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Elections chief casts her vote for new career


When she was caught in the middle of Maryland's disputed 1994 gubernatorial election and became fodder for talk-radio rants, when state and federal prosecutors were investigating claims that she helped Parris N. Glendening steal the governor's mansion, Barbara E. Jackson fought back with whisk and spatula.

Too stressed out to sleep much, the city election administrator spent a year's worth of restless nights making cinnamon buns, cookies, pound cake, cheesecake, red velvet cake, German chocolate cake, apple cake and black-bottom cupcakes.

"I baked and I baked and I baked - and I ate," Jackson said. "I gained about 70-some pounds in a year."

Jackson, who was cleared of wrongdoing, lost the weight, but not her appetite for whipping up sweets. At age 59, as she retired this month from the Baltimore City Board of Elections after 38 years, Jackson was launching a career as a pastry chef.

She has a job lined up making desserts two or three days a week for the Charred Rib restaurant in Timonium, baking "whatever they want. I can make it all."

Pretty confident for a woman who didn't know her way around the kitchen until well into adulthood.

Her mother, a private cook for the late Baltimore hatter and philanthropist Lester S. Levy, prepared all of Jackson's meals - even after she was living on her own, married and the mother of two - until suddenly going on strike one day.

"I could not cook a lick," Jackson said.

She constantly consulted her mother, tossed out countless flops and produced one horrible Thanksgiving dinner - complete with undercooked turkey, gritty collard greens and leaden dinner rolls - before getting the hang of it.

Neither did Jackson know a thing about elections when she stepped into the board's offices as a 21-year-old office temporary.

Then a married mother of two young children, she wasn't looking for a career, Jackson said, just extra money so that she and her husband could buy a house. She stayed on after they got the house because they could use the extra income to fix it up. Then her marriage broke up, and working was no longer optional.

Jackson worked her way up from registration clerk to assistant registrar, registrar, assistant chief clerk, chief clerk and, for the past 17 years, elections director.

Her last year on the job has been one to remember, with a near-record surge of new voter registrations - 16,000 in September and 20,000 more in the two weeks leading up to the Oct. 12 deadline. Even with 13 temporary employees hired to help handle the crush, Jackson and her staff worked seven days a week for a month, from 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. until 8 or 9 at night.

The stress led to another round of midnight baking - and to the demise of her 45-year-old Kitchen Aid standing mixer, which conked out a few weeks after the election.

The gray metal mixer had gotten its biggest workout 10 years earlier, during an election that stands out for Jackson.

In the governor's race a decade ago, Democrat Glendening beat Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey by 5,993 votes.

Sauerbrey and her supporters challenged the results in court, alleging that 51,000 votes, primarily in Baltimore and in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, were questionable. They said votes had been cast in the names of dead people, that voters had listed abandoned houses as their addresses and that voting machines had been tampered with.

"It was the first time that my integrity had been questioned," Jackson said. "I just thought that everybody knew that Barbara Jackson is as fair and honest as a person could be. When I realized that not everyone thought that about me, that was really devastating."

When the case went to trial, Sauerbrey's lawyers were able to question about 3,600 votes, and the suit was thrown out.

Republicans continued to call for Jackson's resignation and for criminal investigations by federal and state authorities.

After a 10-month inquiry, investigators found "error, poor judgment, negligence and outright incompetence," but no criminal conspiracy. Prosecutors found no evidence of "phantom" voters or of anyone tampering with voting machines.

Some discrepancies in vote tallies resulted from antiquated voting equipment and the failure of poll judges to accurately record the names of voters as they entered the polls, investigators found.

Stephen Montanarelli, then the state prosecutor, criticized Jackson for failing to make sure that the names of voters who had not been to the polls in five years had been purged from the roll. But he said there was no evidence that her failure was anything more than negligence or a miscommunication.

At the time, Sauerbrey said that Montanarelli's investigation had been hampered by a "lack of resources" and that she still thought fraud had occurred.

Asked recently to comment on Jackson's retirement, Sauerbrey, now ambassador to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, said State Department rules prohibit her from making political comments.

"My comments from the time I was dealing with the election board are probably about as relevant as anything I could say today," she said.

The head of a community activist group that has sometimes had differences with Jackson had only good things to say about the outgoing elections director.

The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now butted heads with Jackson in 2002 as the group sought to get a measure on the ballot to shrink and reshape the City Council.

"She kicked out a lot of [petition] signatures, but she also followed through and made sure they did identify exactly how many people were right," said Mitchell Klein, head organizer with the group, known as ACORN.

In the end, Jackson validated 10,065 signatures - 65 more than were needed - to get the plan, which was highly unpopular with incumbent council members, on the ballot. Voters approved the measure.

"She's done a fantastic job in a hard job where there's always going to be controversy," Klein said. "I know personally she's tried to be fair. I think she has a lot of integrity."

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