Downstairs, where there was an early reception for those who had paid $100 or more per ticket, the Republicans seemed to have a slim but workable majority. Upstairs, where you were sent if your ticket had cost only $20, the crowd was substantially Democratic but willing to give a hand to a well-meaning Republican.
It was the Prince George's County Inaugural Gala, held last night at the University of Maryland, and the most remarkable thing about it, perhaps, was that it could have been happening anywhere in middle America. The music was squarely old-fashioned (show tunes and great hits of the pre-rock era, played by a 10-piece band that included four saxophones), and the conversation was largely devoted to local political chitchat.
After the downstairs people came upstairs, and all the elected officials of the county were marched in one by one under a moving spotlight, little groups began forming around political idols listening for words of wisdom. Some people moved from group to group, collecting handshakes.
The crowd looked a little different this year according to one veteran observer of inaugural balls, gazing around the colonial-style, high-ceilinged grand ballroom of the university's student union building, and this struck one of the evening's motifs. The solidly Democratic county (all 11 members of the County Council belong to that party) has a Republican, Lawrence J. Hogan, as its new county executive.
"I think we will be able to work together," said council member William B. Amonett, whom the smart money is backing to be elected council chairman today. "Of course, it's nice to have an executive who's a member of your party, but I think we'll get on." Then he sounded the second motif of the evening: "With the TRIM referendum passed, we have a mandate to work together, and we all know it is going to be hard work."
The TRIM referendum is Prince George's answer to Proposition 13. Nobody at the inaugural ball seemed to know how it would work -- but, unless they can change the county charter, they have to make it work.
Asked about his prospective election to the chairmanship today, Amonett said "it looks that way," but added that he would wait for congratulations "until the vote is counted." He did not seem displeased, however, when the new lieutenant governor, Samuel Bogley, greeted him as "Mr. Chairman." He answered in kind with a friendly bit of hyperbole: "Hiya Gov."
When the elected officials marched in, the second-loudest applause (Hogan got the loudest and Sheriff James V. Aluisi came in third on the applause meter) went to at-large council member Sue V. Mills, a Democrat who defeated the party's choice in the primary and now seems to enjoy an uneasy truce with the party structure. She was treated as a sort of folk hero at the party, with guests who had not been at the downstairs reception coming up to shake her hand and murmuring things like, "I like your style." And clearly she was enjoying it.
"Obviously, I'm not going to stop here," she said. "First, I have four years on the council to take care of; then I can think of at least two options -- and I'm not telling anybody my plans yet. I've never marched in lock-step; I figure I was elected to represent the people, not to follow the party, and I've had my wrist slapped for that. But when I go to the people, they support me."
Also looking beyond the council for a broader base of support, Lawrence Hogan chose a theme dear to every citizen of th ecounty for his remarks last night. Prince George's County long has a status something like that of Brooklyn in comedy routines of the past: Mention the name in the Washington Metropolitan area, and people (except those from Prince George's) get ready for a punch line. Also like Brooklyn, it has developed in response a fierce local loyalty -- let someone at the party know that you were from out of the county, and you were likely to start hearing about the parks and cultural activities, the awards won by the county's firemen and job-training programs.
"Too many of our neighbors in this area think of us as the redneck poor relations across the line," Hogan said. "They are unaware of our cultural activities -- education, art, music, our beautiful parks. We know what a wonderful place it is here, but we have to convince our neighbors."
No dissenting voices could be heard on that motion.