Cynthia Wolfe is a Democratic precinct captain in the 23rd legislative district of Prince George's County. Her role is supposed to be that of a loyal foot soldier, someone who can be counted on to do all the important little things - from canvassing to handing out sample election ballots - that keep the county Democrats in power.
But what Cynthia Wolfe is supposed to do and what she really does are two different things, so different that they say something about machine politics in the county and, particularly, in the New Carrollton-based 23rd district.
In 1974, Wolfe decided that she did not like the Democratic candidate for county executive, Winfield M. Kelly Jr., so she supported and voted for the Republican, William Gullet. This year, her departure from the traditional precinct captain loyalty is even more dramatic. Of all the organization-backed candidates running in the Sept. 12 primary, Wolfe is supporting only one - Del. Frank Pesci. "I don't like the others," she explained. "And I don't like the machine."
In a place that really had a political machine, Wolfe would have been purged from the list of precinct captains long ago. In the 23rd, however, she is but one of several local party workers who have turned their backs on the county Democratic organization.
"I guess you'd have to call this one of the most independent districts in the county," said Pesci. "The organization as such has never been too much of a factor here."
This is reflected even in the legislative candidates the county organization chooses to embrace. Pesci has developed a reputation as an independent-thinking maverick who claims as much support from outside as inside the party establishment. The organization's senate candidate, Thomas P. O'Reilly, came into office four years ago as one of only three county outsiders to beat the organization slate in the primary.
Another organization candidate, Del. Robert Redding, had broken the party line several times over the last four years, angering Kelly and party leader Peter O'Malley with his vote against the county telephone tax and his opposition to efforts to build a convention center in the county.
The fourth incumbent, Del. Perry O. Wilkinson, so dissatisfied the party leadership that it dumped him this year in favor of Marion Hoffman, an articulate and experienced party worker. Many observers in the district believe Wilkinson, who was generally faithful to the party leadership, was purged from the ticket in an effort to cut its primary losses.
"It was pretty obvious that Perry was going down the tubes this year," said one precinct chairman. "The feeling was that it was better to get rid of him out there for the independents to shoot at."
Those independents, even the organization leaders concede, are among the better-organized and more diligent campaigners in the county. Most prominent among them are William Goodman, a senate candidate, and David Bird, his running-mate for a delegate seat, who have combined their legislative races with a referendum movement to place a lid on the county property tax and budget.
That referendum drive, known as TRIM (Taxpayers Reform Initiative of Maryland), has already garnered more than the necessary 10,000 signatures to be placed on the November ballot and had given Goodman and Bird considerable publicity and name recognition.
Although conservatives have generally been in the forefront of Proposition 13-style tax initatives, Goodman and Bird are considered progressives whose primary motive in pushing TRIM is to force the county and the state to rely more on a progressive income tax.
"We're reading a great response to it," said Bird. "It's been an essential part of our campaign and it offers us a chance to present something that's real rather than a promise."
Goodman and Bird have worked the referendum drive and their own campaigns so hard, and have developed such a base of support, that some observers in the district are calling them "the new machine." Last week the Goodman-Bird team sent out 90 volunteers who dropped campaign literature on almost every doorstep in the district in less than half a day. "The organization can't come close to that kind of efficiency," said Goodman, who was the district's state senator until the organization dropped him in 1974.
In many other districts where the outsiders are presenting a formidable challenge, the organization candidates have banded tightly together and campaigned as a team. Not so in the 23rd. Pesci prefers door-knocking by himself and O'Reilly has been known to grumble about the financial controls the organizations has placed on all slate candidates. Redding and Hoffman have been relying more on their personal contacts than organization help in their campaign efforts.
All four organization candidates have noticed an anti-Kelly mood in the district. "Kelly is not very popular around here from what I can tell," said Pesci. "But when it comes down to a choice between Kelly and Larry Hogan (the leading Republican county executive candidate), you've got to go with Kelly."
Along with Bird, two other independent Democrats are conducting energetic campaigns against the organization delegate slate - precinct chairman Robert Colgan and Earl L. Martin, a black attorney from the Radiant Valley neighborhood. Colgan has been endorsed by the 23rd district caucus, a group of independent minded precinct captains and party workers, along with Pesci, Bird and Goodman. Martin lost that endorsement by only one vote. Also running in the delegate primary are Harold J. Magruder and Bernard A. Osterman.