Alabama pitched a party on Tuesday, April 12–but not many folks bothered to attend.
We’re speaking about the two runoff elections for State Board of Education seats in District One in south Alabama and in District Seven in northwest Alabama. In the March 1 presidential primary, there were 91,979 votes cast for school board in northwest Alabama, but only 11,067 April 12. At the other end of the state, there were 92,751 votes on March 1 and only 16,617 in the runoff.
This meant the dynamics of these two elections were dramatically different. Whereas the first was influenced largely by media and name ID, the second was all about turnout, especially in the education community.
There were incumbents in both races. Matt Brown in District One and Jeff Newman in District seven. Both came in second on March 1. However, while Newman was a lifelong educator and former Lamar County superintendent, Brown was appointed to his seat last summer by the governor and had zero background in public education.
When the votes were counted Tuesday night, long time Mobile educator Jackie Zeigler defeated Brown handily in District One and Newman likewise won easily in District Seven, overcoming challenger Jim Bonner from Franklin County. Both Zeigler and Newman got 62 percent of the vote.
Zeigler still must face Democrat Ron Davis this fall, while Newman has no general election opponent. Brown will remain on the SBOE until January.
I have plotted, planned and dissected political races for 45 years. It is no different than a coach putting together a game plan for Friday night. Just as each opponent on the gridiron is different, so is each campaign.
One of the givens going into the runoff was an extremely light voter turnout because there were no other races on the ballot. In the seven counties of District One the only other Republican race was a county commission race in Covington County. This situation was dramatically borne out in Escambia County that went from 3,773 votes on March 1 to 757 on April 12. Butler county dropped from 2,067 to 261 and Crenshaw County fell from 1,777 to 222.
Since the only constituency with any interest at all in going to vote on April 12 was the education community, this meant whoever could best connect to school folks had a decided advantage. This was incumbent Newman in District Seven who has worked with superintendents and educators for years in his region. And numbers show it was Zeigler in District One. (A Baldwin County educator called me when she left her polling place. Said the only two people waiting to vote were a principal and the principal’s mother.)
Even though Brown was the incumbent he never really had the trust or support of educators, especially in his home county of Baldwin. Brown lead the effort to defeat a countywide school tax vote on March 31, 2015, and though he was successful, he was never forgiven by educators. And in an election where educators made up a high number of voters, this was deadly. Baldwin County voted more people on April 12 than any other county (7,172), but Zeigler got 58 percent of the vote (4,154). The Baldwin County school system has 3,000 employees.
Of course, not all of them voted, nor did all who did vote for Zeigler, but it is safe to say that she got a much higher percent of these folks than did Brown. Same is true for Mobile, where Zeigler spent many years as a principal. This system is nearly twice as large as Baldwin and Zeigler got 68 percent of the 5,672 votes cast.
Brown actually won Butler, Conecuh, Crenshaw and Escambia counties. But his margin was only 231 votes which was more than offset by Covington County where he lost by 849 votes. So she won the five rural counties by 618 and piled up an additional 3,200 in Mobile and Baldwin.
Conventional wisdom is that he who has the most money usually wins. But not always. Particularly when you are confronted with the turnout issue Brown and Zeigler faced.
Brown outspent Zeigler about 17-1. Records show he had a minimum of $125,000 for the runoff, $90,000 of which came from the Business Council of Alabama. But he mistakenly misspent a major portion of it running the same type race he ran March 1. He spent heavily on radio and mail pieces, instead of an intense get out the vote effort. And in the end, his spending became an issue as voters began wondering why someone like BCA was investing so heavily on a little state school board race.
Aside from the candidates who lost, one must consider that BCA also lost. They supported three candidates in all and spent more than $325,000 in doing so. Two of them lost and their only winner was the candidate they gave the least amount of money to.