Nov. 16 2011 12:00 AM

Rachel Lewis breaks out of the pack to claim a seat on the Lansing Board of Education


While two winners in last week’s Board
of Education election were the favorites, the third surprised many —
including the candidate herself.

Rachel Lewis, 23, the youngest in a
field of nine Board of Education candidates, clinched the third open
seat in last Tuesday’s election with 12 percent (4,291) of the vote.
Incumbent Nicole Armbruster won the most votes with 22 percent (7,617)
and newcomer Peter Spadafore took the second seat with over 18 percent
(6,453) of the vote. Lewis beat fourth place candidate Jeffrey Croff by
702 votes. Stephen Manchester followed next with 3,344 votes, then
Karen Truszkowski with 2,935 votes, Mark Eagle with 2,189 votes, Andy
Mutavdzija with 2,066 and finally B. Michael Williams with 1,917 votes.

“When I first found out I was a little
shocked,” Lewis said of her victory. “I was a little nervous that not
enough people had heard my message.”

Lewis’ surprise is understandable. While
Spadafore and Armbruster carried multiple major endorsements, Lewis had
only one — from the Ingham County Democratic Party.

“I think she was even surprised (she
won),” said Lansing Schools Education Association President Patti
Seidl. “She hadn’t been recommended by any of the major groups out

Seidl said the teachers’ union endorsed
Armbruster and two others, but Spadafore was a close fourth choice.
Lewis was not a “strong contender” for the endorsement, but Seidl said
she looks forward to working with her.

So how did Lewis win without key endorsements?

While it is unlikely that a candidate
with few if any endorsements will win an election, endorsements are not
always a key to victory, said political strategist Joe DiSano of Main
Street Strategies.

“Endorsements are the most overrated
part of a campaign,” said DiSano, who didn’t have any board candidates
as clients. “I advise my candidates that I work with to not pay
attention to any endorsements that does not come with a check or
communication to group members.”

Instead of endorsements, candidates should be judged on their work ethic and dedication, DiSano said.

“There’s no replacement for someone who’s going to go out there and hustle,” he added.

While DiSano was not familiar with
Lewis’ campaign, he said her victory spoke both to her strength as a
candidate as well as the weaknesses of other candidates with
endorsements who failed to win.

Some candidates believe that having
endorsements will guarantee them a victory so they stop campaigning,
going door-to-door and hammering their message, which allows other
candidates to sneak by and win, DiSano explained.

“They think the endorsements will do the work for them,” he said. “I see it far too often.”

Sometimes, an endorsement can sink a
campaign and make it harder for a candidate, he said. He used the
Chamber of Commerce’s tactics during the past election as an example of
an endorsement that might have backfired for candidates.

City Clerk Chris Swope thought age might have helped Lewis clench the seat.

“I can tell you anecdotally the people I talked to said they wanted a younger school board,” he said.

Lewis also believed her age and experience in the Lansing School District as a graduate of Everett High helped her win.

“I think that people just wanted to see
the new perspective I would bring to the board, the unique perspective
of being a graduate of Lansing schools,” she said.

Swope also suggested that Lewis’ mother
Robin Lewis, a former school board member, may have influenced the
election by assisting her daughter, but Lewis said she specifically
asked her mother not to help to prove she could think for herself and
run her own race.

“If my mother wanted to be on the school
board she would run again,” Lewis said. “I wanted people to know that
it was my hard work.”

Lewis thought the tactic helped her
since it showed voters she was old enough to make her own decisions and
support them without being influenced by her mother, who served on the
board for seven years.

Race may have also been a factor in
Lewis’ election, Swope said, although election data does not include
race so it cannot be specifically analyzed. As the only
African-American candidate, her election ensures that the racial
distribution of the board remains the same after current board member
Ken Jones’ term ends in December. Lewis will join Board of Education
President Shirley Rodgers and Vice President Charles Ford as the third
African American board member.

Lewis said the African American community was not a target in her campaign.

“That wasn’t a strategy I used at all,” she said. “I targeted every population of voters.”

Regardless of the reasons she was
elected, Lewis said she is ready to tackle the big issues and help
restore faith in the district from which she graduated.

“I really hope that the board can work
more cohesively to rebuild the community’s faith in the schools and
return the schools to where they were when I was a student,” she said.

Age also may have played a factor in
Spadafore being elected. At 26, Spadafore tied along with Eagle and
Mutavdzija for the second youngest candidate in the pool.

“I think that people are looking for the
next generation of leaders in Lansing,” Spadafore said. “(Voters) put a
lot of faith in me, and I appreciate that.”

Spadafore said he was proud of the way
he ran his campaign and is eager to work with the board on the
district’s tough issues such as finding a new superintendent.

Armbruster could not be reached for comment.