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GOP’s Tarver leads fundraising in Michigan state school board race

Close ups of each person running for the state Board of Education.

Candidates for the Michigan Board of Education are pictured. Clockwise from top left, they are: Libertarian Donna Gundle-Grieg; Republican Linda Lee Tarver; libertarian Bill Hall; Mary Anne Hering of the Working Class Party; incumbent Democrat Pamela Pugh; Republican Tamara Carlone; and Democrat Mitchell Robinson. Not pictured is Ethan Hobson, who did not provide a photo.

Photos courtesy of the candidates / Collage by Chalkbeat staff

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct fundraising totals for candidates who filed amended campaign finance reports. Some donations were counted multiple times. It also updates contribution and expenditure information for candidate Tamara Carlone, whose latest report was not previously available.

Linda Lee Tarver started her state Board of Education campaign with $5,000 of her own money.

Over the last year, that has ballooned to $105,000, more than all seven of her competitors combined, according to campaign finance disclosures.

The Republican raised much of that money several thousand dollars at a time from conservative coalitions and wealthy donors, including several in the real estate industry.

Tarver has been spending it on billboards, advertisements, website designers, a $961 stay at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home and club where she had a private meeting with the former president, and $7,585 listed as meeting expenses at a soup spot in Lansing that has become her de facto office.

Just today she launched a 30-second television spot on streaming services including Hulu and Amazon Prime. That expenditure – about $10,000 – will be included in an upcoming campaign finance report, Tarver said.

Eight candidates are running for two seats on the state school board, which currently comprises five Democrats and two Republicans. An eighth board member is expected to be appointed soon by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to fill the unexpired term of Jason Strayhorn, who resigned in July.

Board members serve eight-year terms setting educational priorities and overseeing public education in the state, but their powers are limited in a state where education policy and budgets are set by the state Legislature. The board’s most significant power is to hire and fire the state superintendent. 

Learn more about the candidates’ positions here

Democrat Mitchell Robinson raised $19,800. Democrat Pamela Pugh, the only incumbent, raised $6,300.

Fellow Republican Tamara Carlone raised $50,400, some of which was left over from her 2020 attempt to win a seat on the board.

The race’s four minor party candidates are exempt from filing campaign finance reports because they have raised less than $1,000. They are: Donna Gundle-Krieg and Bill Hall of the Libertarian Party; Mary Anne Kering of the Working Class Party, and Ethan Hobson of the U.S. Taxpayers Party.

That brings total spending on the race to $181,000 so far, up from $90,000 in total spending in the last election cycle. That’s more than most school board election cycles, but still well below the $401,000 candidates spent in 2006 and the $368,000 spent in 2016.

Tarver’s contributions are high for a state Board of Education race, but not unprecedented. 

Former Republican state Board of Education member Eileen Weiser raised $296,300 for her 2006 campaign. 

Still, six-figure fundraising for state board seats is unusual, said Simon Schuster, senior political reporter at MLive and former executive director of the nonprofit and nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

The high fundraising isn’t surprising in a year when education issues are at the forefront of top-of-ticket races, Schuster said.

“Education and what should be taught in schools is so close to the forefront that I think this is the most prominent state Board of Education election that we’ve had in a number of cycles,” Schuster said.

Tarver’s campaign coffers are large enough to get her name and image in front of a lot of voters. That could make a difference to voters who may not be paying attention to down-ballot races, said Rebecca Jacobsen, professor of education policy and politics at Michigan State University. 

Money enables candidates to get their names and their campaign messages in front of more voters and in more professional ways.

“When you don’t know a lot about the issues but a name starts to sound familiar, you think, ‘Yeah, that sounds great,’” said Jacobsen, who has been studying money in local school board races for more than a decade.

There’s also a downside to having strong funding, she said.

“We found in our research talking to school board candidates at the district level is that money brought with it demands for very strong personal stances on some very politicized issues, so candidates felt like there was not room to compromise,” Jacobsen said. Candidates felt like they had to profess more extreme views than they may have personally held, and that increased politicization on boards after they were elected, she said.

That has left little room for moderate candidates with pragmatic beliefs to advance causes that weren’t part of the national political agenda, she said.

Here’s a summary of the candidates’ major contributions and expenditures, according to campaign finance records candidates filed with the Department of State:

Linda Lee Tarver

Tarver’s biggest contributors are Weiser, the former state Board of Education member, and her husband Ron, an Ann Arbor real estate investor, member of the University of Michigan Board of Regents, and chairperson of the Michigan Republican Party. They gave her $9,650 combined.

The Weisers also are major Republican campaign financiers. They contributed $3 million to the state Republican Party this election cycle, plus nearly $400,000 more to candidates for statewide office and $100,000 to a political action committee backing tax breaks for voucher-like scholarships. They also contributed more than $4 million to federal campaigns and political action committees.

Other top Tarver campaign contributors are: Terri Lynn Land of Byron Center, a member of the Wayne State University Board of Governors and former secretary of state; Terry Applegate of Ivins, Utah; Dan Hibma, a real estate partner in Wyoming, Michigan; Bobby Schostak, a real estate developer in Livonia; and America’s Conservative Caucus in Collinsville, Illinois Each gave $7,150, the maximum allowable individual contribution.

Mitchell Robinson

Robinson’s biggest contributors were the Michigan Education Association Political Action Committee ($5,000), the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters PAC ($2,500), and the American Federation of Teachers PAC ($2,000).

His biggest expenditures have been $2,500 to the state Democratic Party, $2,300 for postcards, and $1,272 for yard signs.

Pamela Pugh

Pugh’s biggest contributor is her father, John Pugh, retired Delta College Professor, who gave $6,821. State law exempts immediate family members from campaign contribution limits.

Pugh also contributed $2,000 to her own campaign.

Other top contributors were the Michigan Education Association PAC ($5,200), the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters PAC ($2,500), and the American Federation of Teachers PAC ($2,000). 

The biggest expenditures she reported are $3,360 for yard signs, $2,500 to the state Democratic Party, $1,800 for a campaign coordinator, and $1,665 for campaign literature.

Tamara Carlone

Carlone’s top contributors are retiree Valarie Applegate of Ivins, Utah ($7,150), Jon Sorber of Spring Lake, co-owner of Two Men and a Truck International Inc. ($2,500); the 11th Congressional District Republican Party ($2,000); the Wayne 12th Congressional District Republican Committee ($1,850), retiree Deborah Debacker of Troy ($1,250); the Wayne County Republican Party ($1,000), and Jennifer Conely of Brighton, owner of Conley Auto ($1,000).

The biggest expenditures she reported are $9,000 for billboards, $4,764 for campaign literature, and $2,418 for T-shirts.

Election day is Nov. 8.

Chalkbeat Senior Data Editor Thomas Wilburn contributed.

Tracie Mauriello covers state education policy for Chalkbeat Detroit and Bridge Michigan.

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