Prince George's attracts attention of its neighbor Washington: The HUD secretary and Senator Mikulski visited the county last week, bringing $14.1 million to change its landscape. Plans include rehabilitating public housing.

The Political Game

August 11, 1998|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

ANDREW M. Cuomo is the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, a venerable personage indeed, but Aug. 4 he was little more than a spectator at the Barb and Wayne show.

Even though he came with $14.1 million for Prince George's County, Cuomo occupied the background as two of the best one-line artists in politics -- Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry -- held forth at a number of venues: Seat Pleasant City Hall, a nearly abandoned housing development in Suitland and a local tavern there.

Though the U.S. Capitol stands virtually on the county's horizon, Prince George's faces as much difficulty as any community when it comes to attracting the attention of Washington bureaucracies.

"Politics," said Curry, "is a team sport. We needed a franchise player and did I get lucky." He turned toward a beaming Mikulski, whose uniform featured a bright red blazer to go with the heat.

Curry was fortunate, indeed, because Mikulski chairs a committee that reviews Cuomo's annual budget request. "But," she said, eyes twinkling, "he was enthusiastic about our needs to begin with."

What the county needed, among other things, was money to tear down an ugly barbed-wire fence encircling the U.S. Census Bureau enclave in Suitland. While committed to the safety of government workers, the senator said, safety need not come at the price of humiliation.

Mikulski and Cuomo came up with $1 million to start dismantling the eyesore. It will be replaced with a wrought-iron structure more pleasing to the eye and sensibilities.

Similar changes in the landscape, inner and outer, would come from rehabilitation of public housing in the county.

"We need to forge community out of a paradigm that has been remote and aloof," Curry said, referring to the federal government. Washington built thousands of housing units over the decades and then watched them deteriorate -- sometimes allowing landlords to collect government subsidies without providing maintenance.

"The big dogs" in Washington, Curry said, don't always listen to the "Chihuahuas" in places such as Prince George's. "Every now and then, though," he said, "we get a tendon."

"Woof, woof," said Mikulski, to the delight of the audience. Mikulski, Curry and Cuomo then signed a document that gives the county ownership of Manchester Square, a 516-unit apartment complex that the federal government took over in 1997 when the owner defaulted on a HUD-insured mortgage.

Nearby merchants such as Billy Tayac, who runs a furniture store with his son, said the government had better act quickly. His shop, a block or so from Manchester Square, is sinking, too.

"We ain't making any money," Tayac said. "People are scared to come in here."

He was referring to fear -- engendered by drug abuse and other crime -- that is partly responsible for the ugly fence. Curry said he hopes a new one will help to "liberate" some of the 9,000 Census Bureau workers who might call on Tayac or visit Cedar Hill Inn, where Cuomo, Mikulski and Curry went for refreshment and more speeches.

In the crowded lunchroom, Melony Griffith, vice president of the Suitland Citizens Association and a candidate for the House of Delegates, welcomed Cuomo to "beautiful downtown Suitland." The long-suffering residents of the community face their problems with a sense of humor: One of the stores next to Tayac's store calls itself "Sweetland."

Then the owner of Cedar Hill, a restaurant, bar and liquor store, stood up. Darlene Gray gave Mikulski a framed "decree of adoption."

"Being of sound mind -- whilst a bit weary," the document said, "the citizens of Suitland adopt Barbara Mikulski as our mentor."

With the help of Betty Deacon, a Mikulski staff member, the campaign against Suitland's barbed wire gathered momentum and, finally, all the federal agencies agreed it had to come down.

"The senator's focus is on people," Gray said. "She took the ball, started running and no one could catch her."

For his part, Cuomo said he was happy to be in Prince George's County, a community that clearly has the grit to work for a better tomorrow. "We want to strengthen our partnership and work together more effectively ," he said.

The senator took one more little shot. Having been adopted in the manner of Little Orphan Annie, she said, "I'm so glad I'm here with Daddy Warbucks."

Pub Date: 8/11/98

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