El Dorado County election officials worked late on Thanksgiving eve to finish counting an estimated 2,300 provisional ballots that remained after the Nov. 6 election, including 1,800 cast by residents of the El Dorado Union High School District.
The Official Final Report, posted at approximately 6 p.m. Wednesday night, was good news for challenger Dave Del Rio, who defeated longtime incumbent Mary Muse.
The high school board race was a dead heat on election night, with Del Rio clinging to a paper-thin 16-vote lead over Muse for the second of two contested board seats.
The final tally showed him up by 182 votes, denying Muse a fifth term on the board.
Lori Veerkamp finished on top with 34,985 votes, locking in her third term on the board.
Del Rio finished with 26,603 votes, less than one-quarter percent more than Muse’s 26,421 votes.
Muse is a rare Democrat in a Republican-dominated El Dorado County electorate, but was widely known locally and enjoyed a strong reputation.
Del Rio is a popular girls basketball coach, and was endorsed by the Tea Party Patriots of El Dorado Hills.
But the bottom line was the bottom line: $90,400 in campaign donations, an amount that election watchers called unprecedented in past school board races.
Del Rio’s campaign received $25,000 each from Serrano Associates and two large home builders with active El Dorado Hills projects, Standard Pacific Corp. and Greenbriar Home Communities, plus $5,000 from G3 Enterprises (Gallo).
Del Rio’s cash contributions totaled $83,000. Campaign contribution filings also show non-monetary contributions from Serrano of $7,400 for polling data.
Comparable filings for Muse reveal a self-funded campaign that spent just over $5,000 with no mailings.
The Del Rio campaign used its war chest on robo-calls and multiple last-minute mail pieces. He enjoyed a strong election-day showing, as reflected by provisional ballot results that boosted his lead.
A ballot is flagged as provisional when the voter appears at a polling place to vote and is either not on the roster or records indicate that a mail ballot was sent to the voter’s home. Each provisional ballot must be validated before it can be counted.
Families who live in newly constructed Serrano neighborhoods backed Del Rio out of frustration with school boundaries and inflexible transfer policies. A group led by Catie Phemester has accused the board of stonewalling their efforts to allow their children to attend Oak Ridge High School with their peers.
Ironically, the board recently agreed to soften the transfer policies to address the concerns of the group, but not before they had organized and supported the successful candidacies of Todd White and Kevin Brown in 2010, then Del Rio in 2012.
Campaign finance reports indicate that Serrano backed their efforts with $2,500 donations to both White and Brown in 2010, then came out big for Del Rio, the potential swing vote on a divided board.
Serrano Government Affairs Director Kirk Bone watched the results of the race closely from home on Wednesday night, and didn’t hesitate to explain why Serrano got involved in the current race.
“We’ve been asking them (the EDUHSD board) for a boundary adjustment for a while, but they didn’t see it that way,” he said. “So we decided to back some different people in hopes of a more favorable reading from the board.”
Less than an hour later the results were posted. “We’re thrilled for the families of the El Dorado Union High School District,” he said. “Dave Del Rio will provide the strong and dedicated school board leadership those families deserve.”
Del Rio was in a gymnasium when the results were posted. He spoke over the din of squeaky shoes on hardwood, clattering bleachers and crowd buzz. He refused to interpret his victory as a referendum on the boundary issue, attributing it instead to voters wanting new blood on the board. He justified the big spending as a necessary vehicle to expose him and his message to voters in a race against a widely known incumbent who’d served since 1995.
“The mail pieces we did let people see something in me that they weren’t getting in the current board,” he said.
He likewise rejected the depiction of his new board as divided. “I would much rather see it as a working board,” he said. “I have no way of knowing how Lori Veerkamp and Tim Cary will vote, or Kevin Brown or Todd White for that matter.”
Del Rio scoffed at thus-far quiet allegations that Serrano has bought a school board. “People can say whatever they want … I know what I’m here for, and that’s the kids,” he said.
He views the students as his constituents, not any campaign contributors or fellow board members. “I’ll always look at what’s best for the kids we serve,” he said.
He emphasized that he represents all the students in the district, not just those in El Dorado Hills whose parents got him elected, or those at Union Mine where he coaches.
“The people who know my history, who know what I’ve done in this community, understand that my agenda is the kids, and that’s the only agenda I have,” he said. “I told those who backed me that we may disagree on things, and they have to live with my choices.”
“All I promised anyone is that I’d be the best candidate to represent their children,” he continued. “That’s my first priority … always.”
Despite being just 16 votes behind at the time, Muse began her concession speech during a brief appearance at the Nov. 13 board meeting, accurately predicting, “This will probably be my last meeting here.” She delivered a rambling and bittersweet farewell, thanking her fellow trustees, the administration and the teachers for “17 phenomenal years.”
Without mentioning him by name, she said she had “a real issue” with Del Rio’s campaign, and wondered aloud “why a group of about three companies has spent close to $100,000 on a school board election,” and hoped the outcome would become “something observed by the community.”
She talked about the support of her family, including the extended family she’d be surrounded by when the final results were posted Wednesday night, as the Muse clan, recently honored by the Boston Irish Reporter, gathered at their gravely ill father’s bedside.
“I leave here knowing how much has happened during the time I have served on this board,” she said. “The excellence we have offered our students doesn’t just happen. It’s been a collaborative approach between the board and the administration and our teachers.”
Asked on election night if she thought the race had become partisan, Muse said “Don’t be naïve. Some things are exactly as they seem.”
Muse promised to remain active in the community and predicting she’d redefine her public service role.