Two years ago, a bipartisan group of Prince George's activists successfully fought to amend the county's charter with an arcane bit of legislation dubbed Question K.
The purpose of Question K was to reduce the council from 11 members to nine and force all council members to run from districts. The activists declared the change also would loosen the hold of a Democratic organization that had swept every local election since the early 1970s.
This year, with voters choosing the first group of council members by district, the activists say Question K is working.
"For the first time in county history, we have head-to-head county council races," said state Del. Timothy S. Maloney, a Democrat and coauthor of Question K. "Now you have nine districts, and . . . you have eight hotly contested races. People are going door-to-door again, all the old stuff. Before, there was no real door-to-door contact. . . . People didn't know who they were voting for."
Without the aid of a county-wide council slate and with more candidates for office this year than in 1978, incumbent council members who want to keep their jobs have had to work harder than ever. It is certain that fewer will be returned to office this fall than in 1978. One incumbent is running for county executive, one is leaving the area and three were placed in district with other, stronger incumbents in last fall's redistricting process.
A horde of 27 Democrats, eight Republicans and one Independent has offered to serve in the nine new council seats. Many of them admit they would not have done so under the old system, when all 11 council members ran at-large.
"If it wasn't for Question K, I probably wouldn't be trying to run," said James Herl, 29, a legislative aide to councilman Frank Casula and a former member of the Prince George's Democratic Central Committee. Herl is considered one of the two strongest candidates for the seat for District 3, which includes the municipalities of College Park and New Carrollton and has no incumbent. It is one of the two most crowded district races, with five Democrats and one Republican competing. Herl believes that under the old system he would have had little chance against Democratic attorney Thomas Hendershot, who stands well with party leaders.
Running in a district, Herl said, "gives me an opportunity to run a creditable race, to get to all the voters and to get my message out," he said. "I've been down there for four years as a legislative aide. I'd like to put out some of my own ideas instead of just doing the leg work."
Likewise, Republican Ella Ennis, 42, who wants to topple incumbent Democrat William Amonett in the southern District 9, believes she will do better in her council race this year than in her unsuccessful run for a House of Delegates seat in 1978. "When you run for delegate (against a slate) it's three against one," she said.
Ennis, who served on the county's redistricting commission, also said she believes that the council incumbents are vulnerable after a year of controversy involving emotional issues, such as commercial development, the location of a Metro line and a budget that led to the layoffs of 400 teachers.
In most of the races, challengers are banking on one of three strategies:
First, in crowded races like District 3, and the Bowie area District 4, they see a scenario in which the other candidates from different political factions undercut one another.
In District 3, for example, there are three Democratic candidates and one Republican office seeker from College Park and one Democratic candidate each from Riverdale and New Carrollton. To their chagrin, each of the three College Park candidates is considered tied to one of the different political camps involved in last fall's bitter mayoral race.
District 4 pits three Bowie Democrats and one Greenbelt Democrat against one another in the primary, with the Greenbelter hoping that the Bowie candidates will dilute their city's 2-to-1 population advantage.
Second, challengers hope that incumbents will suffer from voter wrath over issues such as the controversial award of two cable television franchises last fall. The council chose two politically well-connected companies against the advice of the county's cable experts.
Third, candidates hope they are on the right side of the TRIM modification question. After a bruising budget battle that led to hundreds of teacher layoffs this spring, many candidates have begun to call for the modification of the TRIM charter amendment, which limits the amount of revenue the county can collect from property tax.
County Executive Lawrence Hogan, many of his fellow Republicans and a few Democrats deny that modification is necessary immediately. Withstrong arguments on both sides and an amendment proposal on the ballot, candidates hope their crystal balls tell them the right way to turn on the TRIM question.