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School Board Stunner

How challenger Kim Gray upset the incumbent in a campaign that just might reinvent local politics.



You can't please all of the people all of the time, but on Election Day it's important for the incumbent to have pleased at least half the people who are voting.

Judging by the vote totals, Richmond School Board Vice-Chairwoman Lisa Dawson apparently pleased barely a third of her constituents. They handed the 2nd District seat to novice challenger Kim Gray in perhaps one of the most stunning upsets of the local election.

“The stars aligned for me,” says Gray, who had never run for elected office. If by stars Gray means Obama, she's likely on target.

 “Obama's election, it's going to make it easier for people at the local level to say ‘Look we can make it happen,’” says local pundit and former Richmond mayoral candidate Paul Goldman, who sees Gray's win as partly coattails, and partly voters expressing dissatisfaction with the School Board's status quo. “[Obama's] approach, his statements, his beliefs, that we've got to change things, that we've got to be positive. … If they can do it in Washington, we can do it here.”

Gray may well be part of big changes on Richmond's School Board. Of nine members, five will be new — either through attrition or through defeat. Four of those five new members are black, adding to the two remaining black members to create a board far more reflective of the school district's racial makeup. The board's previous leadership — Dawson and Chairman George Braxton — will be gone come January when the board is seated.

Gray's campaign message benefited from effectively selling herself to voters as a bridge between Richmond communities, Goldman says. Gray is of mixed racial heritage and lives in Jackson Ward, across Broad Street from the 2nd District's dominant Fan District voting block.

Most Fan precincts picked Gray by comfortable margins, but the biggest margins came from low-income residents in Gilpin Court and students at Virginia Commonwealth University, who came out in droves for Gray, in some cases handing her more than 70 percent of the vote in their precincts.

In Precinct No. 213 at George Washington Carver Elementary School, where about a thousand people were registered to vote before this year's election cycle, the rolls had swelled to about 3,500 largely a result of Obama's campus efforts. Most of these new voters were VCU students, according to poll workers.

Part of that energy from typically dormant voter groups was the Obama effect, members of Gray's tight-knit campaign team agree. But few local candidates benefited so clearly from that national ticket. Gray won all 10 district precincts.

 “You do not ever blow out an incumbent who's already won two elections under her belt, where she has a lot of friends in the district. … with a newcomer who was pretty much entirely backed by college students,” says Donald Moss, a VCU political science major, who enlisted about a dozen college friends to canvass for Gray three or four times a week.

“These were all young, white kids who want to turn our city around,” Gray says. “They were up at 5 a.m. on Election Day and they were out there until the polls closed. It was like a microcosm of the organization that the Obama campaign had.”

And then there was Gilpin Court. Gray says neighborhood organizer Jackie Turner contacted her to volunteer. And soon Gray was receiving frequent calls asking for campaign signs.

Gray says after work some days, she began taking a detour to drive through the public housing project to see her signs. “I cried,” she says. “That said that people are engaged now more than they ever have been.”

There were also a surprising number of Fan residents who approached Gray after she announced her run, she says. Many were friends and neighbors of Dawson's, Gray says, but told her they wanted change.

Even at Tabernacle Baptist Church, a polling station on Grove Avenue in the heart of the Fan assumed to be Dawson's, Gray took the vote by 5 percent.

“We flipped the numbers,” says Gray, whose campaign manager, Curtis Brown, guessed Dawson would take 60 percent of the vote in her strongest precincts.

Dawson did not return calls for comment, but it seems likely she didn't see defeat coming, Goldman says. Dawson had faced re-election before, Goldman says, but never against strong opposition. And the presumptive nod from her colleagues to take the chairman's seat in January may have given her a false sense of security.

Still, Dawson was better financed, and her support — both financial and moral — included heavy hitters such as Mark Emblidge, chairman of the Virginia Board of Education; Virginia First Lady Anne Holton and — with an uncommon endorsement — former governor and now Sen.-elect Mark Warner.

Oddly enough, Warner endorsed Gray just a week before announcing Dawson was pretty good, too.
All of that was bound to mean little in this race, Goldman says.

“I think if you look at it,” he says, “Braxton didn't run and [Dawson] didn't win and Pantele is out on City Council and Mayor Wilder realized he didn't have a chance to win.” He postulates that voters were fed up with politics as usual: “Voters got it. We wanted change.” S


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