After bashing GOP rival’s doughnut dropoffs, Democrat sent political email to school staff
Jessica Anderson campaign says message was sent in error after FOIA request
A Democratic candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates sent a mass political email to employees of the Williamsburg-James City County school division where she works shortly after criticizing her Republican opponent for dropping off campaign-funded doughnuts at some of the same schools.
The campaign of Democrat Jessica Anderson, who is running against Del. Amanda Batten, R-James City, said it obtained the school division email addresses through a Freedom of Information Act request.
After incorporating the information on school employees into its database on local voters, the campaign said, a staffer inadvertently sent out almost 1,900 emails to school division employees, many of whom didn’t sign up to receive political communications from Anderson.
“It was a mistake. It was my fault. It was stupid,” Tim Stewart, a James City resident who described himself as a volunteer acting as a senior adviser to Anderson’s campaign, said in an interview. “Jess has never even logged into this system.”
Anderson, who works as a part-time receptionist at one of the division’s elementary schools, said she was aware Stewart was acquiring teacher information for “data purposes.” But she said it was only meant to help her connect better with people in the district, not to gather more email addresses for political messaging.
“When I go door-knocking, this is a way to have this information in our database,” Anderson said in an interview Thursday. “This person is an educator.”
The email was first reported this week by Virginia Scope.
Both Anderson and Stewart disputed the idea that their campaign had engaged in the same type of school-focused political activity it had attacked Batten over, insisting their email was an unintentional error that wasn’t repeated.
“I hate that it happened,” Anderson said. “It happened in a weird, awkward time.”
Batten and her campaign did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.
Anderson’s campaign sent the email in question around the same time that Anderson and Stewart were accusing Batten of inappropriately politicking in schools by dropping off boxes of doughnuts at local school buildings during Teacher Appreciation Week. The boxes included a label thanking teachers and a disclosure saying the doughnuts were purchased with Batten’s campaign funds.
Batten has said the doughnuts were a sincere gesture of thanks and the political disclaimer was included to be transparent about the source of money used to buy them. Critics said the doughnut plan was a political ploy that seemed directed only at schools located within the new boundaries of her legislative district.
The May 25 email from Anderson included the same “paid for and authorized by” campaign disclosure that stirred up the prior controversy over Batten’s doughnuts. The email highlighted an endorsement Anderson received from the woman-focused Virginia NOW PAC, touted her support for abortion rights and included a “Contribute” button linking to Anderson’s fundraising page.
According to Williamsburg-James City County Schools, 1,889 copies of the email were sent to official school accounts. In June, Kara Wall, a spokeswoman for the school division, said school officials reviewed the situation and spoke to the Anderson campaign about it. But she declined to comment on whether any violations of school policy had occurred and said she could not “speculate” about “how external organizations access or gather email addresses.”
“As public employees, email addresses of school division employees are publicly available — on our website, through Freedom of Information Act requests, etc,” Wall said in an email.
Anderson said she faced no disciplinary action over the email after school officials inquired about it.
“I walked away with no reprimand, no write-up, and obviously I’m not terminated,” she said.
Stewart provided documents to the Virginia Mercury showing that he had filed a FOIA request on May 8 seeking a log of FOIA requests the division had received over several months. After getting the FOIA log a few days later, Stewart requested copies of three sets of documents the division had released to other requesters.
Two of the released documents were Excel spreadsheets that amounted to a nearly complete roster of school division employees including names, job descriptions and email addresses. One employee list had already been requested by the local teachers’ union, the Williamsburg-James City Education Association, to assist with its collective bargaining efforts. The other request came from a company called Academy Research Group that appears to routinely file FOIA requests for information on school personnel.
The records shared by Stewart show he received the school personnel data files he had requested on May 12, the same day Batten did her doughnut deliveries.
Stewart said he combined the two spreadsheets and uploaded the merged data into the campaign’s information system. Screenshots he shared showed the data in the campaign system also includes school employees’ salaries, hire date and bargaining unit status.
In response to Batten’s doughnut deliveries, school division officials pointed to policies restricting the distribution of political material in school buildings. The policy doesn’t specifically mention political material sent to school-affiliated email accounts. Because political speech has broad First Amendment protections, it’s unclear if the division would have the legal authority to limit how a political campaign can use publicly available contact information.
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