The rush is on to succeed Leslie Johnson in Prince George’s; 15 vying for council seat

Curtis Smalls, a retired elementary school principal, is worried about the high rate of foreclosures in Prince George’s County.

Bridgette Kendrick, an analyst with the Internal Revenue Service in New Carrollton, says that crime in her Kettering neighborhood is on the upswing and that she no longer takes long walks in her leafy community.

Sandy Pruitt, a community activist from Lake Arbor, says Prince George’s needs to repair its “tarnished image” after Jack B. Johnson (D), the former county executive, and his wife, former County Council member Leslie Johnson (D), pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges.

“We need to move ahead of where we are with Jack and Leslie,” Pruitt said.

Perhaps nowhere is that sentiment more evident than in District 6, where 15 people — 14 Democrats and a Republican — are vying to succeed Johnson, who on July 31 stepped down from the council after admitting to destroying evidence in the probe that also ensnared her husband.

Voters in District 6, which stretches from struggling mid-county inner Beltway neighborhoods to palatial residences in gated communities, will head to the polls Sept. 20 to pick Democratic and Republican candidates. The winners will face off in a special election in October, but in the overwhelmingly Democratic county, victory in the Democratic primary is usually tantamount to winning the general election.

October’s winner could become one of the current council’s longest-serving members, with the potential to occupy the seat for 11 years — the remaining three years of Johnson’s term and two full four-year terms.

Council seats are often steppingstones to higher office or higher-paying jobs; Prince George’s pays its council members $96,417, the highest in Maryland.

The council’s chief responsibilities are to oversee growth and development and provide oversight and accountability of the nearly $2.7 billion government budget and the $1.6 billion public schools budget.

Winning the District 6 seat is unlikely to be an easy task. Historically, voter turnout has been low in special elections for the council. It is almost always tough to energize voters in any off-year election, let alone a special, very local election.

“That could potentially make it a bit difficult,” said Alisha L. Alexander, the county’s elections chief, who added that participation by eligible voters in recent special council elections has ranged from about 5 percent to about 20 percent. There are about 76,000 registered voters in District 6; all but a few thousand are registered Democrats.

To reach voters, many of the candidates are engaging in true retail politics, going door- to-door and attending community forums and candidate debates. Big radio and television ad buys are out of the question; many of the candidates have only a few thousand dollars to spend, although campaign finance reports due Sept. 9 will likely show more.

The candidates also must overcome the lack of voter awareness of the election. Because of the grass-roots nature of the race, the winner may well be the candidate who is best organized on Election Day and is able to transport voters to the polls.

“I haven’t received any type of official notification,” said Ken­drick, the Kettering resident. “That’s not a good way to run the county’s affairs.”

Once she learned about the race from Democratic candidate Arthur A. Turner Jr., a community activist, she was eager to discuss her concerns on issues including schools, public safety and jobs.

Although Johnson’s departure is the reason for the special election, few of the candidates bring up the disgraced former council member. Instead, they tend to focus on pocketbook issues — jobs, foreclosures, public safety and schools — as they crisscross the district.

About 200 residents turned out for a recent candidates’ debate at Prince George’s Community College, which was sponsored by several groups, including the county chapter of the NAACP.

Bob Ross, the group’s president, said voters in the post-Johnson era must demand candidates with squeaky-clean backgrounds. But voters must also consider candidates’ positions on important local issues, including the economy, education and public safety.

“You can have integrity, but you don’t necessarily know how to govern,” he said.

The winner of the Sept. 20 Democratic primary is expected to face Day Gardner (R) in the Oct. 18 general election. She is running unopposed in her party’s primary.

Although the candidates are stressing their independence and highlighting community connections, the race could provide an indication of the strength of some of the county’s emerging political organizations.

County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), a longtime rival of the Johnsons and their political organization, is backing Derrick Leon Davis, a former school system official and current chairman of the Maryland Automobile Insurance Fund.

Four council members — William A. Campos (D-Hyattsville), Mel Franklin (D-Upper Marlboro), Andrea Harrison (D-Springdale) and Eric Olson (D-College Park) — also are supporting Davis, as are most of the county’s labor unions.

Several Democratic state lawmakers are also backing Davis: Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), whose district includes a sliver of Prince George’s; Sens. Joanne C. Benson and Victor R. Ramirez; and Dels. Aisha N. Braveboy and Justin D. Ross.

Turner has won backing from former council member Sam Dean (D), who held the District 6 seat for eight years and often sparred with Jack Johnson. Turner is also backed by Del. Michael L. Vaughn (D-Prince George’s) and Peggy Magee, former Circuit Court clerk.

Democrat Mark Polk, a lawyer and retired police captain, is backed by Coalition for Change, a group founded by Pruitt, the activist from Lake Arbor.

“This is an important election,” Ross said. “I hope we have a good turnout.

Candidates for the District 6 County Council seat in Prince George’s:

Democrats

Venus Bethea, social worker

Van Caldwell, lawyer

Thirl Crudup, pharmaceutical account executive

Derrick Leon Davis, former school system official

Esther S. Hankerson, former acting head of the Washington Teachers’ Union

Wayne Leach, computer specialist

Cassandra Lewis, Realtor

Wanda McKnight, lawyer

Margaret Okoroji-Schaeffer, social worker

Christine Osei, county planner

Mark Polk, lawyer

Brad Donnie Ray, businessman

Sherine Taylor, human-resources specialist

Arthur A. Turner Jr., businessman

Republicans

Day Gardner, businesswoman

Staff researchers Magda Jean-Louis and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.

Miranda Spivack writes about government and politics in the suburbs, based in the Post’s bureau in Largo in Prince George’s County.
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