Union attacks caucus on board nomination

May 16, 1993|By Sherrie Ruhl and Karin Remesch | Sherrie Ruhl and Karin Remesch,Staff writers

Contesting the result of a nominating caucus for a Harfor school board seat because of a "deliberate effort by religious groups to stack the deck," the county teachers union is demanding a new election.

Sheron Lumsden, one of two union delegates to the caucus, said some delegates cast ballots under the names of groups they did not represent. She also said some groups unfamiliar with school issues did not register until the last minute, and the caucus failed to determine who voted and what groups they represented.

"I'm appalled that these kind of tactics have been allowed to take place," said Jean Thomas, president of the Harford County Education Association, the teachers union.

The Permanent Nominating Caucus, held Thursday night at Southampton Middle School, was composed of delegates from civic groups, churches and PTAs. It nominated insurance salesman H. Everett Smith for the Bel Air seat with 94 votes. Board President Anne D. Sterling, the incumbent, placed second with 88 votes. Two other candidates, Kimberly Lynn Keene and Janet Bush Handy, each received eight votes.

The caucus also voted for three other seats, none of which was contested.

The caucus, as it has done for its 33 years, now sends the top two nominations to the governor, who makes the final appointment, usually in the fall. The governor, while not bound by the caucus's recommendation, almost always goes with its first choice.

Mrs. Thomas claimed a "deliberate effort by religious groups to stack the deck" to ensure that Mr. Smith won.

"There have always been religious groups at the caucus, and I'm happy that they are concerned with education," Ms. Thomas said. "But this appears to have been a very well-organized group of people who were determined that their candidate win."

Dee Schuette, chairwoman of the caucus, could not be reached for comment.

Other delegates at the meeting, including Andre A. Fournier, the president of the Harford County Council of PTAs, repeated Ms. Lumsden's charges.

Mr. Fournier, who also demanded another election, said caucus officials did not keep track of who received voting ballots and how many ballots were given out.

"There was no particular balloting place. People were filling them out in the lobby, in the auditorium, and it was not organized at all," he said.

"I could probably have brought in three people who could have grabbed ballots and filled them out, and no one would have known. There was no head count, no one knew how many ballots were given out, and no one knew how many people were eligible to vote."

Mr. Fournier and other delegates also complained that there was very little time to question the candidates before the vote. He said key issues, such as the controversy over the sex-education play "Secrets," shown to high school students, were never discussed.

The caucus had only about 45 minutes to formally question the candidates.

The Harford County Council of PTAs earlier this year supported the play, produced by Kaiser Permanente Health Services Inc. Mr. Fournier said many groups would have voted for or against candidates because of their position on the play.

Two national conservative groups, Concerned Women for America and The American Family Association, sent delegates to the caucus who vehemently attacked the play, saying it fostered homosexuality, promiscuity and teen-age pregnancy.

Nancy Jacobs, Maryland representative for Concerned Women for America, said delegates should have been prepared before the meeting. She said her group sent questionnaires to the delegates to learn their positions on various issues.

Bob Hooper, a delegate at the caucus and a former county councilman, said he thinks many of the complaints about balloting are just sour grapes. "They are crying foul now because they didn't win. They have had their own way on the school board for many years, and we didn't yell and scream when our candidates lost," he said.

Mr. Hooper, who has been an outspoken critic of "Secrets" and who is a member of local conservative religious groups, said Mr. Smith had not been picked by any conservative Christian groups.

"He was not a plant by any religious organization. He came in on his own volition," Mr. Hooper said. "I think some Christian groups welcomed him, because they believe he fills the void on the board for a conservative voice. But some religious groups don't believe he is conservative enough."

Mrs. Jacobs, who said she supports Mr. Smith for his conservative views, said no one did anything underhanded.

But she said she understands why some people think this may have happened.

She said at the last minute she had to make one substitution for the Concerned Women for America delegation when a delegate could not attend. Also, she said Ray Astor, head of another conservative religious group, The American Family Association, asked her to find a substitute when one of his delegates did not show up.

Mrs. Jacobs said her pastor's wife, who is new to the area and came to the meeting to see how the caucus works, agreed to represent The American Family Association.

Mrs. Jacobs said she had consulted caucus officials ahead of time to make sure substitutions were acceptable, just in case she had to make one.

When told of the allegations of improper ballot handling, Mrs. Sterling said she was totally unaware of the controversy.

"I'm very sorry to hear that. I feel so distressed that there might a problem," she added. "The caucus has served us well for so many years. I feel almost worse for them than I do about my own loss."

Mr. Smith said a revote is acceptable to him. "But," he added, "I think we need to let the caucus decide this one. The caucus worked to this point, and I would do an injustice to the people who have served on the caucus by second-guessing the process."

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