By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 6, 2006
They met in a restaurant a month ago -- some of Prince George's County's political leaders -- to ponder the response they had received from the Maryland Democratic Party and to figure out a strategy that would get their jurisdiction a bigger piece of the stake.
Before the meal was over, a seed had been planted that three weeks later would sprout into one of this election year's most controversial moves: crossing party lines to endorse Republican Michael S. Steele for U.S. Senate.
According to four participants, the move was aimed at driving home a point: Don't take the county leadership and its majority of black voters for granted.
"This is a position we took to effect change -- change that would be beneficial to the citizens of Prince George's County -- and also to allow us to be part of the decision-making process of the Democratic Party," said County Council member Samuel H. Dean (D-Mitchellville), one of the leaders involved. "This was less about Michael Steele and more about the Democratic Party taking us for granted."
Dean and others said they spent two years talking to the state party in hopes of parlaying their status as the Maryland jurisdiction with the most Democratic voters into gains for the county.
But the leaders said that their requests were ignored or that they were told to "wait until after the election."
The group meeting in the restaurant that night in October included former county executive Wayne K. Curry and former county executive candidate Major F. Riddick Jr.; Dean and fellow council members David Harrington (D-Cheverly) and Camille Exum (D-Seat Pleasant); Mike Little, founder of the county's Black Chamber of Commerce, and developer Ronald Lipscomb, who is a trustee of and a major fundraiser for the state Democratic Party.
Although O'Malley had picked Prince George's Del. Anthony G. Brown (D) as his running mate, members of the group doubted the power of that post and wanted more: an African American candidate for state attorney general and comptroller. Their hopes that the state Democratic leadership would back former NAACP president Kweisi Mfume for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Paul S. Sarbanes were quashed when Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) began squiring fellow Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D) around Prince George's.
After Mfume lost the primary to Cardin, the Prince George's leaders asked that African Americans be considered for key state government posts including treasurer and, if O'Malley wins, secretary of education and secretary of transportation.
For treasurer, a post appointed by the General Assembly, they suggested former delegate Rushern L. Baker IV, who had recently been narrowly defeated for county executive. For education secretary, they floated the name of Alvin Thornton, an education expert and author of an education plan that has pumped millions of dollars into state schools and equalized spending among them.
Prince George's Democratic leaders said they received no response.
Party Chairman Terry Lierman said yesterday in a telephone interview that he was not aware of all of the group's requests.
He said that since he became state party chairman in December 2004, there have been dramatic changes in the number of women and ethnic minorities in the state party leadership. He cited several black Democrats in top posts around the state, including Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson.
"It is changing, and it is changing dramatically as more and more minorities are getting involved," he said. "There's always room for improvement."
That response did not satisfy the group of county Democratic leaders.
"We were essentially out of the conversation," Curry said. "We were hoping that our primary issues would become primary to those who always take our votes for granted. We are overwhelmingly supportive of Democratic contenders, but Michael Steele made a case of politics being local and about the issues that were resonant here."
Baker, who endorsed Cardin, said he understands the frustration of the county leaders who endorsed Steele.
"Whether African American, Latino or woman, the diversity is just not there," Baker said. "The party is going to have to make changes to go forward."
Curry bristled at the idea that the endorsement and a Steele victory could help the GOP keep its majority in the U.S. Senate.
"Are they saying, conversely, that had we endorsed Cardin we would have delivered the majority to the Democrats?" he asked. "And if so, what is the appropriate partisan reply that we have missed all these years?"