Faced with two school board candidates who took nearly identical positions on education issue, county voters supported their choices with some thoughtful - and some off the wall - reasoning.
The victory went to Columbia resident and local PTA leader Susan J. Cook, 42, who overcame the wider name recognition enjoyed by Ellicott City resident Sandra H. French, 46, a county and state PTA officer.
The final tally, including absentee ballots, was 21,698 for Cook, 20,958 for French. Cook will begin her six-year term in December succeeding retiring board member Anne L. Dodd.
Although French had the backing of the much larger Howard County Education Association, Cook's candidacy got a boost from the Howard County Coaches Association, whose members lobbied sports booster clubs, put up signs and worked the polls.
In numerous forums that led up to Election Day, both candidates came out in favor of a seven-period day in high schools, expressed reservations about extending the school year by 20 days and opposed increasing class sizes to cope with growth.
But one issue that was never mentioned publicly apparently played a minor, last-minute role in the race: Letters circulated in some parts of the county endorsing Cook as an opponent of abortion rights.
One couple leaving the polling place at Howard High School Tuesday said they voted for Cook, "because she's pro-life." They declined to give additional information.
Cook said she had no idea who was sending out the information or how the sender obtained it. She said she had not answered any questions on her views on abortion.
"My personal feeling is my personal feeling, and it has nothing to do with the school board race," Cook sald.
French said some of her poll workers reported hearing about the letters on Election Day.
The letters were apparently circulated by individuals. The Howard County Board of Elections has not registered any political action committee. The Right to Life of Maryland PAC, registered with the state, did not get involved with local contests, PAC Chairman Michael W. Bums reported.
Burns said an individual member in Howard County might have checked out the views of local candidates and distributed information, but he did not know whether that occurred.
Some voters left the polls without voting in the school board race because, they said, they never saw it on their ballots. Board candidates were on the reverse side of the ballot along with the sheriffs race and state constitutional amendments.
Others said they chose not to vote in the board race. "After your kids are out of high school, you kind of lose touch," said one man leaving the polls at Hammond Middle School. "I figure there are enough people with kids still in school that they should vote for the school board."
Some had studied the two candidates. "I looked at them very carefully," said one man. "They seemed to have a lot of similar positions, but Cook's position about using portables to keep the neighborhood schools seemed to be a deciding factor for me."
Although both Cook and French were making their first try for public office. some voters mistook them for incumbents.
One man said he voted for French because, "I voted for her before when she ran."
A woman who cast her ballot at the Clarksville Volunteer Fire Company station said she chose Cook because, "She's done a pretty good job, so don't jar a loose cookie."
Endorsements made the difference for some. A teacher and a substitute teacher said they voted for French because she had the endorsement of the teachers union.
Coaches also hoped their efforts helped. "We're hoping we had some kind of impact," said P. J. Kesmodel, Mount Hebron High School girls soccer coach and chairman of the coaches' political committee.
At Hebron, for example, many coaches signed an open letter supporting Cook that was mailed to the 250 families who belong to the school's sports booster club.
In the second councilmanic district, which includes Mount Hebron, Cook carried four of the 15 precincts and came close in others. Kesmodel said he felt that without the coaches' efforts, the area would have gone heavily for French.