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MN2020 - Swiftboating the Robbinsdale Schools
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Swiftboating the Robbinsdale Schools

October 02, 2007 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

In every levy election, there are "vote yes" campaigns and "vote no" campaigns. Unfortunately, an odious "vote no" organizer has resurfaced to run another Minnesota campaign.

Well-known levy buster Paul Dorr has served notice he will bring his campaign of disinformation to swiftboat the Robbinsdale Area School District's levy attempt.

Dorr, an anti-abortion activist from Ocheyedan, Iowa, is well known in levy campaign circles. He has vowed to end public education using any means necessary. He claims to have organized the defeat of more than 20 levy elections in Iowa, South Dakota and Minnesota, including recent campaigns in the Lyle, Orono, Blooming Prairie and Howard Lake-Waverly districts. His smear campaigns include twisted facts and innuendo. When he leaves town, he leaves underfunded schools and a divided and bruised community.

Dorr has a pattern to his campaigns. He is hired by a local voter, drawing a fee of between $5,000 and $15,000, which is well below what he spends on the campaign.

He arrives about four weeks before Election Day. Dorr's first move is to tie up the school administration by asking for many hard-to-find public documents, including contracts with employees, architects, financial advisors and administrators. He also requests current and past budgets, budget projections, enrollment data and information about facilities, among other documents.

He then publishes a newsletter in which he twists facts about the district and takes information out of context. This is mailed to every voter in the district, usually about four days before Election Day so inexperienced pro-levy campaign volunteers can't respond.

He also employs a smear campaign. He will imply that district officials accepted bribes. He will question whether school employees are involved in the campaign. He will hire questionable experts to challenge pro-levy data. He once famously accused an Iowa judge of bestiality.

He will air television ads featuring his children while implying they are district students.

He will join public meetings promoted by the local "vote no" organization in which he will hide misinformation by starting a statement with "I'm not saying this is happening here, but ."

He will question every absentee ballot and question election judges' relationship with school officials.

Those who have undergone a Dorr campaign say his ugliest tactic is to polarize the district. His disinformation campaign inflames those who already distrust schools, making the vote not about the levy but about schools themselves. After a Dorr campaign, divisions that existed in the community before the election widen, leaving resentment and raw emotions. In most communities, these feelings are slow to heal.

This is what Robbinsdale voters can anticipate. The first move has been made: On Sept. 26, Superintendent Stan Mack was handed several faxed pages from Dorr's company, Copperhead Consulting Services, asking for a large number of documents. 

Mack was prepared. "I've studied him for years and know what he's done in other districts," he said.

He informed school board members of Dorr's information request. Campaign officials met the next day and began planning their strategy. They are mum on the details but say the three campaign co-chairs will focus on Dorr's activities while volunteers continue to promote the levy.

"We've organized an honest, truthful campaign. We have nothing to hide in this district. We won't change our activities," said School Board chair Patsy Green

Robbinsdale is asking to increase the operating levy by $624 for a total of $1,472 per student. The levy would start in 2008 and run for 10 years.

Green said the levy campaign ran two informal polls in March and September. Both showed support from about 60 percent of voters who already knew about the levy.

Dorr's involvement changes that.

"To me, any lead has evaporated. He gets the 'no' voters out. We have to get more 'yes' voters to the polls," she said.

Mack and Green don't know who hired Dorr to campaign in Robbinsdale. An anti-levy ad in a local weekly newspaper included a phone number. Calls to that number were not answered.

 "I was concerned before (about passing the levy)," Green said. "Now I have a greater concern. I'm just concerned that someone in the district wanted to bring someone like this in."
 

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