Laboring for votes in Prince George's

By Miranda S. Spivack and Aaron C. Davis
Tuesday, September 7, 2010; A1

Washington Post Staff Writers

Every year politicians easily outnumber firetrucks at Greenbelt's Labor Day parade, but on Monday the rite of passage in Prince George's County politics had a special intensity that melded the friction of big-city politics with small-town America.

Before the bands tuned up, supporters for the two candidates widely considered front-runners for county executive jostled for space and shouted each other down with chants of "your county exec" in the race to replace Jack B. Johnson as leader of the Washington region's third-largest jurisdiction.

As the parade began, a block-long mass of green-and-yellow-clad supporters for Rushern L. Baker III (D) followed the former state lawmaker as he darted back and forth to shake hands. Just behind him, Democratic Sheriff Michael Jackson's supporters, decked out in red, white and blue, passed out small American flags.

Labor Day marked the latest leg of Maryland's first experience with early voting and the start of a week-long sprint to the Sept. 14 primary. After the parade, Jackson and Baker sped off to greet voters at early-polling stations and knock on doors.

Prince George's residents will decide on a new county executive, at least five members of the County Council, a sheriff and a state's attorney. Because the county is overwhelmingly Democratic, winning the primary is a near-guarantee of victory in November's general election.

Jackson is making his first run for the county's top job after serving eight years as sheriff. He has the backing of Johnson's organization and many of his staff members, but Johnson is officially on the sidelines.

"We're going to try to touch as many voters in the next week as we can," Jackson said as he finished working the parade line.

Baker is making his third run for the seat after losing twice to Johnson, who is barred by term limits from seeking another four years. In recent weeks, Baker has picked up a slew of endorsements, including that of former county executive Wayne K. Curry, but he said there is more work to do. "We're going to run like we're 10 points behind," he said.

The rest of the field

Although Baker and Jackson are widely considered the top contenders in the field of five, neither is assured victory. Samuel H. Dean, a former chairman of the County Council, has a loyal and vocal following.

"I'm just as competitive as Michael Jackson or as Rushern Baker, and, possibly, I may be the number one person," Dean said Monday. "The difference is, I'm the only one who can go in and on Day One know how to run the county."

Two other candidates - Del. Gerron S. Levi, a lawyer, former lobbyist for organized labor and longtime Capitol Hill staffer, and Henry C. Turner Jr., a businessman and retired Army lieutenant colonel - will peel away votes.

In 1994, Prince George's elected its first black county executive, a watershed accomplishment for one of the nation's most affluent majority-black counties. This year, all five candidates for county executive are black.

But the candidates said this election is about three main issues: education, economic development and further reduction of the crime rate. Overall crime is at its lowest point in 34 years, but the homicide rate, among the region's highest, is more akin to that of the District than those of its suburban neighbors. The executive has no formal role in education, but all the candidates say they will use the bully pulpit to improve the schools. Residents have been pleading for businesses that create jobs and boost the county's tax base.

Many voters have raised concerns that Johnson's government was tight-lipped and engaged in cronyism. "The electorate is not afraid to speak up and say how they feel about the issues, and the politicians are paying attention," said Karren Pope-Onwukwe, a Hyattsville lawyer and a member of the Democratic National Committee.

Prince George's has a long-standing cap on taxes known as TRIM, or Tax Reform Initiative by Marylanders. Still, residents pay among the region's highest taxes. The county's ability to pay for its $2.6 billion annual budget - Montgomery's is much bigger, at $4.3 billion - is hampered by a comparatively weak commercial tax base.

"How can you have a county that has the highest socioeconomic group of African Americans and have schools that are at the bottom of the barrel?" Pope-Onwukwe asked. "When many companies are trying to hire someone, they want to be able to say we are located in such and such a place and the school system is great."

Education and jobs

Baker has said that fixing the education system is the first step to improving the county's overall position in the region.

"We have a good system, but you are paying for great," he said. "We must begin by providing retention bonuses and incentives for successful teachers who are committed to our system and its lowest-performing schools."

Baker is the only county executive candidate to say that furloughs of teachers and police that the council and Johnson approved this year were a mistake.

Dean said the move, although painful, was needed to balance the $2.6 billion budget. Turner has called for a full audit of county spending. Levi said she would turn to a statistical system known as CountyStat to find savings. Jackson pushes a series of tax credits, loans and public works projects that he says will bring new revenue.

At candidate debates and other forums, Dean often tells audiences that many of the county's public schools are good but suffer from undeserved image problems. He has urged more "collaboration and partnership" and a focus on middle schools and pre-kindergarten to third grade.

Jackson, who has been endorsed by school unions, said he is best poised to work with the school board to set up a job-based curriculum.

He would like to bring in unions, businesses and others as partners. "This will lead to jobs on graduation and a decline in delinquency and absenteeism because young people will see the relevancy of their education to their future in the workforce, whether as a plumber, a chemist or a solar- or wind-power technician."

Levi, whose political platform includes what she calls a "10-point plan," hopes to reduce school suspensions, cut chronic absenteeism, and produce more high-achieving students through specialized programs. She also proposes job development through technology transfer to Prince George's companies. Levi says that a task force should look at ways to stabilize rents for seniors and that more affordable housing should be part of new developments.

Turner says the county is in a "crisis" that should be addressed by creating economic development opportunities that would attract state and federal funds, increasing accountability in the school system and promoting renewable energy.

The front-runners

In an interview Monday, Baker suggested that his rising number of endorsements from unions and state and local lawmakers shows broad-based support.

"I think the reason that I'm getting the support from elected officials and unions the way I am is because they recognize my ability when I was chair of the delegation to bring people together and get something done," he said.

But Jackson campaign spokeswoman Karen DeWitt said: "What's he done since 2006? Nothing."

Candidates' polls show Baker and Jackson leading, and many say Dean is in a position to pull votes from both. Baker received support from the five of the county's senators and some labor unions, and Jackson has broad union backing.

In addition to a highly publicized incident in which sheriff's deputies shot and killed two dogs belonging to the mayor of Berwyn Heights, the sheriff's office has come under scrutiny recently in two matters. A warrant in a domestic violence case was misplaced, and the suspect was later accused of killing his girlfriend. Two of Jackson's top deputies, including one who had been his campaign treasurer, were indicted on embezzlement charges.

Baker's nonprofit group, Community Teachers Institute, failed to file required tax information with Maryland's charity regulators from 2005 to 2007. He said the organization's financial condition left it unable to hire an auditor. The paperwork is up to date, he has said.

Ericka Farrell of Oxon Hill, a program analyst at the Environmental Protection Agency and the PTA president at John Hanson Middle School, said the new executive must be focused.

"What I am looking for is that the next county executive is able to understand the importance of getting our schools up to par so we can attract businesses to grow the tax base," she said. "We need somebody to pay attention to that and get it straight."

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