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An Unusual Alliance in Prince George's

Activist Group Backing Council Expansion Received Funds From Developers

By Ovetta Wiggins and Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 28, 2004; Page B01

ACORN and Patrick Ricker are not what you would call natural allies.

The Association of Community Organizations for Reform bills itself as the nation's largest advocacy group for low- and moderate-income families. Ricker has gotten rich brokering big real estate deals in Prince George's County, such as the development near the Greenbelt Metro station.

Developer Patrick Ricker gave $15,000 to ACORN.

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Yet the two have found common cause in a campaign to add two at-large seats to the nine-member Prince George's County Council. ACORN has received $50,000 over the past four months, largely from Ricker and other developers with significant influence in Prince George's politics.

Ricker tops the list with $15,000 in contributions. Kenneth Michael of the Michael Cos. has given a total of $12,000.

ACORN members said that adding two at-large members -- and allowing voters to select the council chairman, the other part of the proposed amendment -- would give voters more voice. District members are overly parochial, they said, and at-large representatives would be better equipped to focus on larger issues such as health care and housing.

Ricker said he just wants better representation on the council. "I live in this county, and I think the voters should be able to decide whether there should be two additional seats," he said.

But opponents of the drive say Ricker and the other developers are looking to keep Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton) on the council. Hendershot is known on the council by the nickname "Text Amendment Tom" for his bills to rezone land and speed up approval of development projects.

Prohibited from running for his district seat again because of a voter-imposed two-term limit, Hendershot began shopping the idea of restructuring the council this year.

ACORN, which began collecting signatures about three months ago, has spent about $37,000 of the $50,000, according to recent financial reports. Some of it went to pay workers 50 cents to $1 for each signature.

Gloria Swieringa, co-chairman of the Prince George's County Board of ACORN, said there is no inherent contradiction in the collaboration with Ricker and other builders.

ACORN is "not going to turn down anybody's money" to help finance its causes, she said. She added that it has been able to register voters as it collected signatures for the petition.

"Show us a way to empower people, and we'll take it," Swieringa said. "We don't own stocks and we don't own oil wells. All we are about is improving the quality of life for the low to moderate income."

Some county politicians said the collaboration, which came to light after a council hearing on charter amendments yesterday, served to confirm their suspicions.

"I always had the belief that this was not an ACORN drive," said council member Thomas E. Dernoga (D-Laurel). "When you look at that list, you see that it's not the people rising up demanding democracy. It's an outside force."

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