By Lonnae O'Neal Parker and Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 7, 2006
Larry Elmore first realized he had stumbled onto a sore subject four years ago. He was a salesman at a Rockville home appliance store, ringing up a customer. "Oh, you live in P.G.," Elmore recalled saying. The customer corrected him icily. "No, I live in Prince George's County."
What's the big deal, thought Elmore, now a real estate broker who has lived in Prince George's for five years and always called it "P.G."
But it is a big deal to some people. The decades-old debate over how to refer to the county was resurrected after the April 27 airing of an episode of ABC's "Commander in Chief." The show focused on a fictional protest over the county's high homicide rate and a lack of police protection, and some people found its repeated use of the term "P.G." as offensive as its portrayal of the county as a lawless place in need of emergency federal protection.
"The people in this county know that when other people say it, it's meant as a put-down," Sharon Taylor, a spokesman for County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D), said after the episode.
Going back at least 30 years, some county politicians have associated use of the abbreviation with disrespect and have worked to discourage it, even as some residents scratch their heads about the connection. The debate is a complex one, fraught with racial and class implications and compounded by sensitivities about where the county fits in among its more affluent suburban neighbors, including Montgomery and Fairfax counties.
After the "Commander in Chief" episode aired, Prince George's officials held a news conference to denounce the show, which made no mention of the county's relative affluence -- the mean household income is about $70,000, according to census data -- and labeled it a community with "one of the fastest-growing crime rates in the country." Homicides are down this year from a county record set last year. ABC Entertainment later released a statement apologizing for any offense.
Prince George's officials and other image-conscious residents credit former county executive Wayne K. Curry (D) with the heightened awareness of the county's name. Curry, a businessman who had never held political office before being elected in 1994 as the county's first African American county executive, said he would always correct people who used the term P.G.
Curry said the anti-P.G. campaign had earlier roots. Winfield M. Kelly Jr. launched a "new quality" campaign when he was county executive in the mid-1970s, Curry said, to transform the county's image when it was still mostly white and largely rural.
When Curry took office in the mid-1990s, he again promoted the idea, which was largely embraced by the county's growing affluent black population.
"It's not just about respect," said Curry, who served two terms. "It was about marketing. It's a question of how your community is viewed. Prince George's had always been regarded by the rest of the region as the 'ugliest stepsister.' When we were referred to as P.G., it was a contraction. We were looking at what the summary depicted in the minds of those who said it."
Alvin Thornton, a Howard University political science professor and former three-term chairman of the Prince George's County school board, said that when he moved into the county in 1973, officials were decrying the use of P.G., and the county was often mocked for its pickup-truck image and blue collar roots.
By 1990, after the county's demographics had changed, Thornton said, sensitivities about the name were attached to the history of blacks being given derisive pseudo-names and denied honorifics.
Growing up in the county, Camille Exum said she always sensed that people cared little for the nickname. But they didn't wince over it then as some do now.
Over the past decade, she said, many residents and elected officials have become more sensitive and vocal about referring to the county by its initials. "I do think there is a negative connotation," said Exum (D-Seat Pleasant), who is vice chairman of the County Council.
"It's an affront. If I say my name is Camille and I haven't given you permission to call me anything but that, then you are disrespecting me to call me something else."
Exum said she will sometimes pull people aside who have addressed the council using P.G. and say, "We'd appreciate it if you refer to us by our proper name."
Her father, Sen. Nathaniel Exum (D-Prince George's), once corrected basketball-great-turned-businessman Earvin "Magic" Johnson during a news conference. Johnson was in town for the opening of one his Washington Mutual home loan centers and referred to the county as P.G.
Nathaniel Exum, who was seated in the front row, began to whisper to Johnson: "It's Prince George's. Prince George's." Johnson laughed and stopped in the middle of his speech to correct himself.
A minute later, Johnson was talking about his Starbucks franchises in the county and his future plans to open a movie theater at the Boulevard at the Capital Centre.
"We'll open at the Cap Centre next year," Johnson said. Realizing that he might be corrected again, he asked Exum: "It's okay if I say Cap Centre? Or do I have to say Capital Centre?"
Arthur Turner, chairman of the Economic Development Committee for the county's Chamber of Commerce, compared the use of P.G. vs. Prince George's to someone calling a man Bill when he prefers William.
"It's almost like they have not been enlightened," Turner said. "I start to wonder where are they coming from."
Waiting for the F14 bus at the New Carrollton Metro station Thursday after work, Michelle Smith, an administrative assistant from Lanham, called the debate over the county name a waste of time. Others who were waiting agreed.
"Do more for the youth," said Smith, who has a 14-year-old son. "There's nothing for kids to do. They stopped midnight basketball years ago."
Outside the Safeway at Bowie Town Center, Bob Leedy, a truck parts salesman from Glenn Dale, was loading groceries and his 2-year-old son in his sport-utility vehicle. The lifelong Prince George's resident was matter-of-fact: He'd never heard of any controversy. "Prince George's is a long name," he said. "It's easier to say P.G."
Bowie homemaker Gloria Holland hadn't heard of the controversy, either, but she said she could see how using the county's initials could be dismissive. "Like it's a little nothing. Like it's not recognized," Holland said. "They're giving all the other counties their full name."
But nearby, sitting in their parked pickup, Marie and Bruce Gertz of Davidsonville in Anne Arundel County marveled that there was grumbling at all. Prince George's, P.G. -- "it's the same thing, isn't it?" Bruce Gertz asked.
To Thornton, the only significance in the name dust-up is that it can be a jumping-off point for substantive discussions about structural issues, such as education, housing, crime and attracting businesses; county leaders have to frame it that way or the debate can sound silly, he said.
"I'm not just asking you what do you want to be called. I'm asking you who you are: What role do you want to play in the metropolitan region?" Thornton said. "Maybe at the end of the day, when you understand the role you play, you understand why some people think of you as P.G. versus Prince George's."