When I came along there was the Sasscer Machine," said Cora Rice, remembering the political order she faced in Prince George's County in the 1950s as a young black "community activist." She was referring to former Prince George's political boss Landsdale G. Sasscer.
"I heard professional black men addressed as 'boys.' I formed a dislike for political machines at that time.
"They used to send pig's feet, chitterlings, whiskey and beer into the black community the night before the election and the next morning the black people would vote for them. Those days are gone," she said flatly, without remorse.
Indeed, the times have changed for blacks in Prince George's County now that the decennial census had found that blacks nearly trebeled as a percentage of the county population in the 1970s. Black elected officials, community organizers and others bandy about the new demographic figures as if they were magic keys to a castle of political power nearly equal to that of whites for controlling electedpositions.
"There should be another black senator in Prince George's County, there should be at least four to five more black delegates and there should be at least three blacks on the school board," said Sen. Tommie Broadwater (D-Landover), Prince George's only black senator. As the de facto point man for black poltical hopes in Annapolis, where new congressional and legislative boundaries will be drawn next year, Broadwater will be echoing this theme well into the election of November 1982.
But the power of population, which for now must flow through the senator, who began his career in the streets of inner-city Prince George's, will remain more apparent than real until it is translated into an equivalent number of votes.
Black leaders agree that the main obstacle to the black millennium Prince George's is underrepresentation at the polls. For example, the 6th election district, which includes Suitland District Heights, Hillcrest Heights and Marlowe Heights, is 52 percent black. Most of the 18 precincts are racially integrated. But in the four that are 70 percent white or more, almost 50 percent are registered voters. In the three overwhelmingly black precincts, admittedly dominated by apartment dwellers, only 24 percent are registered voters.
Back in the mid-1960s, the black community struggled for what Rice called "survival" in Prince George's County, bringing suits against Police brutality and eventually against school segregation. Then came the "first black" appointments such as those to the state's attorney's office, the human relations board and the board of elections. These concessions were given to the various "leaders" who, according to County Council member Deborah Marshall, "weren't in charge enough to be elected -- but who the white folks went to for the votes."
In 1966 Arthur King became the first black elected to the House of Delegates. That was also the first of Steny Hoyer's 12 years in the Maryland Senate. In 1974 the Democratic organization Hoyer and political adviser Peter F. O'Malley headed put together their first "Blue Ribbon Slate" for every office in the county. They tapped Broadwater to run against King to be the first black senator from the newly created 25th district.
With the aid of the ticket, Broadwater defeated King and laid claim to any spoils of machine politics destined for the black community. All black appointments during the tenur of former County Executive Winfield Kelly were said to go through Broadwater or his coterie known as "Tommie's people." Broadwater enjoys hardballing and horse-trading in the backrooms in his streetwise style to deliver for the black community.
"The idea is to get on the ticket and run with it; it would be very difficult without it," said Broadwater. "The key to all of our success in Prince George's County is that we have a coalition with white folks."
Some prominent blacks, however, have been critical of the Broadwater style and the substance of machine politics, despite the fact that the machine has been declared dead since 1979.
"With the reapportionment (that created the black 25th district in 1973) we got this great big gift of putting some black people on a ticket from the black community when they didn't need a ticket in the first place," said Rice, who has worked with others at cross political purposes from "Tommie's people."
Rice and other blacks bucked the senator's all-out effort for Hoyer in the recent special congressional primary by supporting Reuben Spellman. Hoyer had greater finances. Broadwater covered every polling place "four and five deep" with his campaign workers but Hoyer won the 25th distict by only 182 votes.
It could not be called a demonstration of the kind of heavy clout that Broadwater, and by extension the black community, would like to have with county politicians when it comes to delivering votes.
Yet, it begs the question of whether one leader is, can or should be the representative of all 247,000 blacks in the county, and whether a leader should be placed in that position for the convenience of politicians from outside the community.
Black elected leaders and obsevers, including Broadwater himself, see the need for additional leadership and organization outside the 25th district. They think of the significant numbers of well-educated, middle-class blacks -- the kind who read and vote and lead -- now thought to be living in the county like "gold in the hills."
No matter who leads, unless the followers can be documented and mobilized, all will lose. Thus, no matter the positioning in the important political year to come, unity will still be the watchword.
As Rice said, "It can happen, it must happen and it will happen. We as a people are not going to let anything put us back into the 1950s. I believe it from history -- there are some things you just know."