Jackson rivals see hand of Johnson at work in Prince George's campaign

By Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 27, 2010

For some, the headline on a recent blog item said it all: "Prince George's County Government Endorses Michael Jackson."

The June 2 message on Maryland Politics Watch -- it was tongue-in-cheek; no such endorsement has occurred -- referred to a large campaign sign for Michael A. Jackson (D), the Prince George's sheriff and a candidate for county executive, on the county-owned lawn of a volunteer firehouse in Capitol Heights.

The sign, on the aptly named Sheriff Road, was gone Friday after the county received complaints that it was an ethics violation and asked the campaign to remove it, county officials said. But for some observers and participants in this year's contest for the county's top seat, the image has lingered, symbolizing something many have suspected for months: County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) may be quietly lending his support to Jackson in the race.

Johnson's backing, though sure to be viewed negatively by some voters, could also bring with it the sizable political organization and fundraising abilities that helped him win the seat twice. It could also help Jackson land the votes of many of about 6,000 county employees. Johnson won by 5,098 votes in the 2006 Democratic primary.

"I think it'll be a big boost," said Ronald Walters, a political analyst and professor emeritus at the University of Maryland at College Park. "This is a big shot in the arm if he's now able to raise some money with Jack Johnson's apparatus. It means he's going to be able to spread his name recognition throughout the county."

Johnson declined to discuss which candidate he was supporting in the Democratic primary, saying other people were attempting to speak on his behalf.

"When it's time, I'll make an announcement," Johnson said.

But others say the Jack-for-Jackson theory makes political sense.

Rushern L. Baker III, a former state delegate and by all accounts Jackson's chief rival in the race, has long been a Johnson foe, having run against him for the county executive job twice. (Johnson called Baker a "loser" in 2008 after Baker failed to secure a vacant state Senate seat.)

If the term-limited Johnson is seeking to maximize his political pull after he leaves office this year, and his appointees are hoping to keep their county jobs, the dawn of a Baker administration would not help.

There have been other possible signs of support besides the sign. Senior Johnson administration officials have turned out at Jackson events, including his campaign kickoff in March, where Johnson's spokesman, John Erzen, and a deputy chief administrative officer, David J. Byrd, were in the crowd. Byrd said he is supporting Jackson, but as a private citizen. Erzen declined to comment.

Henry C. Turner Jr., another Democratic candidate for county executive, observed that the red, white and black color scheme on Jackson's campaign signs is the same Johnson used when he ran, which he called a "subtle" signal of an alliance.

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