Pr. George's residents see challenges and opportunity in election choices

Tovel and Valerie Young with their two children Tovel II, 3, and Sydney, 10 months, in Bowie.
Tovel and Valerie Young with their two children Tovel II, 3, and Sydney, 10 months, in Bowie. (Marvin Joseph - The Washington Post)
By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 15, 2010

Prince George's County's 13,000 foreclosure filings were the most in Maryland last year. The public schools, stabilizing under a new superintendent, remain stuck near the bottom. The crime rate, at a 34-year low, is still one of the region's highest. New jobs are scarce, unemployment is high and many residents leave the county to work and to shop.

But many believe there is reason for optimism. The coming expansion at Andrews Air Force Base is expected to generate much-needed employment, as well as spinoff tech companies. Census data point to increasing affluence and more well-educated residents. National Harbor, a new village and tourist destination on the Potomac, has become a source of pride. And despite a difficult budget season, the county held firm to its prized AAA bond rating, a vote of confidence from Wall Street.

With the Sept. 14 primary less than a month away, residents in Prince George's will choose among five candidates for a new county executive, 45 contenders for nine County Council spots, and 37 rivals vying for the nine-member school board, as well as a new sheriff and a new top prosecutor.

But some residents say more is at stake. Voters find themselves at a crossroads as they decide the direction for a diverse and sprawling county of nearly 900,000 residents who seek the fulfillment of the long-standing promise of a comfortable suburban lifestyle.

"I don't know if people realize how critical this election is to our county. The economic conditions, growth, schools -- for all of that, this is an important election," said Ray Fenster, an automobile industry consultant who has lived in Bowie since the early 1990s. "The county has so much potential."

Karren Pope-Onwukwe, a Hyattsville lawyer and member of the Democratic National Committee, officially neutral in the political contests, said she detects a growing sense of engagement on local issues. "More people realize that 'This is where I live. It really matters what happens here,' " she said. "It's not always about things you can see."

Fenster, 60, is one of thousands of undecided voters -- and one of several The Washington Post will follow in the next few weeks -- linked by their worries and hopes in this primary, which in predominantly Democratic Prince George's is tantamount to the general election. Others The Post will track are Bowie residents Tovel and Valerie Young, both 36, who worry about a lack of rigor in some public schools; June Martin of Laurel, a baby boomer and former substitute school teacher concerned about safety in the classrooms and teen pregnancy; Krista Schlyer, 39, a Mount Rainier photographer eager to expand the arts and make the county greener to offset ill effects of foreclosures and crime; and James E. "Eddy" and Linda Campbell of Marlton, boomers hoping to boost the county's economy and image to attract investment and jobs.

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Surveying the crowded races leaves prospective voters such as the Youngs, self-described "political junkies," in a confusing haze.

"This is a whole changing of the guard," said Tovel, a software engineer who commutes to his job in Anne Arundel County, as he traded toys with 3-year-old Tovel II and kept an eye on 10-month-old Sydney.

The Youngs -- Valerie grew up in Temple Hills, Tovel near Deale in Anne Arundel -- are among many residents who consciously settled in Prince George's, eager to join a diverse community with many upwardly mobile people of color. But now, with two children, they wonder whether the community will meet their needs. They ponder which candidates would help improve lagging schools and step up student performance, who will ensure their Bowie neighborhood gets the promised elementary school, and who could bring more jobs and broaden the tax base.

And, although the Youngs feel safe in Fairwood, a community of large homes off Route 450, they worry that other parts of the county aren't as immune to crime. They also think their taxes, though they are capped by law, are high in relation to the county services they receive.

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