Crime looms as major issue in Prince George's state's attorney race

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 10, 2010; B01

Ask Prince George's County residents and politicians what the top issues are this election season, and they are likely to agree on three: economic development, education and crime.

Although down from record levels, crime still bedevils the Washington region's third-largest jurisdiction and one of the nation's wealthiest majority-minority counties, blighting some neighborhoods and creating the perception that doing business in Prince George's is still risky.

Maryland's violent crime total fell last year to levels not recorded since 1979, and overall crime dropped in Prince George's 14.3 percent from December 2008 to December 2009, according to the most recent police statistics.

But Maryland State Police crime data also show that in several areas, the county's 2009 crime rate was worse than that of any other jurisdiction except Baltimore's. The county's homicide rate was 11.4 per 100,000, and there were 95 homicides and 3,324 robberies. Last year, the county had more rapes, burglaries and stolen vehicles than Baltimore, the state's largest city.

Against this backdrop, five candidates are vying for state's attorney, the county's top law enforcement post. No Republicans are running, and because the county is overwhelmingly Democratic, victory in the primary is often a de facto victory in the general election.

The five Democrats seeking to succeed Glenn F. Ivey are Angela D. Alsobrooks, executive director of the county Revenue Authority; County Council Chairman Thomas E. Dernoga (Laurel); Peggy Magee, Circuit Court clerk; Mark K. Spencer, inspector general for the county police; and Joseph L. Wright, an assistant state's attorney.

Political observers and candidates say the vote Tuesday appears to be shaping up as a head-to-head contest between Alsobrooks and Dernoga. Alsobrooks, who has amassed the most campaign funds with $141,910, has the backing of several key political players, and Dernoga, who has solid financial support with $122,605, has widespread name recognition.

Candidates and observers also say that Dernoga could win by peeling off white, Latino and Asian voters, while the other candidates, who are black, could split the African American vote. All but Dernoga have worked in the state's attorney's office and prosecuted criminal cases.

Wright, 42, says he is the most experienced trial lawyer in the field and the only one who has won a conviction against a county police officer for misconduct. As co-counsel, Wright helped obtain an involuntary manslaughter verdict in February 2008 against former county police officer and homeland security official Keith Washington for fatally shooting a deliveryman and wounding another.

"Even a lot of people in our office felt he shouldn't be prosecuted, because he's a police officer," Wright said in an interview. "But right is right, and wrong is wrong."

As for criticism that his résumé as a manager is thin, Wright said that as assistant chief of the District Court division, he supervises 15 lawyers and support staff.

Yet his boss, Ivey, endorsed Alsobrooks.

Alsobrooks, 39, who emphasizes her administrative record, said that as head of the Revenue Authority she oversees an annual budget of $11 million, whose revenue comes from parking operations and county rents. When she took office, the agency had $18 million in uncollected parking violations. She helped launch a collection program using a self-releasing boot that has reduced the backlog by about $3.8 million.

Alsobrooks has also served as an assistant state's attorney, and she has picked up several endorsements, including Ivey's and that of the county's police union, FOP Lodge 89.

Magee, 59, a single mother and 20-year U.S. Air Force veteran, managed 320 personnel in a maintenance squadron as first sergeant. She said her chances should not be discounted, because she won the clerk's office in 2006 despite being viewed as an underdog.

At the courthouse, Magee said she sees an ineffective prosecutor's office that files many more cases than it tries because prosecutors cannot make their cases.

"A lot of them don't know how to present evidence," Magee said.

Having managed 180 employees and a budget of about $13 million, Magee said she would bring the same managerial discipline to the state's attorney's office that she brought to clearing a backlog of land-record filings in the clerk's office.

Spencer, 51, served as deputy state's attorney under former state's attorney Jack B. Johnson, who is now county executive. As Johnson's No. 2, Spencer oversaw other trial lawyers and presented cases before grand juries and trial courts. Spencer lost to Ivey in the 2002 Democratic primary.

As police inspector general since 2004, Spencer said he has helped to implement practices that have reduced excessive-force complaints. Spencer also said that only Wright has comparable trial experience, which is still less than his.

"The three African American opponents that I have have all worked under my supervision," Spencer said.

As for Dernoga, Spencer expressed amazement that the council member was in the race.

"I find it troubling, also incredible, that a man who has no trial experience, who is not a law enforcement executive and has no law enforcement experience, would tell this community he is fully prepared to be the chief law enforcement officer and chief prosecutor of this community," Spencer said of Dernoga. "This is no time for on-the-job training."

Dernoga, 51, whose legal expertise has involved mostly land-use and tax law, acknowledges that the other candidates have more prosecutorial experience. But Dernoga, who is leaving the council because of term limits, said he sees the post as the equivalent of managing partner of a law firm.

"I can make a better difference as prosecutor because I have a better understanding of the big-picture needs of the county, and of the office," Dernoga said. He said he would expand the number of assistant state's attorneys by 35 percent, using an insider's knowledge of budgeting to create slots without stressing taxpayers.

"Crime is eating at the county," Dernoga said. "We have a hard time attracting business."

Staff writer Ruben Castaneda contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company