Stark end to polarizing tenure

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Saturday, November 13, 2010; A01

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.

"I think the people of Prince George's County expect me to," he said then. "I don't think they expect me to be riding in a seat with four across and I'm in the middle."

A low point of his time in office came in 2007, when a police corporal whom Johnson had elevated to director of homeland security for the county shot two unarmed furniture deliverymen at his home, killing one of them.

Johnson quickly distanced himself from Keith A. Washington, who was later convicted of involuntary manslaughter. Johnson insisted they were not friends and that he had never promoted Washington.

But those comments clashed with the public record, which suggested that Johnson had promoted Washington, a fraternity brother who had supported his 2002 run for office at a time when Johnson was feuding with the county's police union.

"What made him popular was that he gave away a lot of money," said longtime critic Del. Barbara Frush (D), referring to Johnson's propensity to hire friends and give county money to local organizations. "That always makes people popular."

Johnson has been deeply enmeshed in county politics since he was recruited in 1985 to serve as campaign treasurer to Alexander Williams Jr., who defeated a white, 24-year incumbent and became the county's first African American state's attorney.

For the next eight years he served as Williams's deputy - and then ran to succeed him as the county's prosecutor when Williams was appointed to the federal bench.

By the time he ran for county executive, he had developed a reputation as a tireless campaigner. For years, he visited several churches every Sunday. If a longtime resident was having a backyard birthday party, chances were, Johnson would stop by.

"He's a no-nonsense person who could go around a crowd and give every single person the sense that they were the only person who had his attention," said Terry Speigner, the former chairman of the Prince George's County Democratic Central Committee. "He was a country boy from South Carolina, and he knew how to talk to folks."

Johnson is known to enjoy the trappings of a good life. He often travels with an entourage, including a security detail. He is a snappy dresser and relishes spending time on the golf course.

But he also has maintained close ties to his home in Wadmalaw Island, S.C., an area where many locals speak a Creole dialect passed down from freed slaves.

In a 2008 interview, Johnson recalled that his childhood home was so divided by race that it resembled South Africa under apartheid. He said he didn't even meet a white South Carolinian until he was an adult, living in Tacoma, Wash., and serving in the Army.

"He's come a long way - and this is painful to watch," said Del. Jolene Ivey (D), who said she had come to consider Johnson a supporter. "I'm sure it's difficult for everyone who knows and loves him. And for the people who don't love him, it's painful for them to see how it's going to affect the county's reputation."

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