In normal times, commissions and task forces appointed by the Prince George's County Council come and go without attracting much attention. Once appointed, these illustrious bodies spend weeks pondering the complexity of the county's permit process or personnel code, or considering the marketing of gasohol in Prince George's, before turning in reports that are quickly shoved onto a crowded library shelf or, at worst, dumped into the trash basket.
But these are unusually trying times in Prince George's, particularly for the Democratic party that controls every seat on the council. As a result, the usually routine task of appointing commissioners has taken on a previously unknown importance. In the case of the five-member commission appointed to redistrict the council from 11 seats to nine, the new seriousness has led to a rash of political name-calling, accusations about the ability of various elected officials to tell the truth and a near-fistfight between two powerful state senators.
"A lot of people are really ticked off," said state Sen. Thomas Patrick O'Reilly who, more than most, was upset by the council appointments to the redistricting committee. "It's gonna cause a lot of problems."
The reason for the fuss has much to do with the efforts of the once-omnipotent, now-disheveled party machinery to regain the total control it held over county positions and politics before the 1978 elections. Those elections ousted the party's two leaders from public office and replaced several Democratic loyalists with so-called mavericks, who in the last two years have been working to establish their own organization.
Since the '78 elections, the party mainstream has been attempting to resurrect what once was. It first major effort centered around the County Council's appointment of a redistricting committee that has been given the politically sensitive task of redrawing council lines for the 1982 election. The issue has become important because two of the 11 council members will lose their seats and all politicians -- not just the council members -- want to prevent the loss from occurring in their power bases.
Such appointments might, in Montgomery County or another area, be left simply to the council members who by law are given such responsibility. But in Prince George's, which has a history of machine-style politics, such decisions are never made by the rule. Instead, a steering committee -- or a new version of the pre-1978 breakfast club that ran the party with the grip of a shark -- composed of all the state senators, several council members, Democratic central committee members, a few delegates as well as other elected officials, convened to debate the issue.
The breakfast group, dominated by the senators, after much debate told the council to name three persons of the group's choosing to the redistricting committee. The nominees were Charles White, a close friend of southern Prince George's Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller; Wayne Curry, an ally of state Sen. Tommie Broadwater, and Jeanne O'Neill, former aide to former state Senate president Steny Hoyer. If all went according to plan, the council was to appoint those three and two Republicans nominated by the Republican Central Committee.
For a variety of reasons, but mostly because the council felt the breakfast group had given the senators more say on the appointments than the council had been given, all did not go according to that particular strategy. Instead the council, by a 7-2 vote, dropped White and O'Neill from the list and picked up Hoyer, who for years ran the earlier breakfast group, and Tom Hendershot, friend and lawyer for council member Gerard McDonough.
When the vote was transmitted by frantic telephone calls to Annapolis, the senators were enraged. Like most of their colleagues in that chamber of the statehouse, the senators have great respect for the prestige of their posts and did not expect that others would ignore their wishes.
Miller, in particular, was extremely angry, since as chairman of the county senators he had helped convene the new breakfast group. Within hours he sent off a scathing letter to County Council Chairman Parris Glendening, accusing him of various forms of treachery, including having lied to Miller and the senators, a charge Glendening and other council members denied. There was a "problem of communication," Glendening said. Nonetheless, Miller immediately cut off all communication with Glendening and began conspiring with his colleagues on ways to "punish" the council.
Sen. Thomas P. O'Reilly, who in 1978 faced a challenger backed by Hendershot, also spoke of villainous deeds by the council. Almost all the senators expressed "shock and dismay" that Hoyer -- their former colleague, leader of the party and one of the masterminds of the old party organization they were now trying to reconstruct -- had gone along with such an ill-conceived idea.
In an effort to soothe his former colleagues, Hoyer, who said he was simply coming to the aid of the council in accepting the appointment, and hoping to help the party find a solution to a sticky political issue, spent a day in Annapolis visiting Miller and other senators.
Meanwhile, the name-calling reached an unprecedented peak late last week when Broadwater, during a gathering of the eight senators, called Miller a liar for maintaining he had not been informed beforehand that the council was not going to stick with the names proposed by the breakfast group. According to accounts, Miller accused Broadwater of having worked behind the scenes to gut the breakfast group list in favor of persons who would draw districts to increase the number of council seats from Broadwater's district and hurt the representation from Miller's power base. Within seconds, the conversation turned into a shouting match and a fight between the two was averted only when other senators at the meeting intervened, according to accounts.
Since then efforts have been made to soothe the bruised feelings and egos of various elected officials. The council has decided to send Glendening, eager to avoid political clashes that could hurt his chances to be the party nominee for county executive in 1982, and vice chairman Sarah Ada Koonce to Annapolis this week or next to patch up relations.
Whether their mission will be successful is uncertain, however, since several of the senators are now intending to put in a senate resolution -- nonbinding on the council -- to force the redistricting commission to draw lines that simply duplicate those drawn by the Prince George's senators and delegates for the county school board. And that, said one county official, would be "unacceptable."