How Prince George's Got the Deal Done

PETER A. JAY

October 31, 1993|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- The motto of Prince George's County is Semper Eadem, meaning ''Always the Same.'' It's another illustration of the principle that history eventually makes every motto-writer's work look foolish.

When Prince George's was 40 or 50 years younger it was still a tobacco-and-tidewater county, rural and conservative, and as resistant to change as the words on the county seal suggest. Now it's Maryland's largest jurisdiction, having quietly eased past shrinking Baltimore since the 1990 census, and badly needs a new motto. Non Est Qualis Erat -- ''It Ain't What It Used to Be'' -- would do nicely.

In its politics, Prince George's is noteworthy not because it has been overwhelmed by change but because it has accommodated it so smoothly. Viewed close up, the county's political life frequently appears chaotic, but there is order in the tumult. Albeit messily, multiculturalism in Prince George's works. Within the county's Democratic organization, expediency rules.

Thus in the past 30 years, in which two enormous demographic shifts took place, various odd but effective alliances have been struck. In 1966 the down-home old guard and the new suburbanites -- though frequently despising one another -- formed a brilliantly effective coalition. Today, blacks and whites are doing the same.

Before 1966, Prince George's had a black population of less than 15 percent, and no black elected officials. That year it elected its first, Delegate Arthur King. (Even then, Prince George's was dominated by people who had moved in from elsewhere. Mr. King was the only one of 16 delegates elected from the county that year to be born there, and one of only two to be born in Maryland. This pattern still holds true; there are now 21 Prince George's delegates, but only one, Beatrice Tignor, is a native of the county.)

Today, half the county's nearly 750,000 residents are black. Blacks hold many offices, and have an impact on county politics that is almost, but not quite, commensurate with their numbers. Black political success in the county has been tempered slightly by low rates of participation. Proportionately, fewer blacks than whites register to vote in Prince George's, and fewer of those who do register turn out on election days.

The changing racial mix of the county makes it clear why local politicos, planning ahead for the election of 1994, were alarmed to discover that no fewer than 5 of the county's 19 circuit court judges would be on the ballot -- and that all five were, gasp, white men. In Prince George's, this didn't sound like a political Dream Team.

On the contrary, it was just the sort of thing that could shatter the ruling Democratic coalition along racial lines. That was unthinkable, so some fertile minds went to work. As none of the judges wanted to retire, at least one had to be persuaded to do something else, so that a black replacement could be appointed to his seat on the bench. An imaginative and complex plan to make this possible soon evolved.

On the recommendation of U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes, who is up for re-election next year and doesn't need a discontented Prince George's, President Clinton nominated Prince George's state's attorney Alexander Williams to the federal district court. Mr. Williams is black. The Senate is expected to consider the nomination soon. Once Mr. Williams is confirmed, the office of state's attorney will be vacant.

Under Maryland law, the judges of the local circuit court will then appoint an interim prosecutor to fill out the last year of Mr. Williams' term. They're expected to choose their colleague Judge Vincent J. Femia, one of the above-mentioned Five White Men.

Judge Femia, a colorful and outspoken figure, had been looking forward to the judicial campaign. (He had puckishly proposed to the four other judges up for election that all five be photographed in basketball uniforms, and run on the slogan ''They Can't Jump -- But They Can Judge.'' The others said no thanks.) But he used to be an assistant state's attorney, and says he wouldn't mind being a prosecutor again.

Apparently he has the votes on the court to get the interim appointment to the post -- and quite possibly the personal popularity to run for a full term next year and win.

Thus the contending racial interest groups, while perhaps not entirely satisfied, are at least placated. If all goes as planned, there will be at least two new black judges from Prince George's -- Mr. Williams on the federal bench and Mr. Femia's successor, to be named by Governor Schaefer, on the circuit court.

There will be a white state's attorney, at least until the next election. And the four remaining incumbent judges, running for new terms, should have an easy time of it, because no challenger will get organization support.

All this pragmatism contrasts starkly with the kamikaze approach often adopted by politicians in other jurisdictions. In Prince George's, your race and your politics aren't nearly as important as whether you win the election. That's refreshing. It might be the basis of a new county motto, if someone can work out the Latin.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer. His column appears Sundays and Thursdays.

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