Campaign manager Doug Smith worked the convention floor like a pro. His candidate was in trouble. But Smith had a plan.
"The whole thing is to make him the opponent look bad," Smith whispered to a friendly delegate, his Norman Rockwell-freckled face masking the devious political plots racing through his head. "And we've got to get some friendly questions lined up for our man."
The questions were killing candidate Gordon Shock. His answers just weren't impressing the more than 100 high school delegates who gathered at the annual student convention last week to elect the next student representative to the Fairfax County School Board.
"You have to understand the pressure he's under," Smith argued to a group of skeptical delegates during a caucus.
It was junior politics at its hottest. And it had all the elements: the candidates pushing their platforms; the campaign managers pushing their candidates; the strategists moving from caucus to caucus, sampling the winds; the student newspaper reporters in the back row, scribbling furiously.
"There's just as much chaos here as with the real thing," chortled Del. James H. Dillard (R-Fairfax), who doubles as a county school system adminstrator when the General Assembly isn't in session.
For some of the seven candidates seeking the nonvoting, unpaid School Board position, the campaign began weeks ago in their home high schools. Some schools banded together behind a single candidate, hoping unified blocks might improve chances for election. Others paid no attention to the practicalities of campaign strategy. Langley High School, for example, sent three candidates to the convention.
Since few candidates were known outside their own schools, it all came down to one day of speech-making and hand-shaking.
"Popularity, it's all popularity at this level," admitted one candidate's campaign manager.
The issues varied little among the candidates: Whether schools should eliminate student smoking areas, whether the county's grading system is fair, whether the student member should be allowed to vote again, a privilege revoked in 1976.
A few tossed in more original campaign promises:
"I will not be a bore," vowed Kathryn C. Falk of Langley High.
In the end, after five rounds of close voting, the seat went to a candidate who'd been groomed for the job by other students active in the election process since his freshman year in high school: West Springfield junior Christopher Sabec.
Sabec, 17, said the School Board race is the ninth victory in 10 elections during his amateur political career.
He had worked his way up through the ranks of the Student Advisory Council, an advisory council composed of representatives of all 23 high schools in the county, and sponsor of the convention. Last year he lost a bid for the School Board seat to Ted Voorhees of Marshall High, but was elected chairman of the county-wide SAC.
Sabec won in a tight, 53-46 runoff with Gordon Shock.
Shock's team saw the end coming before the last ballot.
"Our block is splitting," moaned Doug Smith. "Some of our delegates are going against Gordon because they're mad at our school for voting for Sabec last year because they thought he was cute."
Fairfax is one of only a handful of school boards nationwide that seats a student member or representative. The county board of supervisors created the student board member's seat in 1972.
Since the voting right was revoked in 1976, the student representative has been the stepchild and token 11th member of the board. The student is allowed to participate in board debates, but can't offer motions. The student may vote for the record, but the vote doesn't count.
The student representative serves a one-year term beginning July 1.
Outgoing student representative Voorhees said he felt he gained the respect of School Board members during his year on the board, but said he was taken less than seriously by some school administrators and staff members.
School Board members and staffers, he said, occasionally called him "son" or "boy" during public debates.
"We certainly respected his opinion and felt he gave valuable input," said board member Carmin Caputo.
Voorhees was caught in a controversy just weeks before his term was due to expire when he was given a one-day suspension from school, for alleged participation in a food fight in the school cafeteria.
Voorhees denied the charge and appealed to the area superintendent, who, he said, upheld the principal's suspension. Voorhees is now debating whether to appeal to his colleagues on the School Board.
"It would put the School Board in a bad political position," Voorhees said.