By the time all of the precincts were tallied, the powerhouse in the race for the four open seats on the District 97 Board of Education was a political novice of small-stature and quiet demeanor. Rupa Datta, a public policy researcher who has served on various D97 subcommittees, garnered 19.1 percent of the votes in a field of 10 candidates. That was fully 2 percentage points more than the second-highest vote-getter, sitting D97 board member Jim O’Connor, who garnered 17.1 percent.

Sitting D97 board member and current board president Bob Spatz and Groupon executive Holly Spurlock rounded out the field of four, with 14.5 percent and 10 percent, respectively.

“I never expected to have this kind of support,” said Datta from her election night headquarters at Lou Malnati’s on Lake Street. “The last few weeks, we’ve been hearing people come back from [passing out flyers] and el stops, reporting that they’ve heard good things and that people have heard of me and the campaign. So we were feeling encouraged, but you never know what the actual numbers are going to be until they start actually rolling in.”

Matt Stagner, a strong supporter of Datta, was also surprised that she finished in first place. He said the citizenry’s overwhelming vote of confidence in her was largely due to the candidate’s personality and competence.

“I certainly thought we had a chance of being in the top four, but beating a couple of incumbents … that’s more than one can hope for because they’re very strong incumbents. I know she’s looking forward to serving with them,” Stagner said.

“I think [people responded to] the message and the person and the combination of the two. I think she’s so genuine that every place she appeared, people felt like here’s a person whose only agenda is improving the schools. She’s a smart person who is going to study issues and do what is right for the kids of Oak Park.”

According to Datta volunteer Melissa Narum, whose children were once in kindergarten classes with Datta’s kids, the underdog candidate’s secret weapon may also have been her campaign organization.

“Rupa had a great campaign manager,” Narum said. “Everything was organized, with maps broken down by the neighborhood level, flyers … voting history. So we focused our attention on past voters and that’s where we put our efforts when we went out and passed out flyers.”

Spatz, who was elected to his third term, was much less surprised by the night’s results than Datta.

“The election results were very much what I expected,” Spatz said. “The top three have been sort of what people have been thinking for a while. I’m pleased and humbled that voters decided to re-elect me. It will be an interesting four years with a lot of work to do.”


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