Critical Victories For 'Barack's Guy In Prince George's'

By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 8, 2008

They stood among the sculptures and paintings at the Marlboro Art Gallery at Prince George's Community College, some of the county's most influential and wealthiest people, sipping wine and nibbling canapes.

U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the powerful Baltimore Democrat, was there. So was Jason Waskey, 25, a volunteer who had raised $15,000 and cut his teeth in politics as a student at the University of Maryland at College Park.

They had come together for a reception shortly after seeing Sen. Barack Obama charm a throng of 3,000 people. Orlan Johnson, 45, who had pledged his support early and raised thousands for the Illinois Democrat, had urged the candidate's handlers to bring him to Prince George's. When Obama stepped to the microphone at the reception, it was Johnson whom he thanked with a brother hug.

"This guy has been unwavering from the get-go," Obama said at the October event. "He's been one of our key leaders across the country, and I'm just extraordinarily grateful for all the work he has done."

Then Obama "deputized" the supporters and urged them to follow Johnson's example.

"You may not have the resources that Orlan has, but everybody here . . . has the capacity to bring about significant change," he said.

Johnson met Obama when the senator came to Maryland in 2006 to campaign for Democrats at Bowie State University. He found the senator smart and likable and exchanged phone numbers with his staffers. When Obama decided to run for president, Johnson volunteered to raise money.

By all accounts, Johnson has roused the county to follow Obama. In a community where Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and her husband have long drawn significant support, Johnson has delivered considerable political endorsements and cash to Obama's campaign. Obama had raised more than twice as much as Clinton in Prince George's as of September, in contrast with the District and Baltimore, where Clinton has far surpassed Obama in fundraising.

"He's got people writing checks all over the place -- big checks," said Rushern L. Baker III, former head of the county's legislative delegation and a likely candidate for county executive in 2010. "He even got me and my wife to write checks for the maximum contribution, and that is really doing something."

Johnson is also delivering volunteers, including the Prince George's contingent that arrived last week in New Hampshire. "I'll be going to South Carolina to do some work with the campaign around Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. We're just spreading out, making sure that his supporters in Prince George's are helping everywhere we can."

Johnson was born in Costa Rica, attended a Seventh-day Adventist boarding school as a teen, spent a year in college in France, then transferred to Andrews University in Michigan before heading to Howard University Law School.

"At Howard, you learn that you are supposed to be a civic engineer, not just a success in your occupation," said Baker, who was a year ahead of Johnson. "He really took that to heart. He feels an obligation to do something for the community."

Johnson worked for the Securities and Exchange Commission and interned on Wall Street for Reginald F. Lewis, the former chief executive of TLC Beatrice International, the first black-owned company in the Fortune 500. He is a partner with Saul Ewing LLP. He has taught at Howard since 1994, is married and has three children.

As he fielded calls and e-mails from New Hampshire yesterday, Johnson pondered his role in the Obama campaign.

"I know that people see me as Barack's guy in Prince George's," he said. "I have no problem promoting my community in the national arena. The community has demonstrated that they are behind this candidate. I just want to do whatever I can to see him elected."

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