The Prince George's County NAACP held a "candidates' night" last week for two black candidates running for the school board, their white opponents and the unopposed black incumbent Bonnie Johns.
Due to an admitted scheduling snafu, the regular meeting ran long and the white candidates had to leave. On the way out one said, "I don't know why I came, anyway. I'm not going to get their endorsement."
So, perhaps symbolically, the three black women candidates -- Mary Touchstone, Malinda Miles and Johns -- appeared as a confident triumverate before a group of about 25 to talk about what they want to do to improve a school system that is certain to be more than 50 percent black when the new enrollment numbers come out this month.
School officials who keep track of such things know that this is the year that the schools officially will be more black than white. For politicians, who live and die by counting noses, the question is: "If the schools are as much as 55 percent black, how far behind can the county's electorate be?"
"I call it the 'new day' mentality," said black county council member Debbie Marshall about the growing political awareness of blacks in Prince George's County. She worked hard last month to help win a seat on the council for black Bowie banker Roy Dabney.
Marshall and other black elected officials, including State Sen. Tommie Broadwater (D-25th District), believe there are several critical levers that must be pulled by county blacks on Nov. 4, levers that say "no" to Ronald Reagan, "yes" to school board candidates Touchstone or Miles and "yes" to charter ammendment M.
The wording of questions K, L and M concernng the size of the county council and how it will be elected is tricky, but black leaders believe the bottom line for blacks voters is the same: only with at-large votng for a council of 11 or more members can blacks be assured of representation anywhere close to their numbers.
That's the way it used to be. In the 1978 election, all 11 council members were elected at large. But in 1982, under present law, only six members will be elected at large, with five from spcific districts.
Of the three questions on the ballot this year, only question M would come close to providing at-large voting.It provides that all 11 would be elected at large but five members would have to reside in specific districts.
Under question K, the council would be cut to nine members, all elected from districts. Question L also would cut the council to nine members, with five elected at large and four elected from districts.
As council member Floyd Wilson forcefully pointed out to the NAACP meeting last week, he and Marshall were elected in 1978 by finishing 10th and 11th in an 11-person race. Voting from districts, in Wilson's view, would produce only one sure black seat, while any reduction in at-large seats would put them beyond the threshold of black voting strength.
On the surface, there is nothing new about blacks seeking seats on the school board, said Norman "Chuck" Saunders, whose race in the southern third of the county against social worker Touchstone will be an important barometer of demographic change in the county.
In 1973, Saunders, who is white, beat black candidate Cameron Barron by a margin of almost three to one. As Saunders left the NAACP gathering, he said that he is "confident that I'll be re-elected, but not overconfident."
Nevertheless, he has been stumping vigorously, talking of the number of resolutions he has introduced and hammering at the "pseudo-intellectual philosophical jargon" of his opponent.
It is a prototypical struggle, Saunders being "country-born and country-raised" as he told some supporters last week, his opponent being a black professional woman who represents the force of new black aspirations in the county.
In 1973, former NAACP president William Martin lost a bid for the seat now eyed by Malinda Miles and Catherine Burch, who is white. The losing margin was less than 500 votes. In 1976, Otis Ducker, who is black, lost to Angelo Castelli, who is white, by about 16 percent of the total votes cast.
"It was not as serious a threat," said school board member Bonnie Johns of the earlier black tries for the school board. "These candidates [Touchstone and Miles] have been a part of countywide thinking. There has been much more in-depth planning and concentrated effort. In the 19 years since I've been in the county I have not seen this much coalescing," she added.
What would it mean for the county to awaken on Nov. 5 with three blacks on the school board?
It may provide a staunch defense of the schools in predominantly black neighborhoods that are underpopulated as their children are bused to outlying areas. As schools are closed and consloidated due to countywide enrollment declines, it is feared that these schools may be threatened with closing while outlying schools will be kept open, in part by the blacks who are bused there.
"Consolidation is one thing, but let's see who is going to be consolidated," said Johns.
Although their candidates' night fell apart because, as one officer put it, "We didn't have all our act together," the mood was upbeat in the parking lot afterward, and, above all, supportive.
As individuals, NAACP members offered advice on how to distribute a handout here or a bumper sticker there, or how to show up at a meeting. The candidates themselves buoyed each other's spirits for the remaining days of the campaign.
One board of elections official noted unofficially that of the approximately 10,000 voters registered in the last three days of registration in Prince George's, it seemed that three out of four were black.
Several black officials stressed that personal contact, the grapevine that the black community calls "the drum," could make the difference in 1980, no matter where blacks live in the county.
"The drama work a lot better than a tea party," said Marshall. "Everybody knows somebody who lives somewhere else," she added.