‘Dirty pool’: Collier school board candidate says she's the victim of a smear campaign
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct Alan Horton's titles with the Naples Daily News and Champions for Learning.
Who is that masked man? Collier County School Board member Jen Mitchell has been asking herself that for days.
She's says she's been the subject of a smear campaign while running for re-election, one designed to make people think she's a progressive liberal.
Mitchell, a lifelong, dyed-in-the-wool conservative, has been photographed with Gov. Ron DeSantis in recent weeks after Hurricane Ian slammed into Southwest Florida. She, however, was not endorsed by the Collier County Republican Executive Committee or by DeSantis.
DeSantis did not endorse anyone running for school board in Collier County but the Collier County Republican Executive Committee did: all three challengers to the school board, including Mitchell's opponent, Kelly Lichter.
Lichter did not respond to phone calls, emails or text messages requesting comment.
Mitchell has been the subject of a text campaign (ostensibly from progressives) that implies she is a fellow liberal, fighting against "Ron DeSantis and his 'freedom' agenda."
While typically third-party campaign materials will align themselves with one candidate and assert their opponent is too liberal or too conservative to vote for, in this case, the mailers, text campaigns and sign-holders all assert that Mitchell will stand against DeSantis, and that's why she deserves Collier County's vote.
"It's disgusting," Mitchell said.
She has received mailers at her home that feature her in a Disney-themed face mask – a photo she says was taken early in the pandemic when masks were required by the Florida Department of Health – and assert she is the "ultimate DeSantis antagonist." A local radio ad exhorts voters to not "be fooled when you get to the ballot box." Jen Mitchell isn't a "real Republican," it goes on to say.
And last week, a mystery canvasser wearing a Biden/Harris T-shirt, a face mask, sunglasses and a bucket hat, stood at the polls waving a Mitchell campaign sign.
Mitchell suspects her opponent, her opponent's husband Nick Lichter, and local Republican firebrand Alfie Oakes are behind the various efforts to paint her deep blue in a red county. And she believes Nick Lichter has taken up the mantle of mystery canvasser.
Nick Lichter denied he had been canvassing in Mitchell's name incognito.
"I have not," he said when reached Tuesday evening by phone. "That’s pretty hilarious. That’s what she’s focused on?"
The campaign has left Mitchell frustrated and wary.
"They're fooling people," Mitchell said. "People are very confused, they're reaching out to me, (asking) 'what's the truth?' It's effective."
And she's worried that conservative voters have been misled into voting against her, with less than a week before the election.
Collier County is a well-known Republican stronghold. Putting out the message that someone isn't a "real Republican" can mean death for their political aspirations. Mitchell faces an uphill battle for her seat.
Who's to blame?
Mitchell provided The News-Press / Naples Daily News with photos of a mailer sent to her home in recent weeks, a screenshot of a voicemail a Republican supporter received, as well as the text of a text message campaign sent Oct. 21.
Both the mailer and the text message said they were sponsored by the Citizens Awake Now PAC, which lists Francis A. Oakes III (locally known as Alfie) as the chairperson.
Oakes is listed on Lichter's website as having endorsed her.
"On November 8th, you have the chance to re-elect Jen Mitchell for Collier County School Board District 3," the text campaign read. "Her opponent is a Republican who has vowed to support Governor DeSantis and his agenda. We as liberals cannot let her opponent win."
A voicemail a friend and supporter of Mitchell's who is a registered Republican received from a 239 area code number also purported to support Mitchell as a liberal.
"If you love Joe Biden and his Progressive (sic) agenda, you've got to vote for Jen Mitchell. Jen Mitchell is a true liberal with Progressive (sic) beliefs," the voicemail said.
It promised that if Mitchell were elected, she'd fight back against DeSantis's education agenda.
"It’s just dirty pool," Mitchell said. "It’s gross."
The News-Press / Naples Daily News called the number Tuesday only to encounter a "this number is no longer in service" message.
The Collier County Republican Executive Committee has also sponsored an ad running on local Fox radio station 92.5 ("Right All Along") claiming Mitchell is not a real Republican.
Who's paying for what?
The amount of money spent in this race is unusually high, though not record-breaking.
In a 2018 survey by the National School Boards Association, 75% of respondents said they spent less than $1,000 on their election and 16% said they spent between $1,000 and $5,000. Just 9% reported spending more than $5,000.
According to the Collier County Supervisor of Elections site, Lichter, who served on the school board from 2014-18, has raised $67,851.98 and spent $52,186.99 of that money during her campaign.
Lichter has raised the third-most amount of money in this race, out of all six candidates running for the school board. She stands behind Mitchell (at $95,257.73) and Tim Moshier, another Alfie Oakes-backed candidate running for the District 5 seat (at $78,881.29).
The salary a Collier County school board member draws is $43,007, according to 2021 data by the Florida Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research.
Since July 30, Lichter has spent $10,991.40, according to campaign financial records filed with the county. The majority of that was spent in the second week of August at Naples print shop SWFL Print.
Mitchell, who outraised her opponent for a total of $95,257.73, has spent $62,185.02 on printing, advertising and mailing with NPR Graphics, a design and print shop in Lehigh Acres. She has consistently spent money nearly every week of the campaign, but the bulk of those expenditures came in the first week of August.
In that same time span, Citizens Awake Now PAC spent $41,431.10. It is not clear where the money went to, besides the mailers, and text campaign against Mitchell. PACs are only required to disclose what they paid and when, not what it was earmarked for.
The majority of the Citizens Awake Now PAC money was also spent in the second week of August.
Negative campaigning and a mystery canvasser
Friday and Saturday, a man wearing a face mask and a Biden / Harris T-shirt stood near the polls holding Mitchell's campaign sign, thus intimating that Mitchell is a liberal.
"That’s living proof that there’s something going on that’s not proper," said former Naples Daily News editor and a Champions For Learning founding director Alan Horton. "This is not a new trick, by the way. We’ve had some pretty lousy, damning activities that remind me of national campaigns."
Mike Lister, a longtime Collier County Republican Executive Committee member and former chairman said, unfortunately, this is normal for Naples politics now.
“I’m not a big fan of negative campaigning, but…if you talk to the professionals, they’ll tell you it’s bad, but here’s the only problem: it works," Lister said. In that vein, "there’s been a big effort to try to tie Jen Mitchell to Democrats."
Oakes, reached late Tuesday by phone, said his PAC painted Mitchell as progressive because she is one.
"She got more votes from Democrats than Republicans, so that's the most obvious reason if you want to do the research and look at the facts," he said. (The News-Press / Naples Daily News was not able to independently verify that statement.)
He cited her voting in "lockstep" with district superintendent Kamela Patton, voting to mask children during the early days of the pandemic and to give students supervised access to books that parental groups have raised concerns about as further reasons he viewed Mitchell as a liberal.
"She can put an 'R' behind her name because it's convenient in Collier County, but her voting record and the mere fact that she had more Democrats vote for her than Republicans says it all," he said.
Mitchell said she never voted to mask students, that the board complied with emergency order 06-07, which said districts were "subject to the advice and orders of local and state health departments.
"Ours said we had to mask to reopen our schools," she said. Once the order expired, she said, Collier County Public Schools immediately went mask-optional.
Oakes did not know off the top of his head how much money his PAC had spent on anti-Mitchell ads and campaigns.
Mitchell provided photos of the mystery canvasser; still others were found posted on NextDoor and Facebook.
According to Mitchell and a NextDoor post, Lichter posted on Facebook, asking to borrow a Biden/Harris T-shirt in recent days.
When asked if he had posted on Facebook requesting to borrow a Biden/Harris t-shirt, he said, "oh, that’s no comment. No thanks."
Kate Cimini is an investigative journalist covering Florida. Share your story at (239) 207-9369 or email email@example.com.