CMS school board race on statewide radar thanks to Unity slate

This article originally appeared in WFAE reporter Ann Doss Helms’ weekly education newsletter. To get the latest school news in your inbox first, sign up for our email newsletters here.

It’s unclear how many Mecklenburg County voters are paying attention to the nonpartisan Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board election coming up on Nov. 7. But some state politicos — including a left-wing advocacy group and a Republican consultant known for bare-knuckles politics — are tuning in because of the CMS Unity slate.

Annette Albright, Claire Covington and Michael Johnson Jr. — two unaffiliated voters and a registered Democrat — say they decided to run together in hopes of standing out on a 14-person ballot and claiming the three at-large seats. Their platform includes such things as using a classical model to improve achievement, raising teacher pay, cutting bureaucracy, restoring discipline and instilling morals in education.

Blair Reeves of the Carrboro-based Carolina Forward says he sees them as Republicans trying to misrepresent themselves in a blue county.

Carolina Forward, created in 2020, describes itself as a nonpartisan center-left advocacy and research group. It opposes what it calls the “radical right-wing leadership” of the Republican supermajority in the General Assembly and raised money for a slate of Democrats running for legislative seats last year. Its leadership team includes Chaz Beasley, a former Democratic state representative from Charlotte, and Jordan Lopez of Charlotte.

Reeves says he started paying attention to CMS board races last year, when a Charlotte-based group called Success4CMS endorsed candidates and bought billboards. (Here’s what I wrote about that group in December.) Larry Shaheen, a Charlotte Republican political consultant, was the spokesperson; the group is not active in this year’s campaign and Shaheen says he’s no longer employed by the group.

Also in the 2022 election, Mecklenburg County’s Tricia Cotham was elected state representative as a Democrat. She switched parties three months after taking office, giving Republicans a veto-proof majority. After The New York Times reported that Republicans had urged her to run in the first place, Democrats were wary of possible pretenders.

Link to GOP ‘oppo man’?

Earlier this month, Reeves posted a video calling the Unity trio Trojan horse Republicans, based on the fact that all three are using a Raleigh accounting firm run by a Republican to handle their campaign finances. Albright and Johnson say they simply chose the firm for its expertise. (Read more about that here.) The Mecklenburg Republican Party denied any connection with the Unity slate and asked the state Board of Elections to investigate the Carolina Forward’s “false and misleading claims.”

Last week Reeves found another paper trail leading to a Republican doorstep: Republican political consultant Charles Hellwig had filed a request for information about doing political ads on Charlotte-area radio stations for Johnson, Albright and Covington, who were listed as “Republican” twice on that form. The form, which is on file with the FCC, said the organization making the request was Carolina Champions, a 501(c)(4) organization created to promote economic growth.

Hellwig was profiled by The Assembly in August with the headline “Oppo Man.” The article by Bryan Anderson chronicled Hellwig’s emergence as a Republican who can dig up the dirt on opponents and quoted Hellwig as calling himself “a right-wing nut that wants to help the most conservative candidate that can win.”

Hellwig told me he did file the form when he was requesting rates but never bought advertising for the CMS candidates and was never hired by Carolina Champions, even though he listed that organization on the form. “What you saw were just inquires I made in a bit of a fishing expedition,” he emailed, adding that he pitched Carolina Champions on hiring him to do the ads but was turned down. He described Champions as a nonpartisan group that has supported Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated candidates “and a lot of good causes over the years, and a non-extremist ‘unity slate’ pitching reform in CMS would seem to be a natural fit.”

The FCC files for Albright and Johnson also contain individual “Candidate Request for Broadcast Time or Information” sheets that list Hellwig as “treasurer of candidate’s authorized committee” (there’s no comparable form in Covington’s file). Other forms in all three candidates’ files list Joe Patton as treasurer, which matches what they filed in campaign finance reports.

Hellwig said he learned about those forms when I emailed him copies. “I am not a treasurer and I am not part of any candidate committees down there – the radio station made a typo/mistake and have assured me they would correct the public file immediately,” he said. On Friday afternoon amended rate-request forms went into Johnson’s and Albright’s files that listed the treasurer as “unknown.”

Playing the same games

When I asked Albright about this Thursday, she said she wasn’t sure who Hellwig was and he’s definitely not her campaign treasurer. She said she couldn’t rule out the possibility that he’d talked to Patton, the Unity group’s actual treasurer, because it’s Patton’s job to handle the money.

“Anybody who feels that I would be good for Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools and students, who has decided to donate to my campaign in any manner, I appreciate it,” she said. “It will be accepted and it will be appreciated. Because this is a nonpartisan race.”

And, Albright adds, she still hasn’t seen a surge of big money from anyone.

Albright says she was a Democrat but switched to unaffiliated after her first run for school board in 2017. “That was my first dip into politics,” she said, “and finding out that both sides play the same games, that’s why I decided that I would go unaffiliated.”

Indeed, that’s where the Cotham comparison breaks down. Cotham beat three other Democrats in a primary, then won a race that would have been almost impossible to take if she were a Republican. Cotham joined an intensely partisan body and switched sides. Albright has been active in CMS politics for years, and anyone who’s been around her knows that she doesn’t fit neatly into any party’s mold. She’s been unaffiliated for six years, and all 14 candidates will be on a nonpartisan ballot that contains only their names.

If nothing else, the controversy has ensured that the Unity slate is getting attention, even without a big advertising budget. Visibility could be a plus, and Albright speculated that if Republicans were donating, “it could be that since people are being accused, maybe they decided, ‘Hey, since we’re being accused of funding them, why not?’ ” But Albright says she’s getting a stream of messages calling her a Tricia Cotham clone and other less printable epithets, “and it’s getting a little nerve-wracking.”

Covington, who had not responded to my previous requests to talk about her campaign, emailed Sunday to say Albright had told her about my queries and “neither the Unity Slate nor any of its individual members are being funded, controlled, or endorsed by the Meck GOP.” Covington, an attorney, also added that “I’d like to let you know that, should you choose to proceed with the publication of any false information, I will consider it to be defamation actionable under North Carolina law.”

Pointing fingers and taking sides

Albright says Carolina Forward is doing exactly what it’s accusing Republicans of doing: Trying to interfere in the CMS election. She calls the group’s focus on the Unity slate “a witch hunt.”

Reeves says the candidates may not be actively working with Republicans, but he believes Hellwig and the local Republican Party are trying to influence the race. “Their goal here is mostly to throw sand in the gears,” he said.

In a race where it can be hard to sort out candidates based on issues — everyone wants stronger academic achievement, an end to racial disparities, safer schools and better conditions for teachers — some folks are turning to associations to sort out the good guys and bad guys: First-time candidate Liz Monterrey is supported by current board member Jennifer De La Jara and former board member Carol Sawyer. Monty Witherspoon, who’s making his third run for the board, was a member of the controversial African American Faith Alliance when he ran last year, but has distanced himself from it this year. Bill Fountain was unaffiliated when he ran for school board last year but is now registered as a Republican. Depending on how you feel about the players involved, any one of those things can be a plus or minus.

Just a reminder: Early voting is in full swing, and Election Day is next Tuesday. If you’re still trying to choose candidates, our Voter Guide is here and a piece with thumbnail sketches of all 14 candidates, including those who didn’t respond to our questionnaire, is here. If you prefer podcasts, I joined The Charlotte Ledger’s Tony Mecia and Sucharita Kodali for a 10-minute take on the school board race last week.

Get Insightful, Cutting-Edge Content Daily - Join "The Neo Jim Crow" Newsletter!

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Get Insightful, Cutting-Edge, Black Content Daily - Join "The Neo Jim Crow" Newsletter!

We don’t spam! Read our [link]privacy policy[/link] for more info.

Get Insightful, Cutting-Edge, Black Content Daily - Join "The Neo Jim Crow" Newsletter!

We don’t spam! Read our [link]privacy policy[/link] for more info.

This post was originally published on this site