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MoCo School Board Smackdown

Carey Apple, a recreation supervisor and political unknown, spent $25 on his campaign for the Montgomery County Board of Education. Yet last week he received 25,876 votes.

To candidates, some parents and other observers, the outcome of the school board primary was puzzling.

Alies Muskin, a longtime PTA leader backed by the influential county teachers association and widely expected to ultimately win the at-large seat being vacated by Sharon W. Cox, came in third and didn't advance to the general election.

The two top finishers, who will compete in November, were Philip Kauffman, the man Muskin was expected to beat, and Tommy Le, a protest candidate who, like Apple, spent virtually nothing on his campaign.

Apple, who garnered almost as many votes as Muskin, placed fourth. Rob Seubert, a former educator who was about as well-funded as Apple, received fewer than 10,000 votes and placed last.

Some see Muskin's defeat as evidence of a voter backlash against the teachers union and school board. That could explain the comparative success of outsider candidates Apple and Le, both of whom assailed the teacher union for exercising undue influence on the board and who criticized the board for being unresponsive to residents.

But voter antipathy would not entirely explain the strong showing for Kauffman, a deputy assistant general counsel in the federal Department of Veterans Affairs. Although not endorsed by the union, he has stressed the need to pay teachers competitive salaries and has been only mildly critical of the current school board.

Kauffman, Apple and Le all said they were surprised by the vote totals. Apple said he would have been happy with 3,000 votes. Le said he was never running to win, although now, headed to the general election, he might have to revise his goals.

Apple was essentially a one-issue candidate, motivated by anger over school boundary decisions affecting his Germantown community. His brother didn't realize he was running until a mutual friend told him, and many other friends told him they were surprised to see his name on the ballot on Election Day.

His showing prompted a theory on parent e-mail lists: Perhaps inattentive voters saw Apple's name on the ballot and surmised that he, not Muskin, had been endorsed by the teachers. The union's endorsement emblem is apple-shaped and widely known as the Apple Ballot.

There's another theory that could explain how residents cast their votes: Apple's name appeared first on the ballot, and electoral wisdom suggests that the candidate listed first gets an advantage, particularly when the candidates are unknown or the race is relatively unimportant.

Tom Israel, executive director of the teachers association, suggested that many voters made a choice in the school board race "based on not knowing much about any of the candidates," simply because they were already in the booth and it was an easy ballot.

"Do I think alphabetical placement on the ballot matters?" he said in an e-mail. "In races where folks don't know the candidates, yes."

Apple, Kauffman and Le were the top three names on the ballot, and three of the top four finishers.

But none of them gives the theory much credence.

"I truthfully believe that my message and what I stand for in my campaign identify with a lot of voters," Le said. "I'm an underdog, and not everybody is going to support me. But I know the public does."

-- Daniel de Vise

By Anne Bartlett  |  February 21, 2008; 9:46 AM ET
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