Steve Stuban has talked to thousands of voters since he launched his campaign for an at-large seat on the Fairfax County School Board this summer.
Many agree with the message he's carried to forums, debates, back-to-school nights and PTA meet-and-greets. Some don't.
One man approached him after a candidates forum last week, calling Stuban a "tremendous candidate" and saying he wished he could vote for four at-large candidates. But the race has only three at-large seats, and he votes a straight party ticket.
The anecdote is one of several in what some call the "most intense" school board race the county has seen in years — one that could, in the most dramatic scenario, leave only two experienced members in their seats.
If past elections are any indication, Stuban doesn't stand a chance of winning. He has no endorsement from the Democrats or Republicans, and no independent candidate has ever won a school board seat in Fairfax County.
Though the elections, like those in every other school district across the state, are nonpartisan on paper, "you've always had to have an endorsement to win," said Tessie Wilson, who lost in the board's first election in 1995 but landed the Braddock District seat in 1999.
Party support gives endorsed candidates a number of advantages: donations from members or the party itself, a limitless army of volunteers, help with signage, inclusion in party literature.
"You have to have pretty significant household name to overcome either party's operation," Fairfax County Republican Committee chair Anthony Bedell said.
In practice, party politics have always shaped the course of this race — whether they've played a greater role than in years past, their presence has certainly attracted more attention.
State House and Senate candidates, as well as Gov. Bob McDonnell, have endorsed school board hopefuls in speeches and formal statements. Last week, County Board of Supervisors Chair Sharon Bulova warned voters against the risks of running to the polls steered solely by a sample ballot.
"There are some school board members who are running and some individuals who are working behind the scenes who have more of a political ideology agenda than I've seen in past years," Bulova said in an interview.
Parties have backed candidates since the first school board election in 1995, said Chris Braunlich, a former county school board member who now serves on the state board of education. In that way, their involvement is no different from the teachers unions and advocacy groups who give their own endorsements and spread literature among their membership, he said.
But in many ways the endorsements are acting more than ever as a guide for voters in the down-ballot race, who this year face a greater number of unknown candidates and an election that will turn over at least half of the 12-member board.
What voters are seeing in Fairfax is "a step beyond how active and influential parties are becoming across the state," said Steve Farnsworth, a Virginia politics expert and professor at George Mason University. The politicization of Virginia races from the top down is a trend that's grown for at least the past decade, Farnsworth said, one that has planted itself firmly in this year's school board elections.
"Technically this is a nonpartisan election — with quotes around technically. People know which party backs which candidate," Farnsworth said. "The idea that elections could take place without party involvement is a rather quaint idea — it's not something that's confluent with this hyper partisan environment."
Electing school board members is a fairly recent process for the county. Until 15 years ago, a board member was appointed by his or her district's county supervisor, with at-large candidates chosen by the chairman, said Bulova, who was elected to the Braddock District supervisor seat in 1988.
Those two-year appointments were almost always given along party lines, said school board member Stu Gibson, who ran for and won the Hunter Mill District seat in that first election.
Democrats controlled the Board of Supervisors until 1991, when Republican Tom Davis, who would later serve seven terms in Congress, became chair, Gibson said, flipping the balance by appointing more Republican school board members. A referendum allowed the board to instead become an elected body in 1995.
"It's best that school board members are accountable to the voters, in order for them to act responsibly and reflect the views of their constituents," Bulova said.
Heading into those elections, "the understanding was [candidates] would not run as partisans," Bulova said. But "right away people started asking, 'How do I know if folks that are running are people who would be endorsed by the Republicans or Democrats?'"
Bulova said people wanted a political handle on candidates' positions.
"Even though it was nonpartisan, both parties still wanted to shape candidates that were running, what ideologies and policies were brought to the board," Bedell said. "It's a nice warm and fuzzy thing to say [these elections are nonpartisan], but they're not. They're clearly endorsed by either party. It'd be better to have it out and be transparent about it and let the best candidate win."
"The affiliations quickly drew criticism for the way they played out in decisions," Gibson said. He and Braunlich, who also was elected in 1995, said they think those elections and the resulting atmosphere was more party-driven than the one that exists today.
"We were called highly partisan and dysfunctional ... and we were all of those things," said Braunlich, a Republican-endorsed board member who served until 2003. "But we didn't vote differently when we got on the board because we were Democrat or Republican. … We were Democrat or Republican because we voted differently and had different strongly held views on education."
At the time, board members disagreed on things from math instruction to textbook adoption, he said.
"When I was first on the board, every vote was 8 to 4. The eight Democrats voted as a bloc," Wilson said. "You didn't break party ranks ever on a vote. But in the last four to six years that hasn't been the case."
Wilson and Gibson, endorsed by opposing parties, now vote together more often than they vote apart. The departure from the former politically charged environment came in 2003 — the last time the school board had the kind of turnover it faces today.
This year's election seems to be focused on "big picture" issues that have, in some cases, drawn alliances across party lines, Braunlich said. Candidates, particularly in the at-large race, end up on the same page on a number of different issues. All tend to think the board needs a better independent audit, all want to create an ombudsman position and all want to improve the relationship with parents and teachers.
"I think it's intense, but I don't think it's intense along party lines necessarily. … A lot of this is divided philosophically," Wilson said.
But because the school board is meant to be a nonpartisan body, some say selecting candidates should take place along those lines as well.
Each election cycle, small groups of party activists endorse candidates largely without input from the larger electorate.
"I don't think people realize that, and that's not the way it's intended to be," said Maria Allen, a former at-large candidate who first sought the Hunter Mill school board seat but knew her chances of receiving a Democratic endorsement against Pat Hynes would be slim.
She also lost her bid for an endorsement for the at-large seat, but "came to find out through the course of that the decisions made were not based on the candidates education issues or qualifications to serve on the they were made on your loyalty to the party, your insider status," Allen said.
She continued her run for weeks in part to try to take "some of that control away," she said. But members of the Fairfax County Democratic Committee, as part of their pledge, agree to support all party-endorsed candidates. Allen, as a member of the party, would be violating that agreement if she ran anyway, FCDC Chair Rex Simmons said.
Fairfax County Republican Committee membership does not include that kind of agreement, Bedell said.
Because of that violation, a meeting was called to vote to kick Allen out. There wasn't a quorum, so she retained her membership.
Nonpartisan elections, in theory, would allow "for greater discussion of issues rather than the automatic vote depending on one's partisan preference," Farnsworth said.
In several Virginia jurisdictions, parties are not involved with school board races, Braunlich said. But taking the partisan approach away in Fairfax may be not only impossible, many said, but could also damage candidates' ability to run.
Stuban, who has since gotten support from a number of donors, said "some candidates are reliant on those parties for donations and volunteers."
To send a postcard to the about 140,000 people that voted in this election four years ago, at 50 cents each, would cost a candidate $70,000, Allen said.
"This is a burden. It is not an insignificant amount that candidates are spending," said Stuban, who could not seek an endorsement because of his position with the Department of Defense; Republican Sup. Pat Herrity (Springfield) and Republican-endorsed School Board member Patty Reed (Providence) sought an endorsement from the FCRC on his behalf but he did not receive it, and decided with his family to pay for his own campaign.
But more important than cash is a spot on the party's sample ballot, which are handed out at the polls on Election Day. Virginia ballots only show party affiliation in General Assembly, state and federal races. Local races, like those for supervisors or school board, don't include "D" "R" or "I" tags next to candidates' names.
"That's where the most votes come from," Bedell said.
In Montgomery County, Md., political groups stay out of nonpartisan school board races, Republican Chair Mark Uncapher said. They don't make endorsements, and as a result, "both Republicans and Democrats get on the board." Democrat and Republican organizations host events — and some candidates can be identified as being members of a party, especially those who have served or tried to run for other offices — but parties don't get involved.
"A candidate with a specific set of interests can reach across party lines without having to deal with that kind of opposition," Uncapher said.
The county's two teachers unions endorsed a fairly even number of candidates supported by Republicans and Democrats (along with Stuban) this year, "which really shows the issues are not clearly party-driven issues," Allen said. "It's party involvement that makes it partisan.
But in Fairfax, there's likely no turning back.
"How much more partisan it can get only time will tell," Farnsworth said. "But it's certainly not going to get less partisan."
This article has been updated.