The only Democrat on the local ballot in Bradley County, Jodi Riggins, won a school board seat Thursday over Allan Jones, a payday lender millionaire who hosted a political fundraiser with Donald Trump in March and featured two photos of himself with the former president on his campaign's Facebook page.
Riggins won the District 5 seat on the Cleveland City school board.
Both candidates were surprised by the outcome.
Riggins, 71, took two of three District 5 precincts to win 715-596 over Jones, 69, - 54.54% to 45.46% - Bradley County election records show. Results are unofficial until they are certified by the Election Commission.
Bradley County voter turnout was not affected too much by the high-profile race for the city school board seat, Administrator of Elections Fran Green said.
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"The turnout was low from my standpoint," Green said Friday in a phone interview. "But being one of our contested races, I'm sure it had some impact on it."
Green also said she wasn't too surprised by the outcome of the race.
"Either way, I just wanted that race over," she said, noting the Election Commission was named in a lawsuit during the campaign. The plaintiff questioned Jones' residency because his home was not in the city - although part of his ranch was. The suit was dismissed last week when the judge decided the person who filed it lacked standing.
District 5 voter Pamela Reynoso, a three-year Cleveland transplant and California native, said the choice for her was clear.
"I voted for Jodi because she embodied a lot of qualities I think are important for an elected official," Reynoso, 49, said Friday in a phone interview. "She's humble and eager and willing to learn what she doesn't know."
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Reynoso - who has had three children at Cleveland High, two of whom still go there - believes Riggins won because of her effort to get to know the District 5 community and to allow them to get to know her, she said.
"She showed up at community events, she canvassed neighborhoods," Reynoso said. "She put in the hard work. She allowed the community to get to know her."
Reynoso said she was somewhat surprised at the outcome in a Republican stronghold but thought District 5 voters preferred Riggins' more positive view of the school system to Jones' criticisms.
"I was pretty surprised; I really was. I knew I had a lot of support and a lot of good people who kept encouraging me," Riggins said Friday in a phone interview.
Riggins said she and volunteers in her campaign urged District 5 residents to vote and hit the ground for a door-to-door campaign, where she said she listened to problems and worries firsthand, two facets of her campaign she felt were strong points.
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"I think there were a lot of reasons - some had faith me and some didn't have faith in him," she said, also pointing to family members who work in the system. "Truthfully, I think I got quite a few votes on the reputation of my children and my husband."
During her campaign, Riggins said her decision to run for the city school board stemmed from an opening seat in District 5 and her experience serving families in health care over the past three decades. Riggins will replace Tom Cloud, who chose not to run for re-election, on the school board.
As a 30-year veteran physician's assistant, she worked with children and parents and schools as a health care provider, and her children all went to Cleveland City Schools, and now they teach in the system.
Riggins said her family is invested in the community and the school system, and a school board post seemed a reasonable next step. She said last week that she wasn't focused on who she was running against.
An admitted political newcomer, Riggins now aims to focus on her new responsibility, she said Friday.
Jones - a Cleveland High School alum who gained his wealth through a payday lending business that led to his enormous financial success - was reflective in the wake of the loss.
"I got beat in Bradley County by the only Democrat on the ballot. That doesn't speak well for me," Jones said Friday in a phone interview. "This is my neighbors, this is people who know me. People were voting against me and not for her, I think."
Jones acknowledged Riggins' effort.
"She did work hard, and she had a whole network of people out there working," Jones said.
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He said door-to-door campaigning wasn't something he liked to do.
"But apparently it's pretty effective," he said.
Jones hoped to employ a six-year plan - similar to a plan he used to boost the city high school wrestling program in previous years to its current 145-3 record - that would bring sweeping changes across operations, he said.
Leading up to and during his campaign, Jones has been critical of the current school board, its chairwoman and the city's current director of schools. His six-year plan called for going to teachers to learn their concerns firsthand, boosting reading at the sixth grade level with a renewed focus, bringing back an accounting class to rejuvenate the business curriculum and launching a new biology program with field trips offering hands-on experiences.
Jones sought to return to traditional recognition of a valedictorian and salutatorian at graduation while maintaining the current Raider Scholars program, which sometimes includes a dozen or more high-performing seniors in each school year's "Graduates of Distinction" group. He contended he'd be immune to sweetheart deals and would cut spending in the system's main office.
Jones believes his criticisms of city school performance weren't what people wanted to hear, he said, but he still thinks he would have brought positive change. He feels he helped, but he added that the results of the election could discourage other business people from seeking elected seats in local education.
Jones can always find a silver lining, even on election day when he's on the losing end.
"It was a bad loss yesterday, but I had a huge win on the stock market yesterday," he said, brightening. "It was just a whole bunch of investments I picked. Some people call it luck."
Riggins, on the other hand, said she has to start boning up for her new post.
"I've got a lot to learn," she said. "I'm going to be a team player, and I'm going to work with the board. We have great schools and a great community."
Contact Ben Benton at email@example.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.