When Cecelia Espenoza decided to run for a seat on the nonpartisan School Board last year as an Independent, she expected it would be difficult to overcome the organizational structure and fund-raising prowess of the two political parties.
What she was unprepared for was the power of the sample ballots, which are distributed by volunteers of both parties outside polling station.
Though the Republicans and Democrats are barred from officially nominating candidates for School Board, they both hold caucuses to grant their endorsement to those running.
The individuals they endorse are then listed on their sample ballots alongside candidates for County Board, the Virginia General Assembly and statewide office. On the official ballots, no party affiliation is adjacent to candidates’ names.
“I didn’t realize how much the sample ballot would hurt me,” Espenoza said. “Sixty percent of the electorate had no clue there was a School Board race. People take the sample ballot from the party they support and then just follow that down the line.”
Following School Board Vice Chair Mary Hynes’ announcement last month that she will not run again, potential candidates are jockeying for the endorsements of the Republicans and Democrats, hoping to parlay their backing into a victory in November.
The prospect of a hotly contested race has renewed the question of whether the political parties are injecting a high degree of partisanship into the process by holding an endorsement caucus.
“The whole point is there is supposed to be a distinction between endorsed candidates and party candidates,” said Espenoza, a life-long Democratic activist who is prohibited from seeking her party’s endorsement because of her employment with the Justice Department. “We need to get the parties out of this process.”
David Foster, who won the 1999 School Board election as an independent and is the only one of the five members on the board who is not a Democrat, has long believed that holding endorsements for School Board races goes against the spirit of Virginia’s law.
“To endorse them strikes me as an end run around that principle,” said Foster, who received the backing of the county’s Republicans in 1999 even though he did not seek it.
Local officials from both parties defended the practice, arguing that they have an obligation to weigh in.
“If you’re going to have an elected office, the parties have the right and responsibility to be involved,” said James Turpin, the immediate past chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC). “People need to know where the parties stand.”
Only 15 percent of Arlington residents have children in the county’s schools. Realistically, many voters are not going to take the time to get to know the School Board candidates and issues because they are not directly impacted by the school system, said Bill Lockhart, chairman of the Arlington County Republican Committee.
Therefore, a party’s stamp of approval is necessary because it lets the voter know that a particular candidate shares the same values they hold dear, local Democrats and Republicans said.
“As the Democratic Party we have a brand that is valuable, because over a long time it has developed a reputation for standing for certain issues,” said Peter Rousselot, the current chair of ACDC. “If a candidate has been certified by the Democrats, that means something to people.”
IN RESPONSE TO the Arlington School Board’s efforts in the mid-1950s to integrate the county’s schools, the Virginia General Assembly ended the practice of School Board elections, making them appointed positions. It was not until voters approved a referendum in 1993 that county residents could again chose its School Board members.
In the mid-1990s the two political parties agreed to not be directly involved in the process, instead ceding that ground to the non-partisan Arlingtonians for a Better County, which endorsed candidates. But over the course of the decade the power of that organization waned, and starting with the 1999 election both the Democrats and Republicans began to issue formal, independent endorsements.
Some county residents and officials believe- t there has to be a better way. And they cite Alexandria as a nearby model for conducting a non-partisan School Board process; the Alexandria branches of the two parties have agreed not to hold endorsement caucuses.
“Alexandria [demonstrates] that this need not and should not be partisan,” Foster said.
Hynes retorted that it is unfair to compare the two localities because they have such different systems. Alexandria divides its School Board race into smaller districts, while Arlington’s are countywide, and holds their election in the spring when local candidates do not have to vie with state and national ones for residents’ attention.
She believes that the party caucuses enable parents to play a larger role in the process. Many qualified candidates would otherwise not run as independents because they do not have the large sums of money required to finance a campaign, Hynes added.
Both parties are also reluctant to remove themselves from School Board elections because they use them to recruit qualified individuals and groom aspiring politicians.
“Running for this office is the first testing grounds for candidates, and allows them to learn the process, hone their skills and eventually run for higher office,” Rousselot said.
Neither party is capable of unilaterally withdrawing from School Board elections, and any action would have to be taken in unison, as was done in Alexandria.
Democratic officials said there has been little groundswell of support within the party for ending the practice of holding caucuses. “I am aware of no such discussion at any official Democratic meeting,” Rousselot said.
Republicans, who have been trounced in the past two School Board elections, remain more open to the possibility.
“We are still going to do it as long as the Democrats do,” Lockhart said. “But it’s something I would be interested in exploring with our executive committee.”