A group of Memphis business leaders and their spouses have financially fueled the campaigns of Shelby County Schools board candidates Chris Caldwell and Roshun Austin, according to financial documents submitted by both candidates in recent days.
Of the 24 donors Caldwell listed, 18 of them gave the exact same amount of money to Austin. For example on June 16 Charles Burkett, the president of First Tennessee, gave $1,000 to Caldwell and also gave $1,000 to Austin.
Of the $23,950 Caldwell raised and the $23,000 Austin raised, the same 18 donors contributed more than $19,000 to each candidate. They include mostly CEOs and presidents of Memphis-based companies, which are members of the Memphis Chamber of Commerce. The companies include local giants such as Fed Ex and AutoZone, as well as smaller companies such as Baker Donelson and Jordan Enterprises. The Chamber of Commerce’s JOBS Political Action Committee also donated $3,000 to both candidates after an interview process.
The Chamber of Commerce has played a larger role in local politics in recent years. It is currently under fire by police and firemen for the its endorsement of the city’s pension and health care reform plan.
The upcoming school board election is hotly contested in several districts, especially in Districts 1 and 9, where Austin and Caldwell are running. Shelby County Schools will face several major challenges under the new board, as they transition their focus away from merging two districts toward competing for students with six new municipal school districts, as well as charter schools and the Achievement School District.
Money raised for the campaign is used to pay for candidates’ political strategists and advertising campaigns. It also allows them to hire poll workers and purchase campaign signs. The limit for school board race donations is $1,500 for individuals and $7,400 for Political Action Committees.
The other school board candidates’ fundraising has apparently not kept up. None of them have raised more than $3,000 between April and June, according to the current financial disclosures listed on the Shelby County election commission’s website. Seven of the other candidates’ disclosures are currently not posted, so it’s unclear how much money they’ve raised.
Caldwell and Austin chalked up the extent of their shared donors to coincidence.
“In Memphis, although it’s a big city, it’s a small town,” said Austin. “The same people have interest in the same things.”
She said many of the shared donors are connected to the Hyde family. J.R. and Barbara Hyde each gave the maximum amount allowed for an individual, $1,500. “The Hydes have a very big interest in education,” Austin said.
Caldwell said that he wasn’t sure why there was so much overlap because his campaign manager, Brian Stephens, handles his finances.
“I wasn’t invited to whatever event happened to raise the money,” said Caldwell. “The people that were the ones that I contacted, they were the smaller donations.”
Caldwell said it’s possible that his and Austin’s shared funding base is connected to the fact that they’ve both hired Caissa Public Strategy, a political consulting firm that Stephens works for. But he said his donors will not influence his decisions as a school board member.
“Other than sending thank you notes, I’ve never had any conversation that would be the kind of thing that there were any kind of expectations for donations,” said Caldwell. “And I’ve voted my conscience every time.”
But the donations are essential to support his campaign. “I have ordered my yard signs, I have a phone bank, I’ll have poll workers, I’ll have mailings and possibly a robocall,” said Caldwell. “It’s mainly name recognition and trying to differentiate yourself and, in my case, trying to let people know how hard I worked and the kinds of things I’ve helped the board accomplish.”
One of the 18 donors, Daniel Richards — an accountant whose wife, a vice president for FedEx, also donated to the race — donated $1,000 to each candidate. He said he prefers to keep his motives private.
“My wife and I reviewed a bunch of candidates and we thought they would do a good job,” Richards said.
Read Roshun Austin’s disclosure form here:
Read Chris Caldwell’s disclosure form here:
Read the disclosure forms of the other candidates that have been released here: