All of the 10 candidates who sought the vacant seat to represent the southern part of Anne Arundel County on the County Council faced tough questions that ran the gamut of controversial issues in interviews before the panel.
But one candidate, Tricia L. Johnson, the eventual victor and a longtime member of the county Board of Education - which has frequently opposed the council on funding issues - seemed to get whacked particularly hard. Councilman C. Edward Middlebrooks, an early supporter of Johnson in the voting process, interjected: "Some of these questions are totally not fair."
Does she support the "13th high school"? Would she be an automatic "yes" vote on a request from the school board and Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell to give the school system $7 million for a contingency fund to prevent planned furloughs? How would she vote for slots? Her position on a tax cap? Councilwoman Cathleen M. Vitale, who has criticized school system spending, asked, "At what point do you believe that you stop new programs and focus only on students, classrooms and renovations?"
Johnson, a Republican who is set to be sworn in Monday as District 7's newest representative, was all smiles as she answered the barrage of questions, apparently selling members on what she said she would bring to the position - "work ethic, collaboration, common sense and hard work."
"You have to protect the classroom, the teacher," Johnson answered Vitale, who ultimately cast the winning vote for Johnson. "We've cut travel, training subscriptions, textbooks ... to try to protect that classroom. It's the heart and soul of every district. ... Always, always protect the classroom."
It was an answer, that supporters say, speaks to Johnson's unwavering commitment to the county schools. A Davidsonville resident and mother of five children who all graduated from the county's public schools, she got her start volunteering at Davidsonville Elementary.
She was president of the school's PTA from 1996 to 2002 and a board member for more than a decade, a time during which she was a force in pushing successfully for the school system to build a new building for the crumbling school.
"I was the nag," Johnson said in a recent interview. "I was always pushing. Many, many times, I was the pit bull that wouldn't let go."
Johnson was appointed to the council after the departure of Chairman Ed Reilly, who was appointed to the seat of retiring state Sen. Janet Greenip.
Johnson, 54, was raised on a farm in Illinois and graduated from Monmouth College in her home state, where she earned a bachelor's degree in communications. She moved to Anne Arundel in 1991. Since 2007, she has worked as the director of marketing for the Lake Presidential Golf Club in Upper Marlboro.
Of her six years on the board - including two years as president and one as vice president - she spearheaded the effort to organize the school system's list of funding priorities and also helped to create a fund for teachers to receive $100 each to buy supplies and teaching supplements.
She'll also serve as a big asset during budget decisions, as the council forks over about half of its budget to the school system, council members said.
"She brings a wealth of experience from serving on the school board," Middlebrooks said soon after she was approved by the council. "In these tough [economic] times - and things are going to get tougher - it will be good to have her."
Johnson, too, said she hopes her knowledge of the school system acts as a conduit for better relations.
"Hopefully I can help explain it," Johnson said of the school board's budget process. "Those years of being on that side, I hope will help, if my colleagues need it. We all want the same things, whether it's the school board or the County Council - the best life in Anne Arundel County for our students and all of our citizens."
The superintendent, who has been her ally, called her an "outstanding public servant and advocate" upon news of her appointment to the council.
"Her decades of service to the children of Anne Arundel County, including the last six years as a member of our Board of Education, have had a profound impact that will be felt for years to come," Maxwell said in a statement. "Her knowledge of the county, her litany of volunteerism, and her work with our schools have prepared her well for this position. Her service to our school system will be missed, but I am confident she will continue to do a great job for the citizens of Anne Arundel County and for the residents of District 7."
Johnson has already started work, attending an early morning meeting on the county's general development plan, the day after she was appointed. It's an issue that she admittedly has to "play catch-up" on.
"I know she'll be a quick study and do an excellent job," said Josh Cohen, a Democrat representing Annapolis on the council.