PORTLAND — Usually, a video of a political candidate doing a striptease in a dive bar is enough to end a campaign — especially a campaign for the local school board.
But in Portland’s liberal West End? It’s no big deal.
On Tuesday, Holly Seeliger, a 26-year-old teacher and burlesque dancer, won the District 2 seat on the Portland Board of Public Education, getting 59 percent of the vote to defeat a candidate with an ideal pedigree to serve the school district.
That candidate, Jeanne Swanton, has 17 years of financial experience, including a stint as a vice president of Citigroup. Unlike Seeliger, she has children in the school system and is active in the Reiche Elementary School Parent Teacher Organization.
Swanton, 45, also had a significant fundraising advantage over Seeliger, who got one contribution, of $100 (from the Green Independent Party). Seeliger’s pre-election finance report shows she spent $690 on palm cards and yard signs.
Swanton raised $2,525, according to her finance report. City Councilor John Anton, a former Green Independent who’s now unenrolled, was the treasurer for her campaign.
In addition to paying for direct mailers, Swanton spent more than $1,700, including $360 for voter information from the Democratic National Committee.
It wasn’t enough to beat Seeliger, a Green Independent who hand-painted her campaign signs and had a couple of close friends help her distribute literature.
Even Seeliger was surprised by her win, with 3,079 votes to Swanton’s 2,114.
“I thought the whole time the race could have gone either way, and I believe Jeanne Swanton is highly qualified for running for school board as well,” she said. “I was pleasantly surprised when the election results came in.”
Seeliger, a grant-funded teacher at the Regional Alternative Learning School on Mackworth Island, began her candidacy around the time she joined the West End Neighborhood Association Board of Directors, in February.
She publicly disclosed her hobby of burlesque dancing on July 14 in a blog post, “Politics and the ‘Pin Up': A Recreation of the Modern Woman.”
The post celebrates women taking back their image from the male-dominated media, most notably the efforts of a 14-year-old Waterville girl who got Seventeen magazine to stop air-brushing the body shapes of its cover models.
“For the past three years I have performed as a burlesque dancer in Portland at local venues and have become interested in classic ‘Pin Up’ photography because I want to reinvent images of modern women,” Seeliger wrote.
Burlesque dancing, which is having a resurgence in the U.S., was mentioned in several of her candidate profiles, but Seeliger said it never came up in the campaign.
“The only people who talk to me about this are reporters,” Seeliger said. “I think it’s more of an attempt by journalists just to cause a little bit of intrigue. And perhaps, maybe a subject such as school board doesn’t intrigue everyone.”
Seeliger’s hobby certainly intrigued Comedy Central, which highlighted her candidacy online as part of its “One of a Kind Candidates” series.
Writer Kerry Bentivolio described Seeliger as eloquent and a class act in her post on Aug. 23 but joked that it took only 15 seconds to find a YouTube video of Seeliger dancing.
Bentivolio provided a link to Seeliger, whose stage name is “Holly D’anger,” dancing at Geno’s, a popular dive bar in downtown Portland.
“If Seeliger is elected, it’s pretty much guaranteed that for the first time in history middle school boys will voluntarily attend school board meetings,” the author joked.
In the video, Seeliger saunters through a crowded room toward the stage, wearing a soft, bulky coat that exposes her bare legs. She slowly puts on gloves, while the audience howls with approval. After flashing the crowd a few times, exposing her practically bare chest with nipples covered with pasties, she sheds the jacket and begins bouncing and tap dancing in a way that makes the pasties move in circular fashion.
Seeliger said she blogged about her burlesque dancing in July to head off any media-generated scandals.
“I just wanted to be honest with people,” she said. “I didn’t want voters to think I was trying to hide that.”
When it looked as though Seeliger would run unopposed, the West End Neighborhood Association sent out an email seeking an opponent, to ensure that the seat would be contested, President Rosanne Graef said.
The email had nothing to do with Seeliger’s hobby, said Graef, who was once a belly dancer.
Seeliger is originally from North Berwick, where she graduated form Noble High School. She moved to Portland in 2008 and graduated from the University of Southern Maine with a bachelor’s degree in political science. She worked as an intern in U.S. Rep Tom Allen’s office in Saco.
Seeliger got heavily involved in the Occupy movement last year, and she now produces content for Occupy Maine TV on the local cable access channel.
That background won the vote of Tabatha Woodside, a West Ender who believes that Seeliger can speak for immigrant students and families who are not represented on the school board or the PTO.
“That’s my experience working with her in her political activism,” said Woodside, who has an 8-year-old son who attends the Reiche school and a 12-year-old son at King Middle School.
The League of Young Voters endorsed Seeliger over Swanton, though it noted the experience that made Swanton a “strong candidate.”
The progressive group chose Seeliger because of her support of art curriculum, green technology education and school gardens, and her involvement with the Occupy movement.
“We believe that she would bring fresh energy and a new perspective to the School Board,” the league wrote. “As such, we’re willing to take a chance on Seeliger.”
Several school board members said the league’s endorsement tipped the election to Seeliger.
“That carries weight, especially with all of the young vote that was out there campaigning for Obama” and the ballot initiative to legalize gay marriage, said District 2 board member Ed Bryan, who did not seek re-election. “The Green party really gets boots on the ground.”
Seeliger will join a board with seven Democrats and one unenrolled member, Elizabeth Books. Her election could be proof that voters are willing to give Greens another chance on the school board, after a disastrous stint that largely ended in 2007.
In that year, when the district overspent its budget by $2 million, Green Independent Ben Meikelejohn chaired the board’s finance committee. He also was charged with driving without a license, but the charge was dropped because he was never notified of his suspension.
Meikelejohn got only 13 percent of the vote in his re-election bid.
Jason Toothaker, another Green, resigned from the board in 2007 after he skipped out on a $4.65 cab fare during a drunken night in the Old Port.
When police found Toothaker hiding under a porch in Parkside, he was so drunk that he couldn’t recall how he had injured his face and shoulder.
The board struggled in the years that followed to restore financial stability to the school district and restore its public image.
Bryan said critics may try to use Seeliger’s background as a burlesque dancer to discredit the board, but he doesn’t think most people will care about it, as long as she is a productive and professional board member.
Other board members said it will do nothing to sully their image or derail their agenda, as it might have in the past, thanks to comprehensive planning and multi-year budgets.
“It wasn’t just age; it was party politics back then,” board member Sarah Thompson said of the Greens who were on the board. “I think we all have the same agenda now. We have the same common mission and goals.”
Seeliger’s platform consists of beefing up garden-to-table school nutrition programs, increasing educational and career mentoring in high school, investing in school infrastructure, and supporting the arts and music at all grade levels.
The board meets weekly. Regular business meetings typically run at least four hours, while subcommittee work adds hours to that. Meeting packets are typically 50 to 100 pages long.
Seeliger said she isn’t trying to use the school board as a springboard to higher office, since education is so important.
She expects her new schedule may make it impossible for her to keep dancing.
“I definitely see myself being very busy,” she said. “Some of my hobbies might need to go by the wayside as I put my political office and my school board duties first.”