -- and from businesses that had given to at least one of her parents' campaigns.
"I don't know why those people are contributing to a School Board race," Latvala said. "They must be people she knows."
Money, some observers said, is not always the determining factor in a local race.
"It takes a lot of money to influence a countywide race, so I don't think it's going to make that big of a difference," said Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, which endorsed Brown. "A significant amount of people have voted anyhow."
School Board Chairman Lee Benjamin wondered aloud whether making School Board races nonpartisan has resulted in an increase in campaign contributions.
"That's the only thing I can think of," he said, before recalling his 2000 campaign. "I raised $35,000 -- and that was a lot, I thought, back then."
Moore said single-member districts could curb expensive campaigns like Todd's. If passed Tuesday, a referendum would create four single-member districts and three at-large districts.
"You won't have that kind of money," Moore said, "because it will be more manageable."
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