Loyalists of Prince George's Jack Johnson feeling betrayed

Back in the early 1990s, Henry T. Arrington urged Jack B. Johnson to run for state's attorney in Prince George's County. Then, some years later, Arrington was Johnson's campaign chairman when he ran for county executive. If anyone questioned Johnson's competence, Arrington assured them that his boss was smart, capable and honest.

This week, Arrington and his wife sat at their home computer and read the 31-page federal indictment of his old friend, an account in which investigators quote Johnson talking about shaking down a developer for $500,000 and telling his wife to stuff $79,600 into her bra and panties.

"I felt humiliated. I felt insulted," Arrington, 71, said in an interview. "All the time I spent, all the people I talked to and all the people I promoted him to. He was like a son and brother. He was everything. That's what is so embarrassing."

Johnson's indictment has cast a pall across Prince George's, a predominantly black county known as a symbol of African American success.

The anguish is especially acute for Johnson's friends, former advisers and loyalists, those who worked for him in the state's attorney's office and then when he was county executive.

These are the people who embraced Johnson's homespun campaign style and identified with his rise from poverty in South Carolina to the height of power just outside the nation's capital.

If Johnson wasn't the most polished of politicians, with a speech impediment and sometimes-tangled syntax, his supporters celebrated him as the guy next door, a leader who seemed to care about the less fortunate, who challenged the actions of the county's police department while much of the political establishment remained silent.

Now, those friends wonder whether they knew him at all.

Seeing a 'disconnect'

"It's like one of your family members was found out to be somebody they're not," said Joe Lomax, Johnson's chief investigator at the state's attorney's office and later a Johnson appointee as deputy director of the county's Department of Homeland Security.

"He was a decent guy, brought up the hard way, not the kind of guy born with a silver spoon stuck up his nose," Lomax said. "He was a grass-roots type of guy, and he did everything according to the rules and regulations. A church-going guy. A believer. A Christian."

Lomax called Johnson "my friend" and added: "I never saw this coming. It's like having breakfast with someone in the morning, then finding out they committed suicide. What happened?"

Gloria Lawlah, a former state senator from Prince George's who is Maryland's director of aging, followed a path similar to Johnson's, coming from South Carolina and rising through the political ranks as the county transitioned from majority white to black.

What disturbs Lawlah, she said, is the "disconnect" between the leader she knew - who always touted the county, gushing about his excitement that Wegmans planned to open a store in Prince George's - and the man depicted in the indictment as taking $15,000 in an envelope from a developer.

"There are two Jack Johnsons," she said. "I don't know that guy in the indictment. I don't recognize him. I'm very sad to lose my friend. He was such a good friend, and he did a lot of good."

'A forgiving people'

Johnson joined the state's attorney's office in the mid-1980s, when the chief prosecutor was Alex Williams, the first African American elected countywide.

Arrington, who also worked in the office, got to know Johnson and saw in his personal narrative the potential to succeed Williams and ultimately become county executive.

Even facets of Johnson's persona that some complained about - his awkward oratory, for example - made him seem more authentic to voters struggling with their own challenges.

"I said to him, 'You're going to be it,' " Arrington recalled. "He was a natural."

In those years, Johnson spent many nights and weekends at community meetings and backyard barbecues.

On Sundays, he'd drop in at churches, quietly building a network of support that would be key to capturing the county's top seat years later.

Obie Patterson, 74, a County Council member and longtime Johnson supporter, sat up front the day his friend was inaugurated.

"It was a proud moment, a similar type of feeling as when Obama was sworn in," Patterson recalled.

"Seeing someone who had grown up in a very poor area, and segregated, who came out of that to be the chief of a county of 800,000 people - it was almost like a part of you was up there," he said.

"We also are a forgiving people," Patterson said. "We don't turn our back. That's part of our culture. We still believe you should be there, pray for them, keep them lifted up. I'm more disappointed than angry."

'He has to apologize'

Several prominent Prince George's ministers, including the Rev. Grainger Browning Jr. of Ebenezer AME Church, Jonathan Weaver of Greater Mount Nebo Church and the Rev. John Cherry of From the Heart Church Ministries in Suitland declined to be interviewed or did not return messages about the indictment.

Yet a deep sense of disappointment pervades the faith community, said Eugene Grant, mayor of Seat Pleasant and a longtime Johnson acolyte. "If there are things he has done, he needs to atone for his sins, and he has to apologize - I'm hearing that refrain from religious leaders who have large congregations. They can't believe he'd put himself in that position."

Grant was drawn to Johnson when Johnson was chief prosecutor because he challenged a police department with a reputation for brutalizing suspects. His rise to county executive was a source of pride, Grant said, because of his biography.

"That's why this thing is so devastating," he said. "If he's guilty, it's a betrayal of our ancestry - that's how people view this. It's a betrayal of W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington and Rosa Parks. It's a betrayal to all those great people who worked to allow someone to become county executive."

Mark Spencer, who was deputy state's attorney under Johnson, said his former boss's rise represented for African Americans an opportunity "to debunk stereotypes that said we were incapable of being in leadership and accomplishing positive things."

Johnson's fall is "a setback to a reputation we're trying to build," Spencer said. "It's a personal setback to Jack. But then again, it should never have been about Jack. It's about building a community that we can be proud of."

Over the years, critics questioned Johnson's competence and portrayed him as an opportunist. They accused him of criticizing the police to pander to working-class voters.

After he took office, there were allegations of cronyism and patronage.

But even the harshest critiques paled against the coarseness of the detail in the indictment, in which Johnson suggests that his wife "chew" a $100,000 check to destroy evidence.

M.H. "Jim" Estepp, who finished second to Johnson in 2002 among five candidates for county executive, rarely had anything good to say about his opponent. But the portrait of Johnson in the indictment, Estepp said, surpasses anything he ever suspected.

"I've lived here my whole life, and I've never heard anything like it," Estepp said. "The volumes of money involved - it's shocking."

Others choose to focus on what Johnson accomplished, at least until his case goes to trial.

Phil Lee, a Kettering community activist who worked on Johnson's campaign, said the indictment should not obscure Johnson's record of cleaning up trash, attaining a AAA bond rating on Wall Street and reforming the police department.

"You have to separate the person from the professional," Lee said. "Jack Johnson as a politician reminded me of Marion Barry. He was good at what he did, and he was good for the people. You have to take the bitter with the sweet."

Paul Schwartzman specializes in political profiles and narratives about life, death and everything in between.
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