Even Prince George's State Sen. Tommie Broadwater, long accustomed to his role as the godfather of black politics in the county, looked embarrassed by the hearty backslaps he received as victorious Democrats celebrated the night of the Sept. 14 primary.
"Thank you, Tommie," said Lou Lorscheider, spokesman for the state's attorney's office, pumping the hand of the county's only black state senator. "You really came through for us, you really delivered," said Lorscheider, celebrating the avalanche of black votes from Broadwater's 24th Legislative District that had put an obscure candidate for clerk of the circuit court over the top in a tough county-wide race.
The 24th was just one part of the most vigorous showing yet by black candidates and voters in Prince George's County, where the black population has grown from 13 to 37 percent over the last decade. According to demographer George Grier, many of the blacks are homeowners and two-income professionals. If the September primary results are any indication, their weight is slowly being felt in Prince George's.
In the 25th legislative district, now 60 percent black, Albert R. Wynn, a 31-year-old black lawyer, was the second highest vote getter for three seats in the House of Delegates. In the 26th legislative delegate race, black schoolteacher Christine Jones, the top finisher, won almost as many votes as the state senator who led the ticket in the 51 percent black district. In the sixth councilmanic race, the predominantly black precincts handed school board member JoAnn Bell, who is white, a decisive victory over council chairman Gerard McDonough, also white, and an incumbent who outspent Bell six to one.
"The numbers were awesome," said Lorscheider of Broadwater's 24th District, where blacks pushed the turnout above the 50 percent mark in many precincts, propelling Broadwater and all of his slate to landslide victories.
"It (the turnout) says clearly that black people in this county want to be involved and feel entitled to be involved," said Wynn, who ran on a slate headed by the incumbent state senator. "People out here are finally beginning to realize that the decisions out here affect their taxes and their schools," Wynn said.
Political observers offer different reasons for the impressive showing. Noting that a similar outpouring of black support took place in Baltimore city, where a black lawyer won a state's attorney's seat overwhelmingly, some politicos said that black voters simply show more interest when black candidates run. Others, such as Broadwater, say a poor economy stimulates activism.
Elections administrator Robert Antonetti related the black showing to an overall rise in voter participation in the county, where turnout increased from 32 percent in 1978 to 39.3 percent this year. Among Democrats, turnout rose from 38 percent to 45 percent. Antonetti credited aggressive voter registration efforts by individual candidates and his office, increased media coverage of local races, and more interesting local contests as a result of redistricting.
Despite the large turnout, blacks still are not registered in the same proportion as whites in the county. Moreover, the number of black elected officials in the Annapolis delegation, as well as the Democratic Central Committee, will only go from three out of 24 to five out of 22 as a result of the primary, if the Democrats retain their hold. Assuming the Democrats also retain their monopoly on the County Council, the number of blacks on that body will go from three out of 11 to two out of nine.
The recognition of that potential strength has led many public officials to predict a new era of black political clout in the future.
"When the vote is heavier in (predominantly black) Seat Pleasant than in (predominantly white) Bowie something is happening out there," said Bowie Del. Gerard F. Devlin.
In 14 of the county's 36 predominantly black precincts, voter turnout increased 10 points or more over the 1974 and 1978 primaries. This compares with similar improvement in 35 of the remaining 116 districts. The overall turnout in the county increased by seven percent.
Half of the precincts with the most dramatic gains were in the 25th Legislative District, where three black candidates for state senator and four candidates for delegate were on the Democratic ballot. In November the area also will have black Republican candidates for state senator, state delegate, and county council to choose from. That's the district in which Wynn was helped by a 43 percent turnout in 10 predominantly black precincts, compared with a 33 percent turnout in the same precincts in 1978.
Though the 25th's incumbent senator B.W. (Mike) Donovan, a white conservative, beat back challenges from three blacks and one white, the black vote held Donovan to a 46 percent plurality. Together the black senate candidates garnered 38 percent of the vote. And a black candidate for Democratic Central Committee, Eldridge Spearman, won his race for what is considered a minor office with 3235 votes -- just 500 fewer than Donovan.
Historically, the fortunes of black candidates have been tied to the success of the county's once dominant Democratic faction, also known as the "machine." Since 1974, when the group installed Broadwater, black activists have had a love-hate relationship with the slate-makers.
Many of the younger, well-educated and professional blacks feel that Broadwater remains controlled by the "machine," and that his diamond-studded, Cadillac Eldorado style recalls the images many moved to the suburbs to forget. Nevertheless, their attempts to buck the system have been limited to ambitious, if underfunded and understaffed efforts by individuals because no black social or political organizations have been a unifying force.
Galvanized by the primary results, some blacks have vowed to organize better so that black candidates will not fragment their votes in the future. At a forum last Sunday for Fourth District Congressional candidate Milton Showell, a new group, Concerned Citizens of the 25th Legislative District, was formed.
Politicians, black and white, say that smart black leadership could result in significant gains for blacks if they play their cards right and force white politicians to come to them. "The most prominent members of the new council is the black caucus," said defeated chairman Gerard McDonough, "Its two votes [newly nominated Democrat Hilda Pemberton and incumbent Floyd Wilson], and I can't count any other two votes. If they play it effectively, they'll avoid joining a coalition. It'll be, 'Come around, mister, come around . . . ' Let's see what you've got."