Laney Hester helped bring down one county administration and has defeated its successor on several key issues. He has plagued County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan's administration so painfully, insulted it so frequently, that Hogan no longer will speak to him. He earned the ire of two police chiefs and thwarted the ambitions of a would-be third. And he earned the respect, sometimes the awe, of the officers he represented. They called him "The Pharoah."
Now, after four years as president of the Prince George's Fraternal Order of Police, Hester is ready to go back to the streets. His successor is Mal Curran, a 13-year FOP member and former member of the union's legislative committee.
Hester, who organized a vote of no confidence in former chief John Rhoads and who looked current chief John McHale in the eye and called him a "political hack" and other less printable things, will return to the robbery squad and take his orders from a captain.
A Prince George's policeman since leaving the Air Force in 1968, Hester was a member of the FOP negotiating team and a general "adviser" before seeking office. He is a sergeant on the police force.
In four years of intense lobbying, fierce and usually acrimonious negotiations, and loud, sometimes inflammatory, public statements, Hester has hauled the FOP from sleepy indolence to political force. His tactics have included one eight-hour walkout and two ticket-writing slowdowns. Police pay and benefits, rated last in the area in 1974, became "as good as any in the Washington area," according to Hester. Starting salaries have risen from $13,354 to $16,703, and retirement comes after 20 instead of 25 years' service. Police now enjoy the right to binding arbitration in contract negotiations.
Outspoken in public, the 35-year-old Hester is a quiet man in private. He lives in Calvert County with his wife and two children. There's more space there, and "you can't see the neighbors, except when the leaves are off the trees." He says he likes to get away from Prince George's, back to Calvert where he's "just people" and not a cop.
He says he won't stop for anything when he's driving home, except traffic accidents. Sometimes he'll stop for a fist fight, but just to watch. Few of his close friends are policemen. He doesn't drink because he doesn't like headaches, he says. He has an office at the FOP lodge on Old Largo Road, but he avoids the bar in the same building.
In Upper Marlboro, when he's not doing the rounds of County Council offices, Hester prefers the Olde Towne Inn on Main Street, where he spends a large piece of every week drinking coffee, smoking and chewing the fat with local politicians. He tries to get a seat in the corner where he can see who comes and goes, or near the coffeepots.
"Always sit here," he says as he reaches behind him and pours himself another cup. When he speaks, he leans forward, pressing his chest against his hands, which are folded on the table in front of him.
"I take credit for binding arbitration," Hester says. "We got it, even with the county executive opposing us. It was the major achievement." He recalls his tactics with glee. Caught in seemingly endless contract negotiations in 1980, the FOP managed to quickly round up 10,000 signatures to have the arbitration issue put on the ballot, and officers manned every polling station. Hester says the officers played on the fact that most people will help a policeman in trouble. "Being cops, we went up to people and said: 'Sir, I'm a police officer. I need your help.' It was super." Hester laughs when he recalls the stratagem.
County Council Chairman Parris N. Glendening, a staunch admirer of the union president, says he was impressed by the way Hester and the FOP maneuvered. "They knew from the beginning that merely having the binding arbitration legislation on their books would encourage the executive to reach a settlement," Glendening said. "Almost immediately after the adoption of the legislation, the FOP and the executive reached an agreement."
It is hard to believe that the FOP endorsed Hogan for county executive in 1978.
"I fell very short on Larry Hogan," Hester says now. "I really thought he was the best candidate. But it didn't take very long to realize that he was impossible to deal with."
Since then, Hester's understanding of Prince George's politics has been shaped by a profound dislike of the county executive. If you want to hear Hogan insulted, go to Laney Hester:
"If he were in South America, he would be a dictator," said Hester. "He's completely irrational. . . . He's done nothing to improve the image of the county. . . . His ego is so big he can't accept that someone can disagree with him. If you disagree with him, you're an enemy. I'd feel bad if I was a friend of his."
Hester is so disdainful of Hogan that he sometimes makes false accusations. He claims, for instance, that Hogan has such an inferiority complex he surrounds himself with aides who are shorter than he. In fact, almost every aide is taller than Hogan, who is about 5 feet 5 inches tall. Some are taller than Hester's own 6 feet 1 inch.
But Hester's powerful distrust of county administrations, past and present, has made his battles more meaningful and his victories seem sweeter. When he came to office in 1978, the FOP and the county government had been locked in negotiations for almost a year. In the summer of that year, Hester proposed a vote of no confidence in then county executive Winfield M. Kelly Jr., and in then police chief John Rhoads. The FOP members passed the motion overwhelmingly.
"I personally have a good deal of respect for John Rhoads," says Hester. "I like him a great deal and even today would count him among my friends. But business is business." The no confidence vote, Hester said, "sent a notice that the men didn't necessarily view the chief as their ally. It wasn't a club atmosphere any longer. It might have been a turning point in the relationship between the police chief and the ordinary guys." Indeed, some said it showed that Hester was more powerful than the chief himself.
The day after the no confidence vote, police began a ticket-writing slowdown that lasted eight days. It ended in a settlement the police saw as a victory. On the day of the settlement, the FOP thanked Kelly, hurt politically by the long struggle with the union, by endorsing Hogan for the upcoming election.
The struggles continued with Hogan in power. In 1979, with the FOP and the executive embroiled once again in contract negotiations, Chief Rhoads decided to retire. Hester and the union objected vehemently to Hogan's choice for a replacement, James R. Taylor. Taylor had been police chief in Petersburg, Va., and much of the debate centered on his record with race relations. There were many heated public exchanges between Hester and Hogan -- Hester calling the executive "Ayatollah Hogan," and Hogan replied by calling Hester, who comes from Mobile, an "Alabama racist."
With four council votes needed to confirm the nominee, Hester says Hogan's top administrative officer, Kenneth V. Duncan, told Hester to get those votes or the contract "will never settle, or it will be the longest contract you ever negotiated." Hester, known as a skillful lobbyist of the council, refused to help and Taylor was turned down. John McHale, who headed the search for the new police chief, was himself appointed chief.
Police contract negotiations always have been long and tough. This March, the FOP organized another ticket-writing slowdown after nine months of working without a contract. But Hester says he enjoys negotiations. His style at the table is loud and sometimes abrasive, his language frequently obscene.
"One of the things is you have to bring people down to your level," he says. "You get this government official, very efficient, very formal, very pompous. You get a real charge out of bringing them down."
County Attorney Bob Ostrom was often that government official.
Recalling the union chief's appearance during negotiations, Ostrom said, "The Laney Hester negotiating outfit is blue jeans and casual shirt, open at the neck. I'm not quite sure what's on his feet."
As for Hester's language, Ostrom said, "There's a lot more theater than is apparent. We're not shocked by anything. How Mr. Hester performed was not at all shocking."
Chief McHale is less comfortable with Hester's comments and statements.
"This police department has got a lot of publicity in the media," he said. Hester's "inflammatory remarks" were "creating confrontations where I didn't think they existed -- particularly labor confrontations -- and all sorts of internal strife."
Hester counters that McHale is more concerned with the department's image than whether or not it is doing its job. He wants to see McHale unseated when Hogan leaves office next year.
The FOP leader acknowledges that he uses the media as much as he can to his own advantage. "You bluff a lot," he says. "You say something is going to create havoc or chaos. Maybe they'll change their minds. We haven't had too many of our bluffs called." But, he adds, "I mean every word I say."
Both Glendening and former chief Rhoads say Hester's sincerity is unquestionable. "He's someone the council has confidence in," Glendening said. "One of his strengths is that he's never spun you a line, saying one thing and turning around on you."