Prince George's county executive race should ring a bell for city

Racial, political issues recall 1999 mayoral race

August 17, 2002|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

To Baltimore voters, next month's Democratic primary for Prince George's County executive may seem familiar.

That's because it looks a lot like the race in Baltimore three years ago, when voters had to choose a successor to Kurt L. Schmoke, the city's first African-American mayor.

As in that race, when the city elected Martin O'Malley, Prince George's voters must select a replacement for the county's first black executive, Wayne K. Curry, at a time when crime is rising, schools are failing and a general malaise has taken hold.

Democratic voters in the majority-black county must choose between four African-American candidates and one white candidate who, like O'Malley, is hoping a divided black electorate will propel him to victory.

So far, many Prince George's residents seem disinterested in the campaign, but much is at stake for the county - and the state - when voters go the polls Sept. 10.

"Right now, the county is not at the crossroads, it's at the cliff's edge," said Bruce L. Marcus, a Greenbelt attorney who is active in Democratic politics.

"The race on the primary level is the most important race in the state," Marcus said. "The job is going to require impeccable leadership, proven management skills and the ability to build consensus."

Prince George's County is Maryland's second-most-populous jurisdiction, smaller only than Montgomery. The county executive is in charge of a $2 billion budget and 8,000 county employees.

The county also is the nation's wealthiest majority-black jurisdiction. But it faces significant challenges, including low test scores, clogged highways and a spate of questionable police shootings.

The winner of the primary will go on to face Republican Audrey Scott in the general election. County Democrats outnumber Republicans by almost 6 to 1, so the Democratic nominee will be heavily favored in November.

Term limits prevent Curry from seeking a third term.

Overview of candidates

The race for the Democratic nomination includes five candidates representing a who's who of the Democratic establishment. So far, no clear front-runner has emerged.

Some observers say State's Attorney Jack B. Johnson might have a slight edge over his opponents.

Johnson has made a name for himself by prosecuting police brutality and misconduct cases, and he has worked tirelessly to build a base of support that includes religious leaders in the densely populated neighborhoods that border Washington.

"It is clear Jack Johnson has a very substantial following inside the Beltway and a very substantial following among the African-American religious community," said Thomas R. Hendershot, a county councilman. Johnson also got a boost last month when one of the county's most influential powerbrokers, Rep. Albert R. Wynn, and the county's three black state senators endorsed him.

"He is the only person to take a strong stand on police brutality even when those stands were not popular," said Wynn, a Democrat, who vowed to put his political machine behind Johnson.

Political observers suspect the endorsements were an attempt to solidify black voters around one candidate to prevent Councilman M.H. Jim Estepp, the only white Democratic candidate, from winning.

Sixty-three percent of Prince George's residents are black, but Estepp, the county's former head of public safety and fire chief, is running a strong campaign.

The county's police and fire unions have backed his candidacy, and he has a strong base of support in rural parts of the county.

Estepp, former chairman of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, is running on a platform of cutting the county's rising crime rate by putting an additional 100 officers on the streets.

The county has seen a 13 percent increase in robberies and a 24 percent increase in rapes this year compared with the same period last year, according to the Police Department. Homicides are up about 20 percent.

Estepp has hired Baltimore political consultant Julius Henson - known for his bare-fisted tactics - in what some say is a sign he expects the race to get nasty.

Another leading candidate, state Del. Rushern L. Baker III, said he believes he will win if the candidates stick to the issues.

Rising star

Baker, chairman of the county's House delegation in Annapolis and a rising star in the Democratic Party, took a leading role in ousting the county's elected school board in the spring after it fired the district's superintendent.

"I think I represent the future of the county and [my opponents] represent the past," Baker said. "And it is a past that no one in Prince George's wants to go back to."

Baker, who is targeting women voters, got off to a slow start because of his limited name recognition, but he appears to be gaining momentum since being endorsed by the Washington Post last month. The newspaper said Baker "has a focused and reasoned view of the county's problems."

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