Teachers union’s backing is key in Montgomery

A tip on the apple ballot can mean a lot in frenzied election year, candidates and observers say

Friday, June 9, 2006

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Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
Democrats Heather Mizeur (Dist. 20, House of Delegates), Tom Hucker (Dist. 20, House of Delegates) and Saqib Ali (Dist. 39, House of Delegates) listen as they and others are endorsed by the Montgomery County Education Association in Rockville Thursday morning.

An endorsement on the Montgomery County teachers union’s coveted apple ballot has always carried considerable weight in the minds of county voters.

This year, in a wide-open election season, observers and candidates say the endorsements, announced Thursday in Rockville, carry added weight, especially for little-known political hopefuls.

‘‘The average voter doesn’t have the time to sift through the information,” said Ellen Lanahan, campaign manager for Saqib Ali (D), who received the union’s nod for the House of Delegates in District 39. ‘‘They won’t necessarily vote the [apple] ballot, but they might say, ‘At least let me take a look at these candidates. Because I know the teachers have done their homework.’”

Bruce Adams, a former Montgomery county councilman who was defeated in the Democratic primary for county executive by Douglas M. Duncan in 1994, ranked the teachers’ endorsement third in importance behind that of The Washington Post and the Democratic Party.

The union did not endorse a candidate for county executive in 1994. But endorsements can be helpful this year because there are a number of races where incumbents could face stiff challenges and voters are looking for guidance, said Adams, a Bethesda resident.

An average person might have a sense of the candidates for Congress, governor and county executive, he said.

‘‘[But] unless you’re one of these political junkies, you’re really not tuned into who’s running for House of Delegates or County Council or for school board ...,” Adams said. ‘‘It’s particularly huge for lower offices where there’s not a lot of visibility and not a lot of attention paid by the media.”

Ali said bluntly, ‘‘There’s no bigger endorsement. So many people I know go to the polls and take the ballot from the teachers.”

Some voters seek out the ballot, nicknamed for its apple shape, to take into the polling booth with them, he said.

Read the recommendations

To see the list of candidates the union has recommended, click here.

It can be particularly important in down-ballot races listed, such as with District 39 where Ali is running.

‘‘If you don’t know anyone, you just go with the apple ballot,” he said.

At Thursday’s announcement, Del. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. said he ‘‘wouldn’t be standing here as a delegate” without the union’s endorsement.

‘‘It’s the one piece of literature voters are willing to take at the polling place,” said Madaleno (D-Dist. 18) of Kensington, who received the union’s endorsement in the District 18 state Senate race. ‘‘I’ve seen candidates highlight their name and hand out the apple ballot. It’s the one that has the most credibility with the voters.”

Adams agreed that in a county that takes education seriously, voters take the teachers union’s recommendations seriously.

Four incumbent County Council members failed to receive the union’s endorsement, including Michael L. Subin (D-At large) of Gaithersburg, the longtime chairman of the council’s Education Committee.

Union President Bonnie Cullison said Subin and Councilwoman Nancy M. Floreen failed to get backing because they voted to delay a cost-of-living adjustment for teachers and other county employees in 2003.

Floreen (D-At large) of Garrett Park said the council made a tough decision in 2003, based on projected shortfalls in county revenue.

‘‘It’s a group I respect,” she said of the union. ‘‘They didn’t endorse me the last time [in 2002] and I came in with the most votes in the general election ... Given that we’ve fully funded their budget and funded teachers, I think it’s an interesting position they’ve chosen to stake out here.”

The union also declined to endorse a candidate for county executive, but said it would support the Democratic nominee.

The union interviewed both Republican candidate Charles R. Floyd and independent candidate Robin Ficker, Cullison said.

About 20 union members spent hours over the past month interviewing and researching the positions of more than 100 candidates. The recommendations were voted on by the union’s board of directors and then by more than 130 union members.

‘‘I’ve been involved [in the process] for three election cycles,” Cullison said. ‘‘This was absolutely the most intense.”

Last month the union recommended Duncan for governor and former congressman Kweisi Mfume for the U.S. Senate.

The state teacher’s union backed Mfume for Senate, but failed to take sides in Duncan’s campaign against Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, saying only that the union would endorse the winner of the Democratic primary.