Somewhere at the end of a long list of items on the 1980 ballot in Prince George's County, rows after the presidential, senatorial, congressional and school board races, is a group of three referendum questions that have sparked the county's most intensely fought political battle this election year and revived old antagonisms within the county's Democratic Party.
The issue is a complex and in many ways technical debate over the size and formation of the County Council but it has spawned its own campaign replete with bumper stickers, literature drops and, in the best tradition of Prince George's County's colorful political sytle, intense political maneuvering and behind-the-scenes assaults on enemy turf.
On one side of the debate over ballot questions K, L and M is a group of maverick Democrats, who made their name as successful battlers of the old party machine, a small band of avid petition drive organizers and an increasingly active Republican Party. The groups joined together in one coalition this spring to produce Question K, which would reduce the council size from its current 11-member size to nine and force them all to run in separate districts.
Such a move, they argue, would make the council more responsive to the electorate, by forcing its members to focus on a smaller group of people in only one district. It would also cut down on the influence of Democratic Party power brokers or slate markers who, because of the county's tendency to vote the Democratic line on all but the top positions, have been able to prevent candidates who are not tied into the party from winning election. In addition it would be cheaper to run for office from a district.
On the other side is the once well-organized Democratic establishment, still defensive about the old charges of bossism and machine politics associated with its past slate-making efforts. It is struggling to push Question M, which would maintain an 11-member council with all elected at large but five residing in seperate districts. This is the same system by which all the incumbents were elected in 1978.
Question K, they say, is simply an effort by the maverick Democrats and some of their Republican friends to build up a nascent organization begun in 1978 when several of them were able to defeat candidates on the Democrats' primary election slate. It would remove a countywide perspective on the council, they argue, and lead to parochialism and vote-trading on important issues such as zoning. In addition, it would reduce "accountability" because voters would have only one representative for whom they can cast a ballot instead of the full council as is the case now.
Question K, they say, stands for "kooks."
No one is actively suporting Question L, which like Question M was placed on the ballot through council action only after it was certain that Question K was going to come before the voters. Question L would reduce the council's size to nine, with five members running at large and four elected by voters in an individual district.
With the election only a few weeks away each side has increased the vitriole of its rhetoric in an effort to get some attention from an electorate more concerned with making up its mind about the next president than three charter amendment questions on the far right corner of a ballot.
"This is an insider's game. It's always that way with referendum questions," said council member Gerard T. McDonough, an advocate of Question M. "You hve a Democratic Party battle going on here [that will be decided by] the great unwashed masses and you never know which way they'll go."
Said Larry Hogan Jr., son and top aide to the county's Republican county executive who has been actively selling Question K, "Unless you really know the three questions or are a lawyer, you're gonna be confused. Our challenge is to educate the voters and that's a difficult thing right now, with people focusing on the presidential election or the Senate election."
For a variety of reasons the issues have become muddied in the months since the ballot questions, called charter amendments, were first proposed. Mentioned infrequently is the fact that the council is scheduled to be elected under a new system anyway in 1982 because of a change in the state constitution approved by the voters two years ago.
In 1978 they were all elected countywide, but five were required to live in residential districts. In 1982, because of the constitution change, six of the 11 would run countywide and five would be elected by districts. But this system will go into effect only if voters reject all three questions -- a course advocated by some party regulars and one of the so-called citizens group that have cropped up around the issue.
More confusing even than the details of the referendum questions has been the scheming by county politicians over the issue.
The plotting began late last spring when the Question K advocates launched a surprise petition attack on primary election day. The group was successful in collecting the needed signatures to have their question placed on the ballot, much to the chagrin at the time of council members and many party regulars.
Not inclined to lamely accept a proposition of which they disapproved, the council developed several maneuvers that could provide a cause study in Machiavellian tactics Prince George's style. The developed two alternatives (Questions L and M), refused to put Question K on the ballot because of some confusion over affidavits and then, when forced to place it on the ballot, made sure Question K was worded in a way that would be sure to displease its advocates.
Aware that the Question K people had been emphasizing their proposal as an effort to reduce government, the council placed Question K on the ballot reading, "To increase Councilmanic districts from 5 to 9 and providing for a County Council of 9 members, each to be nominated and elected from a separate district."
The council also added a caveat to the two questions it proposed, stating that L and M will prevail if all three charter amendments are approved.
"That was very, very smart. That was the only smart thing they've done," said State Del. Timothy F. Maloney, one of the main instigators of Question K and an adept plotter himself who emerged onto the political scene when he defeated the party candidate in the 1978 Democratic primary.
While election day is the current focus of the charter proponents, that may be only the beginning. If all three of the charter amendments are approved -- as some predict will happen -- the issue may go to the courts and may not be resolved for months or even years.