Stark end to polarizing tenure

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Saturday, November 13, 2010

On the day after Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson was reelected in 2006 - the fourth time that residents had elected him to a countywide position - he wearily explained what accounted for his victory.

"People know me," he said. "And they know the type of person I am."

In fact, county residents have long debated just who Jack Johnson is.

Dogged for years by reports that state and federal authorities were investigating his relationships with developers and his hiring of friends for public office, Johnson will leave office next month a deeply polarizing figure.

His detractors have long said his style of politics hurts the county's image and its efforts to spur business.

For critics, that impression will be cemented by Johnson's arrest Friday, along with his wife, Leslie, just three weeks before his final term in office is to end. He was charged with destroying evidence and witness tampering.

But for his supporters, he has remained a popular figure - an unfailing campaigner with an unparalleled ability to connect with voters. They were inspired by Johnson's life story - he grew up poor in rural and segregated South Carolina only to graduate from Howard Law School and get elected to lead the nation's wealthiest majority-African-American jurisdiction.

And they rallied around Johnson as someone who defied expectations and never received enough credit for his accomplishments.

"Folks either liked him and liked his style - or they really didn't," said M.H. "Jim" Estepp, who ran against Johnson for county executive in 2002 and now heads the county's business roundtable.

During Johnson's eight years as county executive, Prince George's crime rate dropped. The county was awarded an AAA bond rating from Wall Street rating agencies for the first time, a sign of financial health that has allowed the county to borrow money at reduced interest rates. And National Harbor, a massive development of hotels, restaurants and shops, opened on the banks of the Potomac River.

But Johnson has been accused of expanding the top ranks of county government and enhancing the salaries of political hires, including friends and campaign supporters, even as he furloughed thousands of public employees.

His travel abroad on behalf of the county has been scrutinized. For years, critics have snorted with derision about a comment he made in 2006 when asked why he charged county taxpayers for first-class or business-class airplane tickets.

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