During the tumultous days of court-ordered busing in Prince George's County, Marian Patterson earned a reputation as someone who took seriously a bumper sticker of the time that said "Let's Make it Work."
Patterson's friend Christine Jones is known as someone who was so dismayed by the lack of interest in politics she found when she moved to the county that she went door to door to persuade her neighbors to register to vote.
Now, as an ironic consequence of the changes they helped bring to county politics, these two women, one white, one black, both ardent believers in grass-roots political activism, find themselves competing against each other as the leading candidates for a vacant seat in the state House of Delegates.
The county's Democratic Central Committee is scheduled tonight to choose between Patterson and Jones for the delegate seat after what is expected to be a crowded, emotional public hearing. Committee members say the choice, which will then be forwarded to Gov. Harry Hughes for formal approval, already has exacted uncharacteristic soul-searching from the 24-member group.
"I think you're torn in that no-man's land between two people with outstanding qualifications who have devoted much of their lives to Democratic politics," said Central Committee chairman Gary Alexander. "There are many people who feel that the black community deserves more representation and the seat should be given to them. That's a compelling argument. On the other hand, Patterson is on the committee, she's worked hard, she's everybody's friend and a dedicated person who's paid her dues to the party."
The seat became vacant when an incumbent delegate from the 27th District, Frank Komenda, was chosen to fill the seat of Sen. Peter Bozick, who resigned.
The district that Patterson and Jones want to represent has a black population hovering at 50 percent, but the area, predominantly white a decade ago, has elected no blacks and few women to public office. The entire 32-member Prince George's delegation presently has only four women, all of them white and all but one from north county, and three black members, all from the 25th District.
Encompassing neighborhoods of modest single-family homes and apartment buildings in Oxon Hill, Hillcrest Heights and Camp Springs, the 27th District has reflected the changes in the county as a whole, where the black population has reached 37 percent of the total, more than double the population 10 years ago. The 27th has spawned such disparate political figures as the abrasive and outspoken Sue Mills of anti-busing, anti-development fame, Komenda, a conciliatory moderate, and the maverick, popular liberal Del. Charles Blumenthal.
Central committee members and district politicans have tried to keep a public silence about their preferences, partly because of the criticism that they selected Komenda without regard for community opinion. In the wake of that criticism, local party leaders were unwilling to make a strong effort to persuade one of the candidates to bow out.
Privately, however, the lines of support already have been drawn for the delegate seat, with support for Jones, a black elementary school teacher, coming from the more conservative wing of the party, as well as blacks and teachers. The group includes Bozick as well as Komenda, who has echoed the position that the seat should go to a black candidate. Sen. Tommie Broadwater, who represents the 25th District, was most direct. "If she Patterson doesn't decide to step back we are going to beat her. It's as simple as that," said Broadwater, the county's only black state senator.
Patterson's support has come in part from liberals who respect her, in the words of councilmember Ann Lombardi, "for sticking her neck out when it wasn't fashionable to do so," and for outstanding organizational abilities. Many central commitee members also feel that the political apprenticeship she has served as a member of the committee ought to be respected when filling vacancies for higher office.
"I have some strong feelings about how I'd like to do the job. I've earned the opportunity, in term of experience in the party and support for other candidates," says Patterson, the head of a nonprofit health care organization.
Patterson, who moved to the county in 1951, says she would support a gas tax to bolster public transportation in the state, would probably reject raising the drinking age to 21, supports some government involvement in creating jobs, and is pro-choice on abortion.
She says the prospect of competing against a black candidate in a district presently without a black elected official is "a very tough issue for me and I haven't completely resolved it in my mind yet."
Jones, for her part, feels the time has come for black representation, though she resents the prospect of being chosen solely for that reason.
She also supports the gas tax and job creation programs, but is antiabortion. She is vague on her legislative priorities, but says she is most concerned about improving the local economy and upgrading services for the elderly and handicapped.
Jones has been involved in the PTA and teachers' associations, and along with Komenda was a stockholder in Cross Country Cable, which lost its bid for a county cable franchise. She was chosen as a Carter delegate to the 1980 Democratic National Convention in the Anne Arundel-dominated 4th District, in a caucus that was expertly managed by Patterson.
Patterson has been a district coordinator and Jones a precinct captain in the 27th. Both now serve as cocoordinators.
"Whatever happens," said Jones, "I want it to go on record that Midge [Patterson] and I are friends, and will continue to be friends."