Earlier versions of this article about former Prince George's County executive Jack B. Johnson's longtime friends and loyalists misstated the church where the Rev. John Cherry is pastor. He is the pastor of From the Heart Church Ministries in Suitland. This version has been corrected.
Loyalists of Prince George's Jack Johnson feeling betrayed
Friday, February 18, 2011; 10:29 PM
Back in the early 1990s, Henry T. Arrington urged Jack B. Johnson to run for state's attorney in Prince George's County. Then, some years later, Arrington was Johnson's campaign chairman when he ran for county executive. If anyone questioned Johnson's competence, Arrington assured them that his boss was smart, capable and honest.
This week, Arrington and his wife sat at their home computer and read the 31-page federal indictment of his old friend, an account in which investigators quote Johnson talking about shaking down a developer for $500,000 and telling his wife to stuff $79,600 into her bra and panties.
"I felt humiliated. I felt insulted," Arrington, 71, said in an interview. "All the time I spent, all the people I talked to and all the people I promoted him to. He was like a son and brother. He was everything. That's what is so embarrassing."
Johnson's indictment has cast a pall across Prince George's, a predominantly black county known as a symbol of African American success.
The anguish is especially acute for Johnson's friends, former advisers and loyalists, those who worked for him in the state's attorney's office and then when he was county executive.
These are the people who embraced Johnson's homespun campaign style and identified with his rise from poverty in South Carolina to the height of power just outside the nation's capital.
If Johnson wasn't the most polished of politicians, with a speech impediment and sometimes-tangled syntax, his supporters celebrated him as the guy next door, a leader who seemed to care about the less fortunate, who challenged the actions of the county's police department while much of the political establishment remained silent.
Now, those friends wonder whether they knew him at all.
Seeing a 'disconnect'
"It's like one of your family members was found out to be somebody they're not," said Joe Lomax, Johnson's chief investigator at the state's attorney's office and later a Johnson appointee as deputy director of the county's Department of Homeland Security.
"He was a decent guy, brought up the hard way, not the kind of guy born with a silver spoon stuck up his nose," Lomax said. "He was a grass-roots type of guy, and he did everything according to the rules and regulations. A church-going guy. A believer. A Christian."
Lomax called Johnson "my friend" and added: "I never saw this coming. It's like having breakfast with someone in the morning, then finding out they committed suicide. What happened?"
Gloria Lawlah, a former state senator from Prince George's who is Maryland's director of aging, followed a path similar to Johnson's, coming from South Carolina and rising through the political ranks as the county transitioned from majority white to black.