School board candidates in race for funds, too

Countywide-office run proves expensive, four vying for seats learn

April 27, 2004|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

The four candidates competing for two seats on the Howard County school board are preparing to step up their fund-raising efforts before the November election, trying to map out money-making methods that will provide the most buck for their shebang - be it a rally or formal soiree.

"The Board of Education isn't looked at as being an office you spend a lot of money on, and I don't know why that is. It affects everybody across the whole county," said hopeful Diane Mikulis, who is winning the fight for funds as of the last required filing date, Feb. 20, when she reported $5,722 in contributions.

Mary Kay Sigaty, who got the most votes in the March primary, is in second place, pulling in $3,045. She is followed by incumbent board member James P. O'Donnell, who reported $2,430, and first-time campaigner Frank Aquino, who collected $2,225.

"Running a countywide campaign is very expensive," said Courtney Watson, school board chairman, who spent more than $13,000 to win her seat in November 2002. "You can probably do it on a little less than that, but I wouldn't want to take that chance. It's going to be a competitive race."

None of that is news to the candidates, but they're still trying to determine how best to raise money when they are not comfortable asking for it.

"It's absolutely the hardest thing I have to do," said Sigaty, even though she has experience. In 2002, she raised more than $10,000 in an unsuccessful, but close, bid for County Council. Her competitor, Ken Ulman, shelled out more than 10 times that in his campaign - which had to reach only one-fifth of the county, unlike the race for school board. He beat Sigaty by 36 votes.

"Funding does make a difference because your goal is to get your message out and to be known by a broad segment of the population," Sigaty said. "All of the ways to do that [cost] money."

Before the primary, the candidates spent a combined $9,726, with O'Donnell the biggest spender. He laid out more than $5,000 on everything from buttons and signs ($2,594) to postage for a letter to his campaign manager ($3.85). Mikulis spent $2,521 - including $55 for the drill bits she used to install her signs. Sigaty spent $1,170 for signs, and Aquino spent $500 on pictures, postage and envelopes. Bills for his signs - more than $2,000 worth - came in after the February filing.

"You need signs. You can't get around signs. Signs seem to be ingrained in Maryland political culture," Aquino said. But a close second, the candidates agreed, is literature needed to pass out to voters. The candidates disagree on the merits of other attention-getters.

"That's the big question: Why do people vote the way they do? Is it the signs? Is it the literature? Is it events?" Mikulis said. "I think it's all of them, and it's very difficult to figure out where you get the most bang for your buck."

Thus far, none of the candidates - who beat out six others in the March primary - has ventured beyond letter solicitations, pulling in the largest contributions from family or close friends.

But their strategies may change as summer nears. Mikulis and Sigaty are considering events of some sort, and O'Donnell has not ruled that out. Aquino is holding his cards close to the vest, however.

"There are things under consideration, but nothing finalized," he said.

Recouping out-of-pocket expenses is another goal for all of the fund-raisers but Mikulis, who donated $500 outright to her campaign. Others designated their personal investments as loans. Sigaty lent herself $2,000, while Aquino put in $1,000.

O'Donnell put in $4,557 under his wife's name, which campaign laws say can be repaid if enough contributions are culled.

"I have to pay her back or she'll throw me out," O'Donnell said. His current board seat, to which he was appointed in January 2002, is one of the two up for grabs in the election.

"I've got a big problem in that I have always felt very uncomfortable about asking people for help of any kind," O'Donnell said, explaining his reluctance to ask for funding. "But, you know, I want to be a school board member for the next four years, so, as [a] friend said, I just have to get over it."

He is doing it little by little, taking in another contribution recently that came in a 44th wedding anniversary card. Mikulis has brought in another $135 or so in the last month, and Sigaty and Aquino have also seen a trickle of new funds. Still, there is a long way to go to reach Watson's $13,000 mark.

"In the summer we'll step it up," Sigaty said.

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