Sue V. Mills, her bleached blonde bouffant hairdo topping off one of the colorful pink outfits that have become her trademark, was about to launch into one of her rebel attacks on fellow County Council members.
Prince George's County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan had just slipped two planning board nominees into consideration before the council, using a legal technicality, and the members were mad. There was only one position to be filled. The all-Democrat council wanted to fill it with the first nominee and the Republican executive wanted to do the same with the second.
The council members took turns blasting Hogan. It was Prince George's politics at its best.
Now it was Mills' turn to vote on a resolution declaring the council's willingness to go to court if necessary to ensure the appointment of John Cumberland.
She glanced first at the crowd in the council chambers and then at her colleagues and said, "I think it's a shame that the council would sit up here and decide to spend taxpayers' money to solve petty political spats." She then cast the lone dissenting vote on the council.
For Mills that was not unusual. Labeling herself as "Independent" Democrat, she is, in party and in fact, a member apart on the 11-member County Council.
Mills, who long has had her eyes on a congressional seat, is now considered by many politicians to be the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for county executive in 1982. She is one of the fastest raising stars among the women elected officials in the two suburban counties.
As the council's only Independent Democrat, she has worked hard to put political distance between herself and her fellow council members. County Council records show that when there is a 10-1 or 9-1 vote, she is more likely to be the one dissenting vote than all the other 10 members combined.Through May, the record shows Mills a minority of one on 45 votes, all other council members on 37 votes.
"I don't believe in being neutral says Mills as she sits back in the colorful living room-like atmosphere of her second-floor office in the County Administration Building. "I figure if you don't have the courage and guts to vote your mind, you'd best get out of the ballgame. Sure I'm a maverick, but I'm crazy to the point of being bullheaded."
"I can fight the good fight at the table," she adds. "You win some and you lose some, but above all else you have to speak your mind."
According to Mills, by speaking her mind, she fought her way onto the Democratic state for County Council after the Democratic Central Committee snubbed her in the 1978 primary election. She placed in the primary bumping off one of the central committee's state nominees.
By the time the November general election rolled around, Mills drew more than 60,000 votes, outpolling everyone on the ticket except for veteran council strongman Francis Franeois.
"This is a law and order, blue-collar working county," said Laney Hester, president of the county Fraternal Order of Police. "The voters like no-nonsense politicians. What makes Sue Mills so appealing is that she goes right to the hearts and guts of an issue."
Mills got her start in politics as a volunteer -- for her church, the PTA, electoral campaigns and the boys and girls clubs. She won widespread name recognition in 1968 by leading a successful two-month boycott against grocery stores sponsoring "game gimmicks" that jacked up food prices.
In 1970, she was appointed to the school board by the governor and elected in her own right in 1974, a year after the office became elective. There she gained the reputation for being the board's biggest busing foe and a populist.
Mills, now 45, won a council seat in 1978 and has since sought to champion populist legislation on the council. For example, she has attempted to sponsor bills wich would reduce the size of the council, keep the county building in Upper Marlboro open on Saturdays, and streamline procedures in the Department of Licenses and Permits.
"I use the dumb blond bit whenever I can," said Mills. "A man figures you have bleached blond hair so you can't be too intelligent. When they fall into that trap, I go in for the kill."
Because of her vote-pulling power and her ability to fire one-liner quotes that send reporters scurrying to scribble every word, Mills was feared by her colleagues on the school board and is feared by most on the County Council.
"I think Sue Mills is one the most politically astute people I have ever met," said one school board member who worked with Mills on the board. "She knows exactly what to say, how to say it, when to say it, and who to say it to."
"She is an astute politician because nothing bothers her," the member continued. "When I sat with her on the school board, I used to be scared of her. What most frightened me was that she would sit up there, bend things, sometimes telling outright lies."
The member said that during one County Council hearing after Mills had won election to the council, she accused the board of being against competition because it was eliminating junior high interscholastic athletics.
"During the board sessions, I would sit and think. 'She can't get away with a statement like that. That's not true.' Then I'd go home and think of all the things I should have said to her, but I knew if I did I'd get crucified. She says she is a minister's daughter but she has an awfully sharp tongue."
The member refused to be quoted by name for fear of political reprisal, since Mills is County Council liaison to the board.
Council member Floyd Wilson, one of the few council members willing to speak on the record about Mills' style, said, "I've observed her for the last few years, and I don't like to say this but I don't think Sue is sincere about most of her positions. She takes a lot of stands because they are politically popular."
"Even the bills she has introduced seem more aimed at getting public attention than at actually getting something done," said Wilson. "Take the radioactive waste bill (regulating its transport through the county) for example. She knew that there were federal and state laws governing the transport of such wastes and the county had no jurisdiction, but she went ahead and introduced it anyway."
Another veteran council member added. "She shoots from the hip and usually doesn't know the issues very well. Here is what you might call a hit-and-run style."
In response to these comments, Mills said, "I vote my conscience and if I'm in the minority, it's not my problem."
"If the people who call me a demagogue and accuse me of not telling the truth can't come out and say what they want in public, then I don't see why I should respond to them," she added. "They'll stop doing it if I ignore them."
She attributes much of her success as a politician to good constituent service.
"I feel that constituent service should be the highest priority of any politician," she said, her expression firm but her hands and eyes animated. "There's no question I feel a basic love for the job. I get a real thrill when I can solve a constituent's problems. I'm the daughter of an Episcopal priest and I was weaned on public service."
Mills lives in Oxon Hill with her husband James, who is an electrical contractor, and her 21-year-old son, Stephen. Her daughter Cynthia is married and lives in Kettering.
She says that a good and stable family life has been vitally important to her career. "In order for a woman to be a successful politician, she has to have a secure husband. Otherwise she will spend too much of her time defending the work she does outside the home. I've had such a marriage, and my career has been a family affair."
With the resignation of Francis Francois from the County Council, many political pundits in Prince George's consider her the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for county executive in 1982. However, close friends of Mills believe she wants to run for Congress.
Of her ambitions, Mills comments, "I'm the kind of politician who believes in up or out. Either you move up the ladder or you get out of the game. But right now I don't want to speculate on anything, because all I'm interested in doing is filling my four-year-term on the council."
She has two more years to serve.
Mills' opponents believe her future may depend in large part on whether she can build a bridge to the black community, which generally distrusts her because of her anti-busing, straight-law-and-order stances.
"I wouldn't be surprised if I walked into a Klan meeting and saw Sue putting on her hood," said one of the council's black members.
"I think she'll have one heck of a time changing her stripes, but I wouldn't put anything past her," said another council member. "She's one tough ----, a tough customer for sure. If she ran against Hogan, it would be one hell of a knife fight."