Jack Johnson corruption scandal forces Prince George's to rethink its image

By Lonnae O'Neal Parker and Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 3, 2010; 10:53 PM

Since Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D), his wife and nine others were arrested in a probe of political corruption three weeks ago, there has been speculation about guilt and innocence, suspicion over the legitimacy of the investigation, and disgust over the baseness of the alleged bribery and cash stuffed in a bra.

But nearly two decades after Prince George's became the wealthiest majority-black county in the nation - the first to get wealthier and more educated as the black population increased - the scandal has also ushered in a period of soulsearching.

Across the county, black, white and Hispanic residents say the arrests have made them focus on how Prince George's has fallen short of its promise. For a place long preoccupied with its image, the scandal has become a tipping point. Even as the county seeks to turn a page Monday, with the inauguration of Rushern L. Baker III (D) as county executive, there is widespread agreement that not only must the county's politicians mend their ways but its residents need to change, too.

"There's a culture of apathy in this county, and this is an opportunity to change the dynamic in Prince George's," said Jerrod Mustaf, 41, an executive for a county-based social service agency. "We've always been on the defensive about who we are. But in light of the alarming news regarding the police department, very dramatic arrest of the county executive and prolonged federal surveillance of elected officials, it's hard to defend ourselves now."

For years, Prince George's officials have engaged in campaigns to boost self-esteem with slogans such as "Gorgeous Prince George's" and campaigns against calling the county "P.G.," which was seen as dismissive. Those efforts were, in part, intended as a corrective to the county's history as a place roiled by fights over school busing and plagued by a reputation for police brutality against blacks. Officials and residents railed against the slowness of developers and others to recognize the county's status and reward it with white-tablecloth restaurants and high-end retail.

Their activism has had some success: National Harbor, on the Potomac River, is one of the largest entertainment complexes on the East Coast. And just last month, the upscale grocer Wegmans opened a store not far from FedEx Field, itself an earlier development coup for the county.

But in many ways, that preoccupation with image has diverted attention from the county's more intractable problems.

"Prince George's is in denial," said Wessita McKinley, 45, a director of a county social services agency who has lived in Prince George's for 37 years. "Prince George's County is considered the most affluent county in the country for African Americans. How can this be when the school systems are at the bottom of the educational districts with a high rate of dropouts, and we are number one in foreclosures?"

And although crime in Prince George's has hit a 34-year low, it remains higher than in other Washington suburbs, and it affects daily behavior. Swanky restaurants have opened up, but residents sometimes can't park outside them - or their homes - without worrying that their cars will be broken into.

McKinley said that she is embarrassed by the allegations against Johnson and that residents share the blame. "Residents have to get out and vote. They must be active. And after they vote, they must be diligent in following their elected officials and hold them accountable to the positions that they were elected to. This kind of diligence is not going on now."

"Let me be honest. The only reason why people like Jack do this is because they believe they can get away with it, that people in their community will either tolerate it or look the other way," said Frank Stillman, 51, an IT consultant from Clinton who has lived off and on in the county for 20 years.

"It's time for us to get off our high horse here and look at what we are," he said. "We're different than Montgomery County. We have real poverty here. We have real crime here. At the same time, you drive around, and it's a nice place to be: lots of nice houses, nice cars, black people doing well. But we can't let that blind us to the fact that we need better leadership. We need better accountability."

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