Edna Frazier-Cromwell sensed victory Wednesday night as D.C. school board member John Warren (Ward 6) voted for her in the eighth ballot of the board's unsuccessful attempt to appoint a candidate to its vacant Ward 1 seat.
Five other board members, one short of the six of 10 needed for a winning majority, had voted for Frazier-Cromwell in the seventh ballot. Warren's vote was his first for Frazier-Cromwell. But it quickly became meaningless as board member Bettie Benjamin (Ward 5), who had voted for Frazier-Cromwell in the preceding four ballots, shifted to another candidate, and the board quit for the night on Benjamin's motion to recess.
"I was caught completely off guard. I was looking for it to be the victory vote," said Frazier-Cromwell, chairman of the 14th and U Streets Coalition. "It was a disturbing thing. I was the one candidate who was gaining."
Instead of pressing on, the board postponed the issue for a week, citing, in the words of school board President David Eaton, "genuine disagreement as to who should receive this appoinment."
It was a move that left several observers and board members confused and disappointed, and generated criticism of what appeared to be the board's indecision--the kind of criticism the board often endured in the past, but had been spared in recent months.
"No one wants to cast the deciding vote," said Anwar Saleem, chairman of the Ward One Democrats. "I think they should have been able to pick somebody." Saleem said that failure to pick a candidate this week would "tarnish their image as being a responsible board."
City Council member Frank Smith (D-Ward 1), whose election to the council last November created the vacancy, said the board did not want to reach a decision that night.
"It's why some people want the board president to be elected at large," he said. "People get tired of the spectacle, sitting there until late at night, switching votes but in a way where others knew who would shift and when. All of the good things that Eaton has brought to the board are in doubt and a lot of things are riding in the balance."
Manuel Lopez, a manager of vocational-technical training programs for the Navy who narrowly missed election to an at-large school board seat in 1981 and who was the only other candidate to receive as many as five votes in Wednesday's session, blamed political pressure.
"I'd like to bring back the votes that Mayor Marion Barry and people were able to buy off," said Lopez, referring to the assertion of several board members that Frazier-Cromwell has been supported by Barry, though Barry has never acknowledged the support. "What we saw was a lesson in politics with a capital 'p' and education with a small 'e.' "
The mayor's influence might have limited Frazier-Cromwell's chances at a time when the board is locked in a budget battle with Barry. "That hasn't helped Cromwell," board member R. David Hall (Ward 2) said before the balloting.
Board Vice President Nathaniel Bush (Ward 7), who wanted the board to stay and vote last Wednesday for as long as it took to appoint someone, but saw no problem with recessing, also blamed Barry. "The best thing that the mayor could have done was to stay out of the process," Bush said after the votes.
Other applicants and some Ward 1 community leaders said they were confused when they discovered last Wednesday that board members would use a method allowing each member to cast as many as 11 votes, one for each applicant, in each round of balloting.
"I wish that we had gone to an election process. There was no clarification of the process they used. It should have been explained to us and we should have been able to ask questions," said Jonas Milton, a private housing consultant who was an applicant for the seat.
"I'm disappointed. I was surprised by their voting techniques. It didn't make any sense to me," said Astor Moore, leader of the Ward One Council.
Board president Eaton has said that the process has been made more difficult by the large number of candidates, several more than previous boards have had to deal with in appointing someone to a vacant term.
"Too many people come out and try to run for everything," agreed Theresa Brown, advisory neighborhood commissioner for Ward 1's LeDroit Park area. "Nobody has even heard of most of them."
Marie Nahikian, who lost to Smith in the Ward 1 City Council primary and was a delegate to the D.C. Constitutional Convention, said the board "should have stated clearly early on what the criteria were. That would have eliminated some of the field."
Citing Washington politics, where the winner of the September Democratic primary is the shoo-in for the November elections, other applicants said they believed that the board should have had a clearer idea of whom they wanted and how they would handle the appointment after Smith's primary victory last year.
"I would have thought that the board members could have gotten a little closer to a consensus by the time they had that meeting," said Douglas G. Glasgow, a professor of social policy at Howard University who received as many as four votes in the balloting. "It's hard to say what the issues are because I don't know what criteria they are looking at. If you watched their voting, it was very difficult to tell."
Although the board was not expected to grapple in earnest with what to do about the selection until today, several options have already emerged.
"We are all looking for compromise candidates, other than those who were the consistent vote getters last Wednesday," said at-large board member Eugene Kinlow.
Another option, supported by at-large board member Barbara Lett Simmons from the start of the process, is to ask the City Council for permission to conduct a special election.
Part of the board support for that idea is the possibility that the 1983 board elections--which are scheduled to fill Smith's term, among others--may be postponed, meaning the appointed member would hold the seat for more than a year. But Barry and some council members, like Smith, are opposed to the idea.
A third idea would be to focus on the leading vote-getters and try to reach a consensus.
A fourth option, related to the first, would be to appoint an applicant who will rule out running for election when Smith's term expires, according to Simmons. "There will be a serious effort to look at that option," said Kinlow.
The board is also considering reopening the entire process, allowing new applicants to enter, conducting another public hearing and trying to vote again.
Yet another alternative would be to leave the post vacant, appointing one of the three at-large board members to represent Ward 1. Board president Eaton is the only at-large member who lives in Ward 1.
"We will probably have to start intense considerations of each option and go with the one we can come to an agreement on," Hall said.
"Six people have to agree and each one of the 10 has a different analysis of the situation. We are going to try our best to reach a compromise."