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A few years ago, in Wake County, N.C., Kevin Hill wanted to get involved in his community, so he ran for his local school board.
The campaign team consisting of Hill and his wife, with the help of some friends, raised about $6,000; he won the seat in the 2007 election. He's hoping to retain that seat in a runoff election Tuesday, but this time his campaign is a little bigger.
"[It went] from me and my wife to about 300 people," Hill says. "It's been mind-boggling to me that, for a school board race that is nonpartisan, the amounts of money that has been raised."
Those 300 volunteers, who manage phones banks and even a website, have raised a financial war chest of $42,000 to get him re-elected.
In fact, this year's election has been the most expensive school board campaign ever in Wake County. It's not just in North Carolina. All over the country, small-scale, local school board races are attracting big money and big media attention.
Hill's opponent, Republican Heather Losurdo, has raised almost $80,000. Much of that money is coming, not from local residents, but from private interest groups from outside the county and even outside the state.
Like Hill, Losurdo said she too was surprised when the money started coming in to both campaigns from outside interest groups and special interest groups that "don't have a skin in the game."
Thomas Goldsmith, who's covered the race for the Raleigh News & Observer, told weekends on All Things Considered guest host Laura Sullivan that what's at stake is the controversial issue of school assignments. The system dictates where lower-income students from downtown Raleigh should go to school. It was created to help failing schools by equalizing the student population between affluent and low-income students.
"The people in suburbs were increasingly angry about what they felt was the predilection of the board to give all of the good [assignments] to Old Raleigh," he says.
The school board is supposed to be nonpartisan, but Republican candidates swept the board in 2009. Now Democratic candidates want back in. This is one reason, Goldsmith says, that outside groups and donors from both parties have become involved. Even the local Republican and Democratic parties have donated money to candidates.
"The Republican Party, in particular in 2009, saw it as a vehicle to increase the party's reach in other elections up to and including the presidential election," he says. "So this year, the Democrats came back with lots of money."
The campaigns also adopted more of a 24/7 campaign style, Goldsmith says. They responded more quickly to opponent statements, initiated news stories and even brought "opposition research" to news organizations, often characteristics of larger campaigns.
Small, local elections have certainly changed in the past decade, he says.
"[The people involved] are ostensibly part of a scheme or plan to elevate national parties' influence in control in Wake County," Goldsmith says. "In many ways, so goes Wake County, so goes North Carolina."
And So Goes The Rest Of The Country
Just this year, there have been high stakes local-level elections in Colorado, Texas and New Jersey. In all of these races, there are important issues at stake like school vouchers, evolution and school assignment.
Those issues are making little elections very important, says William Howell, the Sidney Stein Professor in American politics at the University of Chicago.
"At the national level ... when you have these polarized parties, it's really hard to make headway on a particular issue," Howell told NPR's Sullivan. "So it's not crazy to think that if what you want to do is advance a particular issue you ought to push at the local level."
Those seemingly local issues, that also have national scope, then get more attention as the local debates grow louder, Howell says. He says that's a strategy now from organizations and interest groups that want to get an issue on the national stage.
"There's a logic to it," he says. "It isn't just that local politics is less polarized than national politics, it's that to make headway at the local level you don't [generally] need big money to do so."
But now, as seen in Wake County, there is big money being put into some local elections. Howell says, however, he doesn't think spending $50,000 or more is going to become standard practice in the future for small elections.
"There are 1,500 school board elections that occur around the country, and most of these continue to be low salient affairs where lawn signs and a collection of friends are going to get you elected," he says.