<pc>Photo by Seth Rosen/The Connection
<cl>Sally Baird, shown here registering to vote, captured 51.6 percent of the vote to win last Saturday’s Democratic caucus for School Board
<pc>Photo by Seth Rosen/The Connection
<cl>Sharon Davis, who has twice served as chair of the county’s Democratic branch and is married to Del. Al Eisenberg, was the favorite among party insiders.
<ro>“I am so honored and proud that this is how it turned out. We had a plan, worked really hard and had a team that was dedicated.”
<ro1>— Sally Baird
<ro>“Parents who have children in the schools want someone on the board who represents them and will make decisions from a first-hand perspective.”
<ro1>— Karla Hagan
<48hd>Baird Claims Dems' Endorsement for School Bd.
<sh>Victory over more experienced Davis sets up two-woman race in November.
<1b>By Seth Rosen
Political novice Sally Baird rode a wave of grassroots support to a narrow victory over long-time Democratic activist Sharon Davis in the party’s School Board endorsement caucus last Saturday.
Baird won the Democratic endorsement by a mere 69 votes, 1,135 to 1,066. Turnout for the caucus, which was held at the NRECA building in Ballston, was 25 percent lower than last May’s heated contest between Democrats Ed Fendley and Jim Rock.
Baird will now face Independent Cecelia Espenoza — who garnered 20 percent of the vote in last year’s School Board race — in November for the right to replace retiring School Board Vice Chair Mary Hynes.
If Baird wins in November she will become the first lesbian elected to a School Board in the state of Virginia.
WHILE POLITICAL parties are prohibited from nominating candidates for School Board, the Democrats held a competitive caucus for the fourth time in the past decade. Residents who participated are obliged to sign a pledge agreeing to support the winner.
The local branch of the Republican Party is not expected to endorse a candidate this year, party Chairman Jeff Miller said.
“At this point it does not look like any other candidates will enter the race,” Miller said. “Anyone is welcome to come ask for our endorsement, but I don’t anticipate it.”
Democratic leaders praised both candidates for running positive, issues-oriented campaigns and claimed that turnout was commensurate with what they expected.
“It was a vigorous race run by both sides and helped energize the party,” said Peter Owen, the director of the caucus.
The result took some within the party by surprise, since Davis has twice served as the chairman of the county branch and had the backing of many Democratic insiders. She is also married to Del. Al Eisenberg and previously ran for the board in 1999.
Yet Democratic voters supported the candidate with young children in the school system — who billed herself as a much-needed, new voice on the board — over the contender with more than two decades worth of experience with Arlington schools.
“I am so honored and proud that this is how it turned out,” Baird, 41, said in an interview. “We had a plan, worked really hard and had a team that was dedicated.”
Baird serves as co-chair of the Early Childhood Education Advisory Committee and vice-president of the Drew Model Elementary School Association. She lives in South Arlington with her partner and two sons, ages 3 and 5, and is vice president of a non-profit tax publishing company.
Davis said she was pleased with “my forward-looking campaign that stressed my experience and ties to the community,” but added that she was disappointed by the low turnout.
“This process is a tough one,” Davis said. “I understood it would be a challenging thing to be successful at… especially on a Saturday in May.”
BAIRD GOT OFF to a quick start in February, announcing her candidacy just days after Hynes publicly declared she would not seek reelection. She immediately began going door to door and introduced herself to more than 2,000 Arlington families over the past three months.
“She spent countless days walking in the neighborhoods, meeting people, and that overcame some of the reality that she was less known at the start of the campaign,” said County Board member Jay Fisette, who backed Baird.
It was the personal connections Baird made during these meet-and-greet sessions that motivated residents to come out and cast their ballot for her last weekend, Baird Campaign Manager Karla Hagan said.
Baird was also able to mobilize a large portion of Arlington’s gay and lesbian community to vote, potentially tipping the contest in her favor.
“I think they felt connected and it was an opportunity for them to be heard,” Baird said.
County Board member Fisette agreed that Baird’s outreach efforts in the gay community paid dividends at the ballot box.
“Obviously the vast majority of the community knows Sally and that familiarity undoubtedly gave her a higher percentage” of the vote.
Another key reason for Baird’s victory was the fact she has young children that are just starting out in the school system, while Davis’ two boys graduated years ago.
“She is really invested in the system,” said Helena Klumpp, after she finished voting for Baird. “It was a very clear choice in this election … Sally has a fresh perspective.”
When Baird discussed early childhood education on the campaign trail, her message resonated with voters because she was able to detail how the issue affected her everyday life.
“Parents who have children in the schools want someone on the board who represents them and will make decisions from a first-hand perspective,” Hagan said.
THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY is now gearing up for what will surely be a lively, if not contentious, School Board race. With no Republican candidate in the mix, the contest will pit two life-long Democratic women— who both live in South Arlington and have children in the school system— against each other.
Local Democrats are expected to campaign heavily for Baird, and her name will be on the party’s sample ballots. “We will use our very strong resources to support her candidacy,” said Peter Rousselot, the chairman of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.
Espenoza is prohibited from seeking the Democratic endorsement because of her employment with the Justice Department.
It will be a challenge for any Arlington candidate to defeat a Democrat in the same election season when the party is marshaling its supporters to unseat Sen. George Allen and the reject the same-sex marriage constitutional amendment.
Espenoza knows she will be at a fundraising and organizational disadvantage, but believes voters will be swayed by her ideas and experience.
“We’re not fighting against Baird but against the Democratic machine,” Espenoza said. “I’m not running against someone but for an open seat.”
Baird’s team is unlikely to become complacent now that it has secured the crown jewel that is the Democratic endorsement.
“We are proud to have this endorsement and the benefits it comes with, but we’re taking nothing for granted,” Hagan said. “We will be out there continuing our grassroots efforts.”