Local election tactic: spend

Jerry Johnston putting up $30,000 in school board bid

February 17, 2000|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Jerry D. Johnston doesn't want to get lost in the 17-strong crowd running for Howard County school board, so he's willing to spend some of his own money on the race.

A lot of money. About $30,000.

And that's for the March 7 primary campaign.

Local officials suspect that the amount -- which Johnston is using to buy yard signs, postage, ads and fliers -- is more than a Howard County Board of Education candidate has ever spent on a single race. It is, after all, a part-time, $9,900-a-year job.

"I'd say it's probably at least five times what anybody has spent before," said Louis Pope, chairman of the Republican Party in Howard County, who's been active in local politics for 15 years. "I think the biggest thing the voters are going to look at is [candidates'] positions on issues. But it would certainly give you a leg up if you spent that much money."

About half of the school board candidates this year have signed statements saying they plan to spend less than $1,000 on the race.

The only Howard County campaigns costing more than $30,000 are those for county executive, according to Pope. All other candidates who are elected countywide tend to spend less than $5,000, he said.

Even races for state House of Delegates generally don't exceed $40,000, said Kathleen S. Skullney, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland.

Johnston, 56, a certified public accountant with his own firm, doesn't consider himself independently wealthy. He said he decided an expensive campaign plan was necessary to get him past the primary.

The four candidates with the most votes will progress to the November general election. Two seats are open.

"I decided that this is important for me and, if it's important, I should be prepared," Johnston said.

He ran for the board twice before -- in 1992 and 1998 -- and neither time made it past the primary. "I was convinced last time that I did everything right," said Johnston, who spent about $2,000 in that race and placed fifth out of seven candidates. "But not enough people voted for me."

His analysis is that too few people knew of him or his positions on issues. He doesn't want to make that mistake again.

Ad costs, air banner soar

As he planned his campaign strategy this time around, the costs just added up, he said.

By far, the biggest expense is the postage for the roughly 90,000 postcards he plans to mail to voters. At 20 cents a pop, that comes to more than half his total budget.

Johnston is also paying for inserts in The Sun, the Howard County Times and the Columbia Flier, scheduled to run shortly before the primary.

He thought about cable television ads, but decided instead on another kind of air time -- hiring a plane to fly over the county the weekend before the election, towing a banner with his name.

Johnston says he would like people to focus on issues rather than name recognition, but he thinks he is being practical.

"With 17 candidates, it's difficult to focus on the issues," he said. "I'm trying to get people to at least know who I am.

"I think if people focused on the issues and got to know me, they'd vote for me anyway," he added.

Johnston, who says he has attended school board meetings regularly for the past three years, is promoting better communication among the board, parents and staff members.

His ideas include putting a teacher representative on the board; eliminating the restrictions on what people can speak about during the open forum portion of board meetings, known as the Listening Post; and holding board meetings designed for staff members to share concerns and ideas.

Thirty grand might be a lot of money to pump into a school board race, but Donald F. Norris, a policy sciences professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, sees the reasoning behind Johnston's plan. It's a large field -- 17 people actively campaigning, plus another candidate whose name will remain on the ballot despite unofficially dropping out.

"The most important thing when you've got 18 people running is name recognition, name recognition, name recognition," Norris said.

Whether Johnston's campaign works depends in part on how people view his strategy, Norris said. If people perceive it as buying the election, "this could backfire," he said.

But it's a plus that none of the money is coming from special-interest groups, Norris added.

Pros and cons

Skullney, whose organization doesn't generally follow school board races, said it disturbs her that the trend of expensive campaigns has filtered to such a local level. She worries that it will set a norm for Howard school board races and price some people out of the job.

But the fact that Johnston is willing to spend so much of his own money impresses board Chairman Sandra H. French.

"What it does tell me is how committed he is to getting on the school board," said French, who spent about $4,500 on her last campaign. "That's a lot of personal commitment."

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