Marilynn Bland, combative clerk of Circuit Court in Pr. George’s, is hard to beat at polls


Marilynn Bland, clerk of the Circuit Court in Prince George's County, in front of the Prince George's County Courthouse in Upper Marlboro. Bland has never lost an election, despite controversies. (Amanda Voisard/For the Washington Post)

The letter from state officials said everything the employee had wanted to hear: Her boss had “insufficient cause” to fire her from her job at the Prince George’s County Courthouse, an investigation had found. She should return to work.

But the supervisor who ordered the dismissal, Marilynn Bland — a combative and durable force in the blood sport that is Prince George’s politics — refused to retreat.

“Any attempt to enter this office without approval from me will constitute a security breach and will be handled accordingly,” Bland, the county’s elected clerk of the Circuit Court, warned in her own letter to the employee last month.

Two weeks later, a judge intervened, ordering the employee back to her job and dealing a setback to Bland.

It was far from her first.

American politics is replete with examples of politicians whose missteps have inspired voters to kick them aside after a term or two.

Yet, after 18 stormy years on Prince George’s political stage, a run that has included accusations of misspending, plagiarism and assault during stints on the Board of Education and the County Council, Bland is unbeaten in five elections.

Now she’s back for another campaign, seeking a second term as clerk in the June 24 Democratic primary and expressing less than minuscule concern about her three opponents.

“It’s time for another Marilynn Bland quote,” she exclaimed with customary flair when asked about her prospects. “There’s opposition but no competition!”

To describe Bland as embattled is to suggest that hers is an evolving condition. In fact, it is the way she has spent most of her political career, beginning when, as a school board member, colleagues criticized her for bringing her children on a tax payer-funded trip to a conference at Disney World. Bland, denying that she had done anything wrong, showed up at a school board meeting with a Mickey Mouse doll for all her adversaries to see.

Her most recent fracas, involving fired employee Karen Harrison, came on top of complaints among judges and lawyers that the clerk’s office is a study in disorganized dysfunction.

Bland, 52, disagrees.

“I always do a superb job,” she said.

As the $98,000-a-year clerk, she oversees a $14 million budget and some 200 employees who manage the mountains of paperwork generated by the homicides, rapes, burglaries, divorces and civil suits that are the stuff of courthouse life.

Her unblemished record at the polls provokes head-scratching among her foes, who wonder what it suggests about voter apathy and meaningful accountability. Or perhaps, they say, it reflects her place on the political totem pole, a rung too far down to command much attention but powerful enough to influence a cosmopolitan suburb such as Prince George’s.

Yet, Bland — with not one but two photos of herself in the hallway outside her office — is anything but a nameless, faceless bureaucrat. On the County Council, she rose to chairman, focusing on youth issues, the preservation of rural open space and the need for quality housing construction.

Even her detractors say Bland is a formidable campaigner, one who is a regular at civic meetings, school graduations and barbecues. “She’s a retail politician who has personally touched a lot of people, and personal connections are a big thing,” said Del. Doyle L. Niemann (D-Prince George’s), who served on the school board with Bland.

Maryland Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr., an unrelenting Bland critic whose district includes a portion of Prince George’s, offered another explanation, one starting with the “B” at the beginning of her surname.

“She has a name that comes up to the top of the ballot,” Miller said, a spot that makes her the voters’ first option. She also benefits from a crowded field.

“One on one she’d lose,” Miller said. “The courthouse is a wreck.”

Political profile

Bland’s office, a stately spread with decorative flags and volumes of law books, is on the first floor of the county courthouse in Upper Marlboro, behind a door that her assistant must unlock to let visitors in.

A book on her desk contains Bland’s own handwritten aphorisms.

“Woe to a man,” she said, reading one aloud during an interview, “who does not recognize the strength of a woman.”

The fourth of 10 children born to a postal worker and a homemaker, Bland grew up in a religious household in Mississippi and studied nursing at the University of Southern Mississippi. She enlisted in the Air Force, where she met Lt. Col. Tony Bland. They married, moved to Prince George’s and had two children.

During the couple’s divorce, in the early 1990s, Bland’s attorney was Isaac J. Gourdine, who was running for a Prince George’s County Council seat. He was victorious; then he hired Bland as an aide and encouraged her to run for office as well.

Bland won a school board seat in 1996, and she pushed for a mandatory dress code and for a requirement that teachers immediately correct students’ poor grammar and vocabulary.

What received more attention, perhaps, was an audit that found she spent $10,000 on an education conference she hosted; $7,800 on a newsletter just before her reelection bid; and $2,000 on the conference at a hotel at Disney World, to which she brought her children.

Bland, who is black, responded by holding up the Mickey Mouse doll at a meeting and accusing her critics of bigotry. “The ugly face of racism has reared its head,” she declared.

Recalling the episode, Bland said that school officials had pre-approved all her spending and that the audit was meant to tarnish her reputation. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” she said. “I learned that people will set you up.”

In 2002, she was in a car, driven by Gourdine, that was rear-ended on the Capital Beltway and shoved into the back of a truck. Gourdine was killed; Bland suffered minor injuries. A motorist found her screaming, her hands covered in blood.

Two months later, state lawmakers abolished Prince George’s elected school board, costing Bland her job. Later that year, she won a council seat.

In her first term on the council, Bland seemed to fire aides almost as soon as they arrived, turnover she attributed to their “betrayal and incompetence.” At one point, her brother Carl Gordon joined her staff, provoking grumbling from colleagues about nepotism. Although Bland violated no council regulations, her brother soon departed.

In 2005, Bland met David Billings, a minister who for decades had been involved in New York politics and who, in the 1970s, pleaded guilty to misappropriating $15,000 in federal poverty funding.

During their first meeting, Billings recalled in an interview, Bland seemed depressed, crying about Gourdine’s death and how she was faring on the council. Julius Henson, a political consultant who advised Bland in two races, said Bland had alienated council colleagues.

“She was drowning,” Henson said, “and Billings saved her.”

An unpaid adviser at first, Billings eventually became Bland’s chief of staff, helping her win reelection in 2006. The next year, her office issued a news release touting an honorary degree she had received from an unaccredited Bible college. The release quoted from her dissertation — passages, it turned out, that matched words written by former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan.

Today, Bland blames Billings for the fiasco, calling him a “con man” and saying she “should have gotten rid of him then.” But at the time, she retained him, telling an audience the next year that God had sent him to her.

Term limits prevented Bland from seeking a third term on the council. In 2010, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., interested in recruiting an African American running mate, interviewed her for his Republican gubernatorial ticket, according to Henson, who was the campaign’s political consultant. Ehrlich ended up choosing someone else. Bland ran for the clerk’s seat and won.

Just before she took office, W. Randy Short, a council staff member, accused her of slapping and cursing at him after he started a meeting without her. He filed charges, but prosecutors said there was not enough evidence to pursue the case.

“I didn’t touch this guy. I don’t use profanity,” Bland said, describing the allegation as “another setup.”

Short rejected her explanation. “She’s a liar,” he said.

Office conflicts

At first, Bland drew little public notice as clerk as she officiated at swearing-in ceremonies and greeted Prince Georgians arriving for jury duty, a ritual that allowed her to introduce herself and explain the importance of their service.

If they remembered her on Election Day, that was an added benefit.

Then, last summer, Bland and Billings, whom she had hired as her chief deputy, had an altercation in her office.

In Bland’s account, Billings, 76, became indignant when she told him that she could not meet with him at the time he wanted. He barred her way out of the office, she said, and shoved her. Sheriff’s deputies were summoned, arrested Billings and led him out of the building.

Billings dismissed the allegations, saying, “I never touched Ms. Bland, not one time.” Bland, he said, “needs professional help.”

Prosecutors did not pursue the case, although they ordered Billings to stay away from Bland. The day of the altercation was his last at work.

Billings, who works on the staff of state Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D-Prince George’s), returned to the courthouse for jury duty five months later, stopping to greet former clerk’s office colleagues, including Karen Harrison, a 17-year veteran of the office.

Two days later, according to the court complaint Harrison later filed, Bland’s new deputy, Sherman Grigsby, fired her.

When Harrison asked whether Billings’s visit was the reason for her firing, according to her complaint, Grigsby answered: “You know what he did to Madame Clerk. Your obligation is to her.”

Four sheriff’s deputies escorted her out.

Harrison’s ouster was overruled by the Maryland’s Administrative Office of the Courts. When Bland warned her to stay away from the clerk’s office, Harrison went to court, and a judge ordered that she be allowed to return to work. Harrison then claimed that Bland had stripped her of most of her duties.

The judge issued another order, this one requiring that Harrison be allowed to resume her duties and asking whether Bland was being “retaliatory.”

Bland called Harrison’s account of their differences “inaccurate,” but she declined to elaborate, saying it was a personnel matter.

The episode is not Bland’s only recent difficulty. In March, an administrative judge, seeking to ensure the “impartiality” of the “jury process,” issued an order listing who can address jurors.

The clerk of the court was not on the list.

Bland interpreted the order as a political slight, although the judge, Sheila Tillerson Adams of the county Circuit Court, said she was invoking an existing regulation.

“Why are all these things happening to me?” Bland asked, before referring to herself in the third person, as she is prone to do. “If Marilynn Bland’s elected by the people and she’s doing her job and people appreciate it, why is there so much concern about what she’s doing?

“Why are people trying to stop her good works?”

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