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National focus on DPS race

A national media blitz by Denver school board candidate Emily Sirota is shaking up the race in southeast Denver but it’s unclear whether it will help her win.

“While it might have some effect, I don’t know if it’s going to touch enough people in southeast Denver,” said Denver pollster and political analyst Floyd Ciruli. “It lacks a certain kind of believability.”

Sirota, who has appeared on national television and radio shows in the past week, is running against Anne Rowe for the seat being vacated by Bruce Hoyt, who is term-limited.

Their race had garnered little media attention – locally or nationally – before Sirota’s former boss, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, appeared at an Oct. 13 Denver fundraiser for her. She lived in Montana prior to moving to Denver in June 2007.

A week later, Sirota’s husband, author and radio talk show host David Sirota, who worked on an earlier Schweitzer campaign, wrote a column for Salon.com titled “W. enters my wife’s school board race.”

In that piece, Sirota used a Denver visit three days earlier by former President George W. Bush to lament the course of his wife’s race, and the degree to which he saw it being influenced by “unfathomable sums of money” being poured into it.

Sirota wrote the Bush visit was “clearly designed to influence the education debate dominating the upcoming school board election,” but offered nothing further linking Bush to his wife’s race or to the DPS battles in general.

The same day, columnist John Nichols blogged about Sirota’s race for the Nation.com in a piece labeled “Big money, big media, secret agendas: Welcome to America’s wildest school board race.”

Nichols, who wrote that he knew and respected David Sirota, echoed many of Sirota’s views about the race, casting the southeast Denver contest as being affected by “all the pathologies of national politics.”

“At this point, I’m confused. Is she running for the Denver school board or the national school board?” asked former Colorado Speaker of the House Terrance Carroll, a Rowe supporter.

“Her husband, David Sirota, is trying to call in every chip he has, from every progressive group and every progressive media outlet that will listen to him.”

On MSNBC: “Wildest and weirdest race of 2011”

The national media blitz continued with Emily Sirota’s appearance Monday night on MSNBC’s “The Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell,” in which the host cast the Rowe-Sirota battle as “the wildest and weirdest race of 2011” and a “partisan proxy” in the war of “Democrats and Republicans going on in this country.”

Money in Rowe-Sirota race

  • Totals raised as of first filing period ending Oct. 6: Rowe – $176,320, Sirota – $57,962.26
  • Rowe’s top contributors: Dan Ritchie, CEO of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, $26,000; Henry Gordon, president of Strata Capital in Englewood, $25,000; Michael T. Fries, CEO of Liberty Media, $20,000; more than 250 total donors
  • Sirota’s top contributors: Denver Classroom Teachers Association, small donor committee, $22,500; Leo Hindery, managing partner of InterMedia, New York, $5,000; Denver school board member Jeannie Kaplan, $2,352; more than 200 donors total
  • Top dollars raised for DPS school board races: Current – $213,789 for at-large citywide candidate Happy Haynes; Past – At-large candidate Mary Seawell raised a total of $240,605 in 2009

Both Rowe and Sirota are registered Democrats.

Emily Sirota’s national media tour continued Wednesday, when she took to the airwaves to talk with progressive radio host Thom Hartmann. He said his attention was drawn to the race by a tape of a Denver television report on the Rowe/Sirota battle that “my colleague and friend David Sirota sent to me.”

The radio show underscored the same themes that Sirota’s supporters have promoted. Hartmann alluded to Rowe’s receipt of a “$10,000 check from the chair of the Colorado GOP.”

Bruce Benson, who donated $10,000 to Rowe, is a former chair of the state Republican Party though he has not held the title since 2003. Benson has been president of the University of Colorado since 2008.

Immediately following Sirota on the radio show was Nichols, who couched the Sirota-Rowe battle in the larger context of the ongoing national debate over vouchers, charters and the privatization of public schools. But before Hartmann and Nichols got there, Nichols touched on the Bush visit.

Nichols noted that Bush had met with Denver Mayor Michael Hancock who, while being a Democrat, has “endorsed the conservatives” in the DPS races.

In addition to endorsing Rowe, Hancock has endorsed Jennifer Draper Carson in northwest Denver and Happy Haynes for the at-large seat. Like Rowe, Draper Carson and Haynes are registered Democrats.

“Outrageous” to suggest candidates are Republican

Ciruli, the Denver political analyst, said “I can’t even imagine” anyone suggesting that the southeast Denver race was the “wildest” in America. But he has no issue with Sirota and her husband taking her campaign to the national stage.

“You cannot get this kind of national media from these liberal – or even conservative – outlets, without having very, very good contacts and very, very good knowledge of how the system works and good, direct contacts based on previous work and friendship that’s professional,” he said. “You might pay for it, but it also helps if you’re married to it.”

As long as the race was framed just in terms of pro-reform versus anti-reform or pro-union versus anti-union, Ciruli believes, the odds were stacked against Sirota.

“It was totally logical to try to reach out and look for somebody who’s going to reframe it as the little person versus the big money people, the Democrats versus the Republicans, and see if it has a spillover effect and shakes things up a bit,” he said.

He doubts, however, that the media campaign will show any impact when the ballots are counted Tuesday night.

“I am going to be surprised” if it works, Ciruli said, “primarily because that national media goes out to a relatively liberal, small elite.”

Kevin Paquette, a spokesman for the Sirota campaign, declined to comment on his candidate’s media strategy. “Of course I am not going to comment on our press strategy,” he wrote in an email.

Current DPS board member Jeannie Kaplan, a Sirota supporter, also declined to discuss Sirota’s media strategy though Kaplan said she is “amazed at how hard she’s worked” on her campaign.

Rowe’s campaign staff is not commenting – yet. John Britz, a Denver political consultant advising Rowe, said he’s happy to talk “on Election Night.”

But the other board candidates seen as politically aligned with Rowe – Sirota told MSNBC host O’Donnell that her opponent, Draper Carson and Haynes were a “slate” – don’t like what they hear.

O’Donnell noted a common Republican strategy is to play “a long game” by building up candidates at the local level and developing them for eventual runs at higher office. He asked Sirota on air if she thought “that’s what’s going on here.” Sirota answered, “Well, I suspect there probably is a little bit of that going on.”

“It’s outrageous,” said Peter Schottenfels, Haynes’ campaign manager. “Happy is a longtime Democratic activist. She introduced the First Lady when she was here last year.”