In Prince George’s race to succeed Leslie Johnson, reaching voters isn’t easy

The candidates were ready. The moderator was ready. Voters, though, were another story.

The few who showed up at a recent Prince George’s County Young Democrats debate in the race to succeed Leslie Johnson barely outnumbered the candidates themselves: the 14 Democrats and one Republican who are vying for Johnson’s seat on the County Council.

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The Young Democrats’ forum was no different from several others. Turnout has been low, making it difficult for the candidates to connect with large numbers of prospective voters. There often have been more campaign aides than undecided voters.

Yet the stakes for Prince George’s, and for mid-county District 6, are high. Whoever is elected to replace Johnson (D-Mitchellville) could play a pivotal role in shaping several key issues expected to come before the council in coming months, including economic development, government accountability, school improvements and public safety.

As the races for the Democratic and Republican nominations wrap up, candidates agree on at least one issue: All have struggled to make their voices heard in this off-year, off-season race.

“With special elections, there is almost always low turnout,” said Nicole Williams, a lawyer and president of the Young Democrats, sponsor of the Wednesday night debate in Collington Station off Route 214. “This special election is no different from any others, in that respect.”

The winners of Tuesday’s primaries will face off in the Oct. 18 general election. Because the district is overwhelmingly Democratic, the winner of Tuesday’s Democratic primary is almost assured a victory in October.

Day Gardner is running unopposed in the Republican primary.

The last time Prince George’s elected a County Council member in a special election, the circumstances were less dramatic. Council member David C. Harrington (D) resigned in 2008 to accept an appointment to the state Senate. A few thousand voters decided the race, which brought Andrea Harrison (D-Springdale) to the council.

This time, voters must replace a council member who might be best remembered for stuffing $79,600 in cash in her bra moments before she and her husband, former county executive Jack B. Johnson (D), were arrested. Both pleaded guilty this year to federal corruption charges and are awaiting sentencing.

“We don’t want to go through again what we went through — no more fraud and abuse,” said Thirl Crudup, a pharmaceutical account executive and one of the Democrats in the primary. The Johnsons are almost never mentioned by name during candidates’ public appearances, but most of those running have said that honesty and integrity are critical qualities for the next District 6 council member.

Residents talk about wanting a candidate with high ethical standards, but they also speak of being eager for help with the issues the nearly 100,000 residents in District 6 face.

The sprawling district stretches from inside-the-Beltway neighborhoods to gated communities in rural areas to the east. It is Prince George’s in microcosm: poor neighborhoods with struggling schools and affluent communities where many children are sent to private academies. Residents range from the nearly homeless to well-heeled entrepreneurs. Many are government workers.

“My main thing is to get adequate representation for District 6,” said Patrice Murray, president of the Collington Station homeowners association, which hosted the Young Democrats’ debate. Murray was one of the few undecided voters in the audience.

Murray and her neighbors are eager for the post-Leslie Johnson era to begin so the new council member can tackle “the budget, education, how the county bud­get is divvied up.”

Deidra McGee, a federal employee who lives in Bowie, says it comes down to how safe residents feel and whether they can find adequate housing, have a good job and send their children to good public schools.

“There is a lot of concern about the school system and education,” McGee said.

Gerron S. Levi, a former Democratic state delegate who ran unsuccessfully for county executive last year and contemplated entering the District 6 race, said the election is pivotal for the county. Only residents of District 6 can vote in the primary and general election.

“District 6 has been a powerful voice on the council,” Levi said. Before Johnson took office last year, the seat was held by Samuel H. Dean (D), who wielded clout while on the council, often sparring with the administration of then-County Executive Jack Johnson.

“Will this person step into the gap and provide a vision or plan for where the county should go?” Levi asked. Whoever wins “has the potential to seize the mantle on a lot of issues at the council that don’t currently have voice right now,” Levi said.

Many of the candidates have extensive credentials for the job, which pays $96,417 and has a substantial allowance for staff and for grants to nonprofit organizations. Many are seasoned professionals, and there are several lawyers and educators in the group.

But few have been able to attract campaign donations. Derrick Leon Davis, a former school system official who came in second to Leslie Johnson in last year’s six-person Democratic primary, has so far won the money race.

Davis is backed by County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), State’s Attorney Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) and several other elected officials.

Davis’s campaign has collected about $35,000 — much of it from labor unions, including $10,000 from two different branches of the Service Employees International Union.

He has received donations from business groups including CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield ($125) and Constellation Energy ($125). Davis has spent about $22,000.

Arthur A. Turner Jr., a community activist and small-businessman who came in third in last year’s Democratic primary, is second to Davis in fundraising, having collected about $10,200 and spent about $6,550. Most of his contributions were from individuals and a few politicians.

Turner has been endorsed by County Council chairman Ingrid Turner (D-Bowie), who is unrelated to the candidate, and council member Karen Toles (D-Suitland), both close allies of Leslie Johnson while she was on the council.

Also backing Turner are Del. Melony G. Griffith (D-Prince George’s), chairwoman of the county’s House delegation in Annapolis; Michael L. Vaughn (D), the delegation’s vice-chairman; Del. Carolyn J.B. Howard (D-Prince George’s) and former council member Dean.

The only other candidate with a significant endorsement is Mark Polk, a lawyer and former county police captain, who garnered support from People for Change, a community group. Polk personally loaned his campaign about $13,000.

Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday. Information about the primaries, as well as a list of polling places, can be found online at Prince George’s County’s Web site.

 
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