Voters maintain course in School Board races
By KELLY RYAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 6, 2000
With 10 candidates vying for three Pinellas School Board seats, political observers thought it would be tough -- even unlikely -- for anyone to garner more than 50 percent of the vote and win the primary outright. Especially for Benjamin, a 10-year School Board member who faced three opponents.
But incumbents Benjamin and Gallucci and newcomer Cook skated past their opponents, ducking November runoffs and ending an uneventful School Board election season.
"I was surprised actually, but very, very pleased," said Cook, a fourth-grade teacher at Southern Oak Elementary School. "We were giddy about 45 minutes ago. Now, we're just exhausted."
Despite public sentiment in recent years that seemed to convey dissatisfaction with incumbents -- witness the passage of term limits -- Pinellas office holders largely kept their positions.
Everett Rice will remain sheriff. Bob Dillinger continues as public defender. Deborah Clark keeps the supervisor of elections job to which she was appointed. County judges Myra Scott McNary and Karl Grube and Circuit Judge Bill Webb will keep seats on the bench.
The exception was Tax Collector W. Fred Petty, who lost to his former assistant, Diane Nelson, in a race that focused on Petty's previous pledges to leave office.
The night also saw St. Petersburg City Council member Frank Peterman Jr. win the seat for state House District 55, which represents the southern part of the city and a chunk of Manatee County.
"There's quite a lot of power that's built into the incumbency," said Ronald Ogden, a former legislative assistant who lost to Benjamin in the School Board contest.
The new School Board's biggest challenge will be shepherding the district through the transition from court-ordered busing for desegregation to a system that lets parents choose their children's schools.
None of the candidates focused on the intricacies of the district's plans to slowly phase out race ratios in schools -- but several tried to capitalize on this momentous policy change in calling for fresh faces on the board.
Voters weren't interested. They chose district insiders who have spent years in Pinellas classrooms and know first-hand about the struggle to help all students, regardless of race, gender or family income, achieve.
"I believe the public appreciates candidates that are dedicated to education as opposed to someone that's running to be in politics," said Benjamin, 73. "The public wanted candidates that understand the complexities of the problems of education."
This year, for the first time, School Board races were non-partisan. That opened up primaries to all voters and changed the tenor of the campaign, forcing incumbents to spend more money than they had before.
School Board members serve four-year terms and earn $33,303 annually. Cook, who must quit her teaching job to serve on the board, will be sworn in at the end of November.
Cook, 48, who has never run for political office, handily outpolled her opponents in the District 3 race from the moment returns started coming in -- including well-known Tarpon Springs City Commissioner David Archie and Peter Nehr, a 48-year-old who is active in political circles.
Cook, former president of the Pinellas County Council of PTAs, grabbed about 56 percent to Archie's 30 percent and Nehr's 14 percent. Archie, 47, a two-term public official and 12-year district volunteer, had to resign his commission seat to run. His last day will be Nov. 20.
In the District 1 contest, Benjamin hovered around 50 percent all night, eventually escaping with 50.32 percent. Ronald Ogden, 48, came in second with 19 percent.
The shocker in the race was that retired special education teacher Arline "Artie" Lopes, 65, grabbed 16 percent of the vote. She spent no money, had no volunteer corps and campaigned on improving nutrition in cafeteria food.
Mike Guju, who turns 41 today, raised a large pot of money -- $20,645 -- but came in fourth with nearly 15 percent of the vote.
"Fully 50 percent of the people voted against a 10-year incumbent," Guju said. "That's telling. You want to know who the real winner in this is? Lopes. She spent next to nothing. No signs. No advertising. Nothing."
Gallucci, who turns 52 today, is the president of the Florida School Boards Association who has developed a reputation her first term as an opinionated board member unafraid of asking pointed questions. She pulled in 52 percent of the vote in the at-large race.
St. Petersburg businessman Kenneth Fullerton, 47, made Gallucci's personality a campaign issue. Fullerton, who garnered nearly 38 percent of the vote, said he could build a spirit of teamwork on the seven-member board.
Civil activist Dwight Chimurenga Waller, 49, a former school district employee, won only 10 percent. On the campaign trail, he repeatedly accused the school district of failing to educate black children and demanded an end to race ratios in schools.
"I'm very encouraged because I think we have a situation where the black community is the center of the discussion and we forced that," Waller said. Like the other two winners, Gallucci said she offered knowledge of the district that her opponents couldn't match.
"We have content knowledge of the way the district works, and it takes a long time to learn that," Gallucci said. "This is a great birthday present."
-- Times staff writer Alicia Caldwell contributed to this report.
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