Robert McCartney
Robert McCartney
Columnist

Do good works redeem Md. ex-drug dealer?

Larry Stafford - Prince George's political activist Gregory Hall, left, with Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) at a political event in 2010.

Young political operative Larry Stafford felt inspired in 2010 when he met Greg Hall, a reformed crack dealer whose nomination to become a state legislator has triggered a messy controversy in Prince George’s County.

Stafford, now president of the county’s Young Democrats group, heard Hall speak at a community meeting aimed at discouraging local stores from selling drug paraphernalia.

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“He talked openly about his past and how at times he was on the other side of the law,” Stafford, 24, said. “I was impressed at what he said and that he had taken on this issue.”

Now Stafford and quite a few other county activists and civic leaders are unhappy that Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) is citing Hall’s troubled past in trying to block his appointment to the House of Delegates.

“What the governor is saying is if you made a mistake, no matter what you do, even if you become a saint, you will be turned away,” Stafford said. “Greg represents the dreams and aspirations of a lot of young people in Prince George’s County who get into trouble and want to turn their lives around.”

The courts will resolve a complex legal tussle over whether Hall, 42, a businessman and former County Council staffer, enters the legislature.

The dispute has triggered a new case of heartburn in Prince George’s about the county’s history of legally challenged politicians. Some can scarcely believe someone with Hall’s baggage would be nominated to replace former delegate Tiffany Alston (D), ousted after she was sentenced for misconduct in office in connection with stealing $800 from the General Assembly.

Regardless of the outcome, the controversy has raised a challenging question: How many years of good behavior and good works are necessary to clean a person’s slate sufficiently to place him or her in public office?

Unquestionably, Hall owes society some serious amends. Twenty years ago, he was involved in a gunfight in which a 13-year-old boy was killed in Capitol Heights.

He was originally charged with murder and spent 40 days in jail. But tests showed Hall’s bullet didn’t kill the boy, and a jury found that he did not fire the first shot. He was convicted separately of a misdemeanor gun charge.

Hall has had other legal problems since then, although the charges were dropped. In particular, in 1994, a gun was found in a car he said he was driving for a friend. He also is working to pay off at least $9,000 in back taxes.

O’Malley spoke out strongly this week against appointing Hall to the legislature.

“An innocent child was murdered and there are some losses for which it is hard to atone,” O’Malley spokeswoman Raquel Guillory said in a statement e-mailed Tuesday. “If the constituents of District 24 elect him after a full and fair election, knowing what he has done, that would be their choice. But that’s not the same as appointing him.”

O’Malley also has strong-armed the Prince George’s County Democratic Committee into shifting its stance on Hall.

The committee originally voted 12 to 10 to recommend Hall for the job. It did so after hearing a string of witnesses speak in his favor, including state Sen. Joanne Benson (D-Prince George’s) and council member Will Campos (D-Hyattsville). The committee discussed Hall’s gun conviction and drug history, but most were unaware he’d been involved in a gunfight in which a child died.

On Monday, in a nonbinding ballot, the committee voted 20 to 1 in favor of withdrawing the nomination. It specifically cited the governor’s wishes.

Hall might get the job, anyway. The state constitution says O’Malley has to accept the committee’s original recommendation within a 15-day time limit, which Hall says expired Saturday. The courts will sort it out.

Meanwhile, Hall is drawing praise from people who know the work he’s done helping the troubled, low-income community around Chapel Oaks where he lives in Prince George’s near the District border.

He helps organize an annual holiday party that raises $1,500 or more for food for the needy. He worked in the effort to build the new arts district in Hyattsville. He has spoken regularly to young people about the importance of not following his own bad example from the past.

“His ability to connect with youth, and get them to buy into the idea that they have other alternatives to gangbanging or doing drugs, is a very priceless commodity,” said Robert Williams, executive director of Integrated Behavioral Health Solutions, a Hyattsville firm that specializes in job placement for people suffering from substance abuse or mental health problems.

The governor and others dislike Hall’s nomination partly on the grounds that Prince George’s shouldn’t risk getting more bad publicity over politicians’ legal problems.

I agree with Hall’s defenders that a man should get a second chance to move beyond youthful mistakes, even serious ones. In a community like Hall’s, it’s useful having someone with his background to speak credibly to people on the margins.

But I also agree with O’Malley that the voters ought to make such a decision. Hall ran a close second behind Alston in the Democratic primary for the 2010 nomination for the delegate’s seat. His redemption would be sweeter if he won it outright in 2014 rather than relying on a contested court decision today.

I discuss local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

 
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