In an election year when attack ads saturate the airwaves, candidates fling “cowpies of distortion,” and Etch a Sketches are suspect, campaigning at Bethesda Elementary is a kind of reverse civics lesson, where the kids do the opposite of what it takes to win in the real world.
Candidates at the affluent, 500-student school, where many parents have political connections of one sort or another, can’t give out buttons. They can’t wear T-shirts bearing their names. They can’t talk about their competition. And they can’t make promises. Not even about school lunches.
Bethesda’s rules are unusual among Montgomery County schools, said Kelly Ham, one of the two teachers who imposed them. At districtwide meetings of student council sponsors, Ham did not come across anyplace else with similar restrictions, she said.
The constraints, which were imposed in the 2008 election cycle to keep campaign expenditures from spiraling out of control, mean the kids have to forgo staples of schoolhouse campaigns, including the always-effective candy giveaways. Promises of slushies in the cafeteria or more recess can get them disqualified.
“We can’t say certain things because the kids would get too excited,” said Blake Layman, 9, a candidate for vice president. The teachers who oversee the election, for instance, put the kibosh on Blake’s idea to have a water-balloon fight on the school’s spirit day.
Blake was one of 10 candidates who crowded into the school’s media center Wednesday and Thursday morning to make their final pitches during the live morning newscast. After the student anchors hurried through announcements, the day’s lunch choices and the weather, each candidate took a turn before the camera.
There were a few gimmicks. Jaden Morris Wallach, 10, used his initials to point out his best qualities: J for justice, M for multitasker, W for wise. It was a risky strategy. (“You’re really going to say your middle name is ‘Morris’?” his mother recalled asking.)
Some used props. At one point in his speech, Reuben whipped out a pair of bricks made of shredded $100 bills that his mother, a former Treasury official, got from the Federal Reserve.
The wedge issue of the 2012 treasurer race is the upkeep of the pencil machine in the hallway staircase. A pencil costs a quarter, and it is the treasurer’s job to fill the machine and collect the money. Students complained that it is often empty. The bellyaching rankled the current treasurer, a fifth-grader who insisted that he had never left the machine empty for more than 48 hours.