NC voters reject Pope-backed candidates in local school board battle over resegregation

Voters in Wake County, N.C. headed to the polls yesterday in high numbers to reject a slate of conservative Republican Board of Education candidates who opposed a longstanding diversity policy aimed at avoiding high-poverty and racially-isolated schools.

The big win for Democrats and desegregation represents a big loss for conservative benefactor Art Pope, who served as the architect of the 2009 school board election that saw an anti-diversity Republican majority win control of the officially nonpartisan body, and who along with his political network backed yesterday's losing candidates. Pope is one of the most influential money men in North Carolina politics and is a close national ally of the billionaire Koch brothers through his role as a national director of the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, which backs school privatization and whose North Carolina chapter helped Republicans in the 2009 school board race.

With five of the board's nine seats up for grabs yesterday, Democrats won four races outright and ousted board chair Ron Margiotta, a particularly divisive figure who also serves as a trustee for a private school run by Bob Luddy, a close associate of Pope and the Koch brothers and another major funder of this year's anti-diversity-policy candidates. Margiotta lost to political newcomer Susan Evans by 52% to 48% in Southwest Wake's District 8, considered the most strongly Republican of the board's nine districts.

"Congratulations to Susan Evans for defeating tea party ringleader Ron Margiotta," David Parker, chair of the N.C. Democratic Party, said in a statement. "I have no doubt that Susan will work hard to restore the confidence, trust and integrity lost under Margiotta's failed leadership. Ron Margiotta's days of making Wake County Schools the butt of national jokes is now over."

In the fifth race in suburban North Raleigh, Democratic incumbent Kevin Hill leads a field of four candidates with 49.7% of the vote but needs more than 50% to win outright. His leading opponent, Pope-backed conservative Republican Heather Losurdo, came in second with 39.87% and said yesterday she intends to request a November runoff in the district, which has a strong GOP registration advantage.

But Losurdo -- who favors a return to more demographically homogeneous neighborhood schools -- faces an uphill battle. A poll conducted last week by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling found that in a runoff between Hill and Losurdo, Hill had a 16-point margin at 52-36, with those voters who supported the other two candidates taking "an incredibly dim view of Losurdo -- just 23% see her positively to 63% with a negative opinion." As PPP notes:

The campaign has taken a serious toll on Losurdo's image. Just 36% of voters in the district have a favorable view of her, with 43% seeing her negatively. Hill, on the other hand, is quite popular with 48% of voters approving of him to only 30% who disapprove.

Hill, a centrist Democrat, is a former public school teacher and principal. Losurdo describes herself on her campaign website as a "Christian, a wife and 'softball' mom." During the campaign, she came under fire for posting the acronym "LMAO" for "laughing my a-- off" in response to a Facebook posting by her husband that involved a racial joke about President Obama.

The Democratic wins were fueled by growing public anger over the Republican board's divisiveness and its decision to scrap the school system's lauded socioeconomic diversity policy, which attempted to limit the number of children receiving free or reduced-price lunch in any one school through a combination of busing and magnet school programs. The Republican majority's decision to abruptly end the policy sparked rowdy protests, mass marches, a federal civil rights complaint filed by the N.C. NAACP, an accreditation review and a segment on The Colbert Report titled "Disintegration" in which satirist Stephen Colbert asked, "What's the use of living in a gated community if my kids go to school and get poor all over them?"

The anger led to high turnout among Wake voters for a local election. Yesterday's turnout was over 21% of registered voters -- almost twice the 11% turnout of the pivotal 2009 elections. It also led to Democratic efforts to ensure that Art Pope's network was not the only one spending big money on voter education through independent groups unaffiliated with campaigns.

Recently released campaign finance reports show that Civitas Action, the 501(c)(4) political advocacy arm of the nonprofit 501(c)(3) Civitas Institute, which was founded and is almost entirely funded by Pope, spent over $6,000 on flyers supporting the same three Republican school board candidates -- Margiotta, Losurdo and Donna Williams -- to whom Pope and his wife contributed a total of $24,000.

Meanwhile, the 527 political advocacy group Common Sense Matters spent over $52,000 on campaign mailers attacking Margiotta and Losurdo. Common Sense Matters has received funding from the N.C. Association of Educators and the N.C. Future Actions Fund, which is led by businessman and Democratic operative Dean Debnam, also the president and CEO of Public Policy Polling.

The lame-duck board is scheduled to vote next Tuesday, Oct. 18, on the new student assignment plan, which does away with any consideration of socioeconomic diversity in favor of proximity and parental choice. While it's unlikely the current board will revamp the plan to take diversity into account, the new board is likely to be more sympathetic to concerns about the creation of high-poverty schools.

"While there is still some more voting to be done in the days to come, tonight we believe, marks a major step forward on the highway of justice and love," N.C. NAACP President Rev. William Barber, who has been banned from school board meetings for participating in protests there, said yesterday. "Children of all colors, we pray, can once again feel welcome in their schools and at their school board."

(Image above is a still from the Brave New Films video on the role of the Koch brothers' money in the 2009 Wake County school board election. To learn more about Art Pope, visit