John Tatum grew up in Northeast Washington, so close to Mount Rainier, Maryland, that as a boy he and his friends could fling crab apples across Eastern Avenue in combat with the boys from the foreign territory across the street.
"If I threw a stone, it would land in Mount Rainier," said Tatum, who now teaches music in the District of Columbia and bought a house in the quiet little town of 7,361 in 1977. "You could say that I grew up here."
Tatum said the idea of his running for mayor of Mount Rainier was born when he first became a homeowner there: "I said to myself, 'I'll make the best of it and maybe become the mayor.'"
But Tatum, 33, has discovered that getting a foothold in Mount Rainier politics could take a few years. Longtime residents with deep roots in the town still control city hall and, by and large, they are the ones who bother to register and vote in town elections.
Just 683 citizens were registered to vote this week for mayor and for the four-person City Council, down from a registration of 779 two years ago. The fact that two-term mayor and former council member Lavinia (Linda) Nalls knows about half those registered voters personally did not help Tatum's bid to put some new blood in office. Nalls received 352 votes, Tatum 52 votes in Monday's election.
Nalls, in what she calls here "upper 40s," is the baby of the city government. The four unopposed council members, Robert J. Creamer, Stanley Prusch, Frances Plumer and Charlotte McDonald, range in age from 49 to 72. Among them they have lived in Mount Rainer 151 years.
Mount Rainier is one of about 20 municipalities in Prince George's and Montgomery counties that elected city officials this week. Most of the towns keep voter-registration rolls separate from those used in county, state and federal elections, and the rules of registration, candidacy and balloting are different in each. Some of the towns, such as Mount Rainier, still use paper ballots. Of the 76 mayoral and local council positions filled this week, 26 went to candidates who were unopposed on the ballot.
Tatum charges that the people who have run Mount Rainier since the days when it was a terminus of the trolley line from Washington were not anxious to help a newcomer trying to run for office. He says chief election judge Eva Leverone gave him incorrect information about election procedures, thus hampering his campaign, which he admits he mounted just one month before election day.
But Leverone, who has lived in Mount Rainier 51 of her 75 years, says she gave Tatum all the particulars straightaway, drawing from the 1943 edition of the local laws of Prince George's County that she keeps in her house.
Registration this year from Feb. 1 through April 10, Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. until 3 p.m., with a special open registration on Saturday, April 11. Candidates for mayor must present petitions bearing the signatures of 20 registered voters, none of which may appear on any other mayoral candidate's petition. Candidates for the city council also need 20 signatures, and a majority of the names must be those of residents of their wards.
Tatum said he and three other young candidates were given incorrect information about the registration deadline and the petition requirements. As a result, his planned registration drive was over before it could be started.
The four young candidates, who are black, say they were led to believe they would need 80 unique signatures among them to get on the ballot when fewer would have sufficed. They had hoped to obtain signatures on their petitions and votes from black apartment dwellers in a town where the black population has grown from 4 percent to 32 percent since 1970, but could not get many of them registered in a shorter time than they had foreseen. They found the petition drive so difficult, with only 683 qualified voters that the council candidates gave up and sacrificed their signatures so that Tatum could run.
Tatum said it never occurred to him to get his own copy of the election rules from a library.
Small-town elections in Prince George's have a history of inconsistencies with standard county practices, according to Robert J. Antonetti, county elections administrator. Also, he said, mistakes are made because local administrators can run the elections from memory, and there are very few challenges. The written rules used in local elections legally may not contradict those for state and federal elections, but beyond that, the municipalities are on their own.
"The people in charge are not at fault. Who can they go to? They have nothing that is etched in stone," said Antonetti. "Right now (the information) is off the cuff. They say 'this is the way we've done it for 30 years and it's right. Young people say, 'who needs this,' and they go away for the next 30 years."
Tatum charges that the conflicting information and the limited registration hours were designed to keep down the number of voters capable of challenging the incumbents.
Everyone says nothing could be further from the truth. "Maybe they interpreted it in a different way than what I was explaining. I'm sure there had to be breakdown in communications. We were willing to give any information they requested," she said.
"There's no way in the world we try to discourage people from participating in the process," Leverone continued. "We encourage it. But we get no response unless someone gets agitated."
Everyone became chief judge in 1973, inheriting the rule book, which she keeps in a black handbag, from the previous judge when he moved to California.
Each February before the biennial election, Leverone and a small staff of election workers send out letters to remind registered voters who have not cast ballots in the last five years that they must register. This year there were 156 such voters, but workers were able to cull eight names quickly because Leverone knew they had died or moved away.
Of the 148 letters that went out, 55 were returned stamped "Not Deliverable as Addressed" or "delivery Attempted-Party not Known." Many came back with "Party Deceased" scrawled on the envelope. And very few people showed up at city hall to register with the letters in their hands.
"We get a very small percentage of people to reregister," said Leverone. We don't know if they have died or what. We do everything we can, but if people don't want to register, you can't make them."
Mayor Nalls acknowledged that the older voters do hold sway in city elections, but said it was only natural.
"You get an older town and you're going to get older people who have lived there since their children were born. Most of the older towns are like that," she said. "They (older residents) feel like they're going to be displaced and be moved out, and that they have to do something about it."
Older residents on fixed incomes have a real fear of being forced from their lifelong homes by rising property taxes. As a result, the Mount Rainier tax rate, pegged at 75 cents per $100 valuation, has not been changed in the 11 years since Nalls entered city government. One of Tatum's campaign issues was the need to increase services and improve streets, particularly the main drag of 34th Street where, when it rains heavily, "you could put a rowboat on it and it would float," he said. Tom Norris, chairman of the Mount Rainier Businessmen's Association and Tatum's campaign manager, also stressed the need for more police services and increased parking space along the main commercial streets.
But Nalls said such improvements take time, and the money must be wheedled out of the county and federal bureaucracy, not the $668,000 town budget. She expects to see the plans for a new storm drain system this month, after a three-year wait for federal community-development funds.
And if newcomers want to see changes made, she says, they will have to start putting time into local affairs and attending meetings.
"You never hear about people's wants or desires until an election comes up," said Nalls. "These people (the challengers) have never been to a council meeting. Now you get some of these issues, which I never even heard of as issues until now. I think most people in Mount Rainier just want to have a nice clean, quiet neighborhood."