Freshman Politics

Forget the posters, forget popularity. In the end, the new president of Towson High's 9th-grade class relied -- as countless candidates before him -- on a well-oiled political machine.


It was politics as usual, all right. Smiling candidates uttered vague promises about more dances and spirit days, pledging to make freshman year "a blast for everyone" while delivering "leadership for the new millennium." Teachers urged the electorate to concentrate on the issues, while disillusioned voters, decrying the influence of powerful special interest cliques, said they felt disenfranchised from a student government that had become "just a popularity contest."

Unsubstantiated rumors abounded: Candidates were accused of stealing each other's posters, trading Jolly Ranchers for votes and running for office merely to beef up their college applications. Slick campaign ads were inescapable; by Election Day, it was impossible to turn a corner without seeing a neon poster board or color-printed flier reminding students to vote for -- or vote 4 -- one candidate or another.

And yet, when it was all over, when the winner had been declared, when the masking tape had lost its stickiness and the posters had peeled off the walls, one could not help but feel that the people had spoken and been heard, that the will of the class had been done, that our venerable electoral democracy, flawed as it may be, had triumphed again.

After all, it is not every nation in which a 14-year-old concert band member with no political experience -- a candidate whose motto is "Be One with the Brontosaurus," who delivered his speech in striped suspenders, who favors pink and brown as class colors -- can be elected to the ninth grade's highest office.

Or, in the words of Dan Callaway, the new president of the freshman class at Towson High School: "It came up on the announcements, like, if you're interested in running, pick up a form. So I picked up a form." And so, with that small but fateful step, began the road to the presidency.

Other hopefuls

There were six candidates in all. Six presidential hopefuls competing for about 300 votes in a race where a mere plurality would spell victory. Needless to say, the office was up for grabs.

Dan Callaway knew this. But so did Hayley Mershon.

So what if she couldn't think of a rhyming slogan using Hayley or Mershon? The varsity field hockey player got her campaign off to a strong start with an impressive array of brightly colored poster boards on which her name had been written in glitter and puffy paint.

"It's pretty obvious that she spent a lot of time on her posters, as opposed to people who just printed something off the computer," said Mershon supporter Josh Smith. It was a few days before the Oct. 21 election, and he was wearing a bronze and silver "Hayley 4 Prez" button made from a piece of poster board backed with double-sided tape. "And I think that says something about how much time those people are going to spend on issues."

Mershon attended Dumbarton Middle School, which in another political season might have given her an additional edge, since more of the class came from Dumbarton than any other school. But this year was different. Mershon faced competition from two other Dumbarton alums: Ashley Weaver, a former middle school homeroom representative trying to carry on the political legacy of her older brother Jeff, last year's senior class treasurer, and Nick Williams, a varsity football player seeking higher office "because a lot of people told me I'd be a good president."

"Me and Ashley and Hayley all hang out in the same crowd," said Williams. "I've got the guy votes, and that's kind of bad for Ashley and Hayley because they're going to split the girl votes."

And that split created a window of opportunity that all three of the remaining candidates were eager to seize.

One promising newcomer was Maureen Hohn, an outgoing, energetic Ridgely Middle School grad with a knack for looking on the bright side. "Since I'm new to school, it has advantages," said Hohn, who saw an obvious potential voter base on her JV soccer team. "If people don't know me, they don't have anything to judge me on. They just have to go with what I'm saying."

Another was Kaneal "the Real Deal" Oliver. A graduate of Old Court Middle School, Oliver was undaunted by the fact that she started high school knowing only one of her classmates. She had an admirable middle school resume, including a term as student government president in which her vice president was impeached and removed from office. "He didn't come to meetings like he should have," Oliver said.

Oliver and Hohn shared a common bond, not having attended Dumbarton Middle School. But there was something else they shared; something they shared, in fact, with all three of the other candidates.

Every time they turned around, it seemed, someone was talking about Dan Callaway.

If elected, what would you hope to accomplish?

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