By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
On Tuesday, April 12, Republican voters go to the polls in State School Board District 1 and District 7 to decide who the Republican Party wants on the state school board.
Very large sums of money are pouring into the campaigns of incumbents Matthew Brown and Jeffrey Newman: most of it from the powerful Business Council of Alabama (BCA) and the Alabama Farmer’s Federation.
Brown is also receiving paid advertising from the school choice advocacy group the Alabama Federation for Children.
Matthew Brown is running against retired principal Jackie Zeigler. Brown has never worked in education, held a political office before Gov. Bentley appointed him to the board and his children are not school age yet. Brown is best known for spearheading the “No” vote on higher school taxes in Baldwin County in 2015.
The Alabama Political Reporter looked closely at the Secretary of State’s campaign finance filings for Matthew Brown. He reported a single $17,000 contribution from PROGRESS PAC and a $9,000 payment to Birmingham based Red State Strategies on the April 8 report.
On the April 7 filing, Brown reported that PROGRESS PAC (the PAC arm of BCA) donated another $18,850 contribution to Brown. Brown also reported a $9,000 in-kind contribution from Gov. Riley’s, the Alabama Federation for Children. Brown reported a $7,500 payment to Victory Phones in Grand Rapids, Michigan presumably to flood Alabama Republican votes with get out the vote phone calls.
On April 6, Brown reported receiving a $19,400 contribution from the BCA’s PROGRESS PAC. Brown also reported that the Alabama Federation for Children spent $16,522.08 on advertising to elect Brown.
The Alabama Federation for Children is a lobbying group that promotes Scholarship Granting Organization (SGO) that gives scholarships to children who are zoned to failing Alabama public schools for them to attend a private school. SGOs and the option to opt out of a failing public school was created by the Alabama Accountability Act which was championed by Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston) in the 2013 legislative session. The bill began and passed both houses of the legislature as the School Flexibility Act which gave school systems the option to ask for flexibility from certain rigid state laws. In Sen. Marsh substituted that for the much longer and more complex Alabama Accountability Act in a conference committee. With the backing of Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard (R-Auburn) the substituted bill passed both house literally in the middle of the night.
As previously reported by the Alabama Political Reporter, the American Federation for Children was founded by Florida’s John F Kirtley who is a close friend as well as political and ideological ally of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (R). Kirtley is the Vice-chairman of Bob Riley’s Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund. Until recently, former ALGOP/Mike Hubbard political operative, former Sen. Del Marsh policy adviser, Ryan Cantrell was the Director of the Alabama Federation for Children. He is now employed by the American Federation for Children as their Regional Advocacy and Political Director.
Matthew Brown reported spending another $7,500 with Victory Phones of Grand Rapids, presumably for more phone calls. He also reported spending $6,500 with ADVictory LLC of Grand Rapids, Michigan.
On the April 5 report Matthew Brown reported that he had received another check from BCA’s PROGRESS PAC for $18,250. He also reported receiving a $10,000 check from FARM PAC, the Alabama Farmer’s Federation PAC. Why the farmers are using their resources in a GOP state school board race for a candidate who has never held public office before is an interesting question we can’t begin to answer. Brown reported writing a $17,934,88 to Red State Strategies of Birmingham. He also wrote two small checks to himself totaling $135.82.
On the April 1 report Matthew Brown reported that he had received a $16,500 check from PROGRESS PAC. He also reported receiving three $500 contributions from Columbia Southern University, Inc. of Orange Beach; William McNair of Point Clear; and Barry Booth of Spanish Fort. Brown’s campaign spent $10,000 with Victory Phones of Grand Rapids, Michigan; $4,000 with ADVictory LLC of Grand Rapids, Michigan; and $8104.80 with Vertical Strategies of Grand Rapids, Michigan.
According to their website, Vertical Strategies (Vertical Phones is a component) are a team of political consultants: Ethan Eilon, Jordan Gehrke, Emily Hoffman, Corinne Clark, Robert Scoggins, Courtney Green, Andrew Kim, and Joe Craig.
US Senator Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska), Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker as three of the clients they have consulted for in the past before coming together as a team. They have offices in Grand Rapids, Michigan and Washington DC.
The campaign also reported two checks to Matthew Brown totaling $198.93, as well as two checks to the post office totaling $692.45, and a check to Wal-Mart for $41.35.
On the report from March 25 Matthew Brown reports just one $50 contribution from Susan McConnell and a $12,048.19 payment to ADVictory LLC of Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Jackie Zeigler’s campaign said in a statement, “As in the primary, Brown is depending on Alabama political action committees and out-of-state billionaires to finance his campaign. He shows only raising $2,550 from individuals for the runoff. The Business Council of Alabama has contributed $90,000, the Alabama Farmers Federation gave $10,450 in contributions and in-kind contributions and the Alabama Federation for Children has donated $24,522 in in-kind support. (Info on file with Secretary of State shows that the money from AFC is actually part of a $50,000 donation from WalMart’s Alice Walton of Arkansas.) BCA contributed $54,000 to Brown’s primary campaign. So they now show total contributions to Brown of $144,000. A review of records going back to 2010 show that this is the most BCA has ever spent on a state school board election.” Zeigler had the most votes in the Alabama Republican Primary but failed to get the 50 percent plus one needed to win the GOP nomination outright.
Both District 1 and District 7 have GOP Primary runoff elections on Tuesday, April 12.
In District 7, BCA’s PROGRESS PAC donated $17,745 to incumbent State School Board Member Jeffrey Newman (R) on April 7. PROGRESS PAC also wrote a $15,550 check to Newman on April 5 and another $16,755 on April 4. The Alabama Farmer’s Federation PAC wrote a $10,000 check to Newman on April 4. Newman’s campaign is spending most of their money with Greystone Public Affairs in Hoover. The Greystone group received a $38,200 check on April 5 and a $22,400 check on April 8.
Newman’s opponent is Jim Bonner who worked for 30 years as a classroom teacher. He has a Master’s Degree from the University of North Alabama and a bachelor’s degree from Athens State University. Bonner almost won the office outright in the GOP Primary.
Jeff Newman has more than three decades of experience in education, Newman most recently retired as superintendent of education of the Lamar County School System. Prior to his service as superintendent, he served as an administrator of federal programs, a career technical principal and director, a high school assistant principal, and an agribusiness teacher.
Polls open at 7:00 am on Tuesday and close at 7:00 pm. Remember to bring a valid picture ID to the polls.
The Alabama Political Reporter’s Bill Britt contributed to this report.