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New faces on the school board defend endorsements

They will be the two new faces on the District 833 School Board come January.

David Kemper and Laurie Johnson, both of Woodbury, shared their excitement upon viewing the results of the election that came in around 10 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 3.

"It was a huge, huge surprise," said Kemper, who finished with the most votes (1,614) in a field of 10 candidates running for four open seats on the board. "I thought 'If I finish in the top six; great' -- but this is more than I could ever have imagined."

Johnson, whose third-place finish (1,453) earned her a seat on the school board, said she too was surprised to see her name among the top four, even though she had spent a few long weekends in a row door knocking and distributing her brochures to potential voters in the district.

"As long as there was some light and it wasn't sleeting, I was out there," said Johnson, a mother of three boys, one a senior at Woodbury High School.

Leading up to election day, Kemper, a father of three, put up a few lawn signs, but said his campaign was mainly a word-of-mouth effort centered on contacts he has in the district through his children's activities at their respective schools.

"We know a lot of people in the community because we're so involved in the community," Kemper said. "They knew who I was and what I stood for as a responsible and hardworking parent involved in our kids' lives."

Kemper and Johnson also sought out and received endorsements from the Republican Party of Minnesota, along with candidate Edward Nowak, who missed out on obtaining the fourth open school board seat by 35 votes to incumbent Marsha Adou.

To endorse or not to endorse

The state GOP's endorsement of Kemper, Johnson and Nowak amounted to a delivery of flyers to area doorsteps touting the party's support and the mailing of literature backing the candidates just days before the election.

The political party endorsement is seen by many as an unprecedented occurrence in the District 833 School Board race, and drew ire from some candidates leading up to election day, one of them incumbent Tracy Brunnette, who placed second in the vote totals to earn re-election to the board.

"Personally, I do not believe the school board should be a partisan position," said Brunnette, who added she would decline any offer to be endorsed by a political party. "We have to work with all of our legislators to advocate for education, and I think it is best to remain non-partisan."

Bill Pulkrabek, a Washington County commissioner active in the local Republican Party and involved in the endorsements, said the three candidates "sought out the endorsement."

"They're basically looking for help, some assistance on the campaign," Pulkrabek said the day before the election. "That's the main benefit of being endorsed."

Johnson said she sought out the Republican endorsement after she was approached by a friend who asked if she was interested in the opportunity. She said the endorsement provided her an opportunity for better name recognition in a race that traditionally doesn't get a lot of public attention.

When Johnson discovered she was not endorsed by the local teachers union, she then considered the Republican endorsement as one that could send a message to voters who were interested in supporting a candidate with a fiscally conservative philosophy.

"My name wasn't (on the teachers union endorsement list) and that was the reality," she said. "I was making my viewpoints very clear and (the teacher's union endorsements) reinforced my view that it is very difficult to get your message out as a conservative."

Kemper, the only candidate to be endorsed by the local teachers union and the Republican Party, said he sought out the Republican endorsement because he was looking for any kind of help he could in getting his name out to voters.

"I just wish it wouldn't have been such an issue," Kemper said.

"My hands aren't going to be tied by the GOP -- I'm very independent," he said. "I am going to vote on the issues and what's going to be best for our kids -- I just want to work for parents and with parents."

Party endorsements in other districts

The Minnesota Republican Party endorsed candidates in four school districts in the run-up to last week's election.

Just one of the other six GOP-endorsed school board hopefuls actually won. It had backed candidates in St. Paul, West. St. Paul and Inver Grove Heights and District 833.

The state DFL Party only endorsed candidates in St. Paul. Those party-backed candidates won in the Democratic stronghold.

District 833 school board candidate Alberder Gillespie, who placed sixth in the election and is the associate chair for the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Senate District 56 committee, said she chose not to seek out an official endorsement from the DFL because she said she fears political party support -- and the financial assistance that can come with it -- could limit who is able to successfully campaign for the school board.

Local Republican officials view it differently.

Joe Salmon, chair for Senate District 56 Republicans, said he saw the recent endorsements as helpful for people to understand where the candidates stand on important issues concerning the school district.

"Things have changed a bit, and I would expect that the next time there is a school board election (the DFL) may do the same thing," said Salmon, a Woodbury resident. "I think we owe it to the voting public to give them a better idea of where candidates stand. Maybe we can even increase the interest in voting for the races if they do know more about these candidates."

Changing dynamics of the board?

Just how this new wrinkle in school board elections will affect the dynamics of the board itself remains to be seen. Current school board member Jim Gelbmann, who has been open about his ties to the DFL, has never sought political party endorsement in his campaigns for school board.

Gelbmann said he was surprised to see party politics playing into the school board race, and he hopes it doesn't become a trend.

"Everyone knows that I'm a Democrat, but I've always felt that you don't run as a Democrat when you run for the school board, nor would I accept party endorsement," he said. "Let's hope that the partisanship in the election of board members doesn't translate into partisanship in board meetings."

That said, Gelbmann said he doesn't think Johnson and Kemper will be a partisan influence on the board, and he said he called them to congratulate them on their wins.

He said he's hopeful that the endorsements in this election were an anomaly, and that when he runs again in 2011, there isn't party involvement.

"I don't know if that's wishful thinking or reality," he said. Whether or not he is running against endorsed opponents, it won't change his campaign strategy, he said.

District 833 School Board Chair Ron Kath, who received the GOP endorsement in his 2006 state Senate bid, said he hasn't ever sought out a party endorsement for a school board campaign, but he doesn't see any problem with it.

"I don't think it's much of an issue, to me it's freedom of speech and how people structure their candidacy," he said. "I don't know what everybody is getting all excited about."

Kath said he has sought out the support of booster clubs and organizations in past campaigns. He said since the school board seats are non-partisan with no party affiliation on the ballots, his strategy hasn't been to seek party endorsement. And while he sees no problem with parties being involved in the campaign, he thinks it's important that party politics are dropped while the school board's in action.

"Once somebody gets elected, whether you're Democrat, Republican or independent, the critical part is when you sit on a school board you're nonpartisan," he said. "At that point, it's about representing all the kids in the district."

Johnson said she strongly believes the GOP endorsement of her candidacy will not have impact on her decisions as a school board member.

"Like many people today, I do not want to be defined by a party," Johnson said. "I have my values, and they belong to me."

- Patricia Drey Busse, Amber Kispert, Judy Spooner and Jon Avise contributed to this story.