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Advertise on the Tentacle

April 9, 2012

Apples to Oranges

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Frederick County's political history is marked by wide swings in voter preference. Typically related to the issue of residential growth, the last several commissioner election cycles have seen pro-growth boards replaced by slow or no-growth boards, if not every four years, at least every eight.


The campaigning itself highlights this, as many candidates have focused solely on that single issue with all of their messaging.


In the last election, this was truer than ever. Blaine Young, Paul Smith, Kirby Delauter and Billy Shreve focused all of their political energy on the issue of being business-friendly and fiscally conservative. Their opponents included all of the special interests that had advocated against expansionist proposals, from annexations to permitting.


The Young slate swept into office with a huge voter mandate, including one of the largest overall vote totals in history for the new board's president.


The other ideological "side" hasn't forgotten the sting of that defeat, either. Whether through lawsuits or public protests, the people who were roundly rejected by the vote totals in the 2010 election have maintained their focus on criticizing the Young Board and all of its accomplishments (which are many and controversial).


What that anti-Young movement lacked was something other than growth or trash as their rallying cry. Most people have mixed feelings about growth, and an increasing number also have a greater understanding of the waste-to-energy issue.


The problem is that these issues just don't rally the faithful like they used to do.


Without some other issue that packs that attention-getting wallop, it seemed as though Commissioner Young was headed toward another two years of building his base and achieving his past campaign goals.


And then he decided to get active in the Board of Education election.


Board of Education elections are non-partisan affairs. All registered voters get a say in them, including unaffiliated voters.


This election featured the best kind of political back story. The last Board of Education vote, held at the same time as Blaine's sweeping victory, ushered in a new perspective to the public education oversight body.


Brad Young, Jimmy Reeder and April Miller ran on a similar platform as the new Board of County Commissioners, one which emphasized fiscally prudent actions by the school system.


The body retained members from the previous regime, most of whom had received strong support from the Frederick County Teacher's Association in past elections.


Setting aside normal disagreements, this term has been marked by a fundamental shift in thinking, although the percentages still favored the status quo. Incumbent members Jean Smith, Angie Fish, Katie Groth and Donna Crook tended toward defense of the school system’s position, while the team of Dr. Miller, Mr. Young and Mr. Reeder pressed for more substantive change.


That set up a truly compelling election last Tuesday. Donna Crook and Katie Groth were both up for re-election, while Angie Fish had previously announced her intention to not seek re-election.


Two competing groups of candidates emerged. On one hand, a group aligned with Mr. Young, Dr. Miller and Mr. Reeder formed a loose ideological alliance. Cindy Rose, Colleen Cusimano, Jim Hoover, Pam Ward and Tony Chmelik were of a common mind on several key issues. Those include school choice, chartered schools and parental input on curriculum review.


Conversely, Zakir Bengali, Joy Schaefer and Emily Meyer joined incumbent Katie Groth in receiving the often coveted, sometimes reviled teachers’ association endorsement. It's that same endorsement issue that forms the subject of this piece.


As teachers union President Gary Brennan often says, an endorsement from the his association is intended to inform the many hundreds of voting teachers, administrators and support personnel, along with thousands of family, friends and advocates which candidates reflect the union's core values.


Not one to sit back and let a fellow political player frame the battle, Commissioner Young, along with two of his fellow board members, decided to take a more direct role in engaging their past political supporters.


They bought advertising to specifically endorse their slate, and the message was clear: Brad Young, Jimmy Reeder and Dr. April Miller needed a few more votes to be able to transform the school system into their vision of a responsible, right-sized public education institution.


The hidden message was that voting for their slate would prevent a union-ruled Board of Education. To nail their point, the Young-led ads featured a large navel orange, and the messaging talked about comparing apples to oranges.


The teacher's association, on the other hand, followed a proven campaign playbook of their own. They produced their well-known and aforementioned apple ballot and bought major advertising space to tell their story.


Those apple ballots also get distributed at polling places by teacher union members, taking the message to the most local level possible.


No doubt that Blaine and his supporters were expecting the kind of electoral victory that swept him into office in 2010. Unfortunately for some very good candidates, that just wasn't meant to be.


Of the orange slate, both Ms. Cusimano and Mr. Chmelik have made it through the first round of absentee and overseas ballots. First-timer Emily Meyer has dropped to seventh place, which leaves her off the November dance card.


Of the six spaces on the November general election ballot, it looks as though the apple slate was the victor, with Ms. Groth, Mr. Bengali and Ms. Schaefer comfortably at the top of the heap going forward.


Former school administrator Tom Shade ran as a free agent; he wasn't a slate-type guy. How he votes, assuming he wins in November, will be a major story.


So, the apple team puts forward three names. The oranges bring forward two people, and Tom Shade sits out there as a bit of a political mystery.


Who knows if this is an indication of future political performance? Certainly Mr. Brennan will tout this victory; he has that right.


Until the general election votes are cast, it's tough to call a winner in this fruit-salad battle. Given the current board makeup, it only takes one of the orange ballot candidates to give Brad, Jimmy and April the voting majority they need to change the Board of Education in their favor.


If two of the apple ballot team make it, they can stymie the current board and protect the status quo interests of the teacher's union and school system. If all of the apple ballot candidates win, and if Mr. Shade wins and tilts toward their ideology, then the next few years will be interesting for the school system.


No doubt Blaine and his fellow commissioners will downplay the importance of the outcome. There's already been talk about artificially depressed turnout (the lackluster GOP presidential race), but no one can ignore the fact that the 2010 mandate that ushered in the era of Blaine Young took a hit last Tuesday.


And that's no apples to oranges comparison!


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