Since I was not explicit in my earlier post, I want to make the announcement clear: The race for the District 9 seat on the Prince George’s County Board of Education is over. Now, more than a month before the June 24 primary, we know who will win that election and the November general election. As I predicted last fall, the person who receives the endorsement of our local incumbent politicians will win the race. According to my knowledgeable sources, the winner of the incumbent endorsement—and thus the race—is Sonya Williams.
It is a sad reflection on our supposedly democratic election system that a handful—in this case only one—incumbent politicians get to decide our lower ballot elections for us.
With regards to the District 9 BOE race, the silver lining is that Mrs. Williams is a good, capable person that I am happy to have as my representative on the BOE.
My County Councilman (and Council Chair) Mel Franklin and his fellow incumbents want to remove term limits, or at least have the ability to serve three terms.
I realize politics is about the art of the possible and compromise. Thus, I propose we merge my election reform ideas and the incumbents’ desire to have a third term. Before anything else, our Prince George’s County officials must put their weight behind election reforms to abolish the use of slates and their “sample ballot” advertisements. (As we know from experience, when our county politicians really want something, they can get it done. See: casino at National Harbor, school system reforms.) Once these desperately needed reforms are enacted, then let’s give the incumbents a chance at a third term.
The logic for my compromise proposal goes like this:
The current system of candidate slates and sample ballots provides nearly bullet-proof incumbent protection. As long as your fellow politicians like you well enough so that you appear on their slate and sample ballot, there is no realistic way an incumbent politician can lose an election. In this system of extreme incumbency protection, it would make absolutely no sense to tinker with the existing term limits for the County’s elected officials. Term limits are the only policy in place that provides an avenue for new candidates and fresh ideas to enter our political power structure. The added benefit is that, as elected county officials are out of office due to term limits, there is a good chance they start looking at opportunities to run for other elected, non-term-limited positions, such as seats in the Maryland Legislature. Such former office holders are likely to be well-qualified contenders, and they are more likely to be able to give a real challenge to a lackluster incumbent.
If we reduce the incumbency protection by getting rid of candidate slates and their sample ballot advertisements, I am inclined—in the spirit of compromise—to allow our county officials have a chance at a third term. But, in order for us to give such a gift to our incumbents, we do need something significant in return.
As a local activist, I have decent sources to find out what is going on behind the scenes in the Prince George’s County District 9 Board of Education race. I am sad to report that, as a result of our current election laws and the peculiar circumstances surrounding the race, the District 9 BOE seat is becoming an appointed seat.
This is how the unfortunate change unfolded:
- In the 2013 legislative session, a law was passed that added several appointed members to the Prince George’s County Board of Education. In addition, the County Executive was given the power to appoint the replacement for any elected BOE member who resigns before his/her term expires.
- In September 2013, District 9 BOE member Donna Hathaway-Beck resigned.
- In December 2013, County Executive Rushern Baker appointed Sonya Williams to the District 9 BOE seat.
- In the June 2014 primary election, the local incumbent politicians’ party loyalty dictates that they and their candidate slate endorse Baker’s appointee and include her on their “sample ballot.”
- The candidate endorsed by the local slate cruises to an unavoidable victory in the June primary and November general election.
In all reality, the voters of District 9 will have no meaningful say in the election of our BOE member. The selection was made by one person, County Executive Baker. For all intents and purposes, the District 9 BOE seat is an appointed position at this time.
Important note: My take on this situation is in no way a criticism of the appointed District 9 BOE member, Sonya Williams. I know her, I like her, and as a PTA activist I work with her. In fact, I believe County Executive Baker made an excellent choice in appointing her to the BOE. My only beef is with the obvious shortcomings of our system of “elections.” As I have stated before, I am not taking sides in the District 9 BOE primary.
Now that we are getting closer to the June 24 primary, endorsements in the District 9 Board of Education race are starting to happen. A few days ago the Gazette endorsed Domonique Flowers. Not surprisingly, County Executive Rushern Baker is backing Sonya Williams, whom Baker appointed to the BOE in December.
The fact that all of the endorsements are not going to one candidate makes the District 9 race more interesting. My firm belief continues to be that whichever candidate gets the endorsement of our local incumbents will prevail in the June primary and November’s general election.
I got to tangle with two State Delegates—James Proctor (District 27) and Jay Walker (District 26)—about candidate slates and sample ballots at a townhall meeting in Accokeek last night. I made my points about the impact of slates and their sample ballots on lower ballot races. You can read my view on those things here and here, for example.
Not surprisingly, the incumbent delegates had little sympathy for my point of view. Delegate Proctor says he and his fellow incumbents carefully vet the candidates they endorse. He acknowledges that the slate endorsements have a significant impact on the races, and he is proud of what they do and how they do it. Delegate Walker stated that he feels many of the lower ballot races, such as Board of Education elections, are very important and he thinks he has to weigh in on them. At the end of the day, the incumbents’ rationale boils down to this: They feel they have the right and the responsibility to make endorsements.
My take on the issue is: Due to Maryland’s law allowing candidate slates and the tradition on sample ballot advertisements, these candidate endorsements are not mere endorsements—they are super-endorsements. In low-budget lower ballot races, well-funded slate advertisements tilt the playing field heavily toward the endorsed candidate. It would be very different if the incumbent’s endorsement meant that the candidate in the lower ballot race could issue a press release touting the endorsement, insert a joint picture of the two in a campaign brochure that the lower ballot candidate has paid himself/herself, and the two could hold joint campaign events. In other states, that is what an endorsement looks like.
I have no problem with incumbent politicians making endorsements in other political races. They have every right to do that. But, I feel the super-endorsements allowed by Maryland’s election laws run completely counter to our democratic values and the one-person-one-vote principle.