The controversial nomination of Prince George’s County businessman Gregory A. Hall to fill a seat in the state’s House of Delegates signals a troubling moment in the evolution of black political power in the county.
A generation after voters elected black candidates first to the
Office of the State’s Attorney and then as county executive, the county “seems to be taking a step backward,” as one political insider put it.
Think that mind-set is exaggeration? No matter how Prince George’s Circuit Court Judge C. Philip Nichols Jr. rules on the Hall matter this week, here’s the legacy developing in the county:
The Prince George’s Democratic Central Committee voted last month to send Hall to Annapolis to replace Tiffany Alston, who had to vacate her seat after a conviction in June for stealing $800 from the General Assembly. Twenty years ago Hall, now 42, participated in a Capitol Heights shootout that left a teenager dead. Police said Hall did not fire the fatal gunshot, and he was convicted of a minor gun charge.
The committee voted 12 to 10 to replace one criminal in the county delegation, Alston, with another, Hall. (Later the committee, in a nonbinding voice vote, said it wanted to rescind Hall’s nomination.)
A couple of days after the original vote, a Washington Post article disclosed that only two of the eight members of the Prince George’s Board of Education had at least a bachelor’s degree. It showed the Prince George’s board lagging far behind school boards across the nation and the D.C. region, where — excluding Prince George’s — 58 of 59 school board members had college degrees.
Not enough time has passed to forget the FBI audiotapes of former county executive Jack Johnson telling his wife, Leslie Johnson, to hide cash bribes in her underwear while federal agents knocked on the front door of their home. Johnson sits in a federal prison in North Carolina after pleading guilty to corruption charges. His wife, who had been a Prince George’s County Council member, was sentenced to a year in prison on related charges.
In the late 1980s, as the county shifted to a majority-black population, demographers frequently pointed out a rarity that was happening in the change in Prince George’s. The new population of blacks that was replacing the older, white population came with higher income and education levels. There are numbers of honest, smart and intelligent officials across the branches of Prince George’s government that reflect that phenomenon.
Some problem areas are in the process of being corrected. On Nov. 6, voters added two more members with college degrees to the county board of education. County Executive Rushern L. Baker III has been toughening ethics rules.
Indeed, Hall, by many accounts, has turned his life around since his time as a drug dealer. He called the governor’s decision to fight his nomination an act against “redemption.” I’m not against redemption. For many reasons from racism to poor decisions, blacks face incarceration at a rate much higher than other racial groups in this country. No one should deny a person who made mistakes a chance to redeem himself. But that can be done in ways other than as a political representative.
And for those who liken Hall’s cause to that of former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, I say Hall is not Barry, and Prince George’s is not Washington.
Barry had a legacy of work in civil rights and education. He held elective office and was even wounded during a terrorists’ takeover of several D.C. buildings in the 1970s. His failure was fueled mainly by personal demons. And voters who sent Barry back to the mayor’s office after he was imprisoned for cocaine possession were sending a message to federal law enforcement officials more so than offering Barry redemption.
That argument aside, the political landscape in Prince George’s is not pretty. It’s understandable, then, that some county officials prefer to remain silent about this string of unflattering events. One even asked, when told about the theme of this column, “Why would you want to write about that?”
Why? Because expectations for what happens in the nation’s premier majority-black jurisdiction must be high. We should not accept anything less. To be silent is to settle for less than the best Prince George’s has to offer.
Keith Harriston, a resident of Prince George’s County, teaches journalism at Howard University, where he edits www.hunewsservice.com.
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