You can talk about the concept of victors and spoils. You can talk about the "empowerment" of a growing black population. You can talk about why patronage jobs should reflect the community.
But when it comes right down to it, you're also talking about running roughshod over Estelle and Mickey.
Estelle G. Wood, 60, and Mary E. (Mickey) Devaney, 51, are the two Democrats who, along with Republican Charles Garnett, 63, make up the Prince George's County Board of Elections Supervisors.
Together, the three of them have served a total of 24 years.
They are among the 300 or so people that Gov. Harry Hughes selects each winter as a part of his so-called "Green Bag" appointments to groups like the Maryland Home Improvement Commission and the State Board of Commissioners on Practical Plumbing. Usually reappointment to such jobs is routine, allowing for retirements, illness and the occasional spat with the powerful state senators, who must give their consent to Green Bag appointments.
But this year, Wood and Devaney are at the center of a quiet, somewhat wrenching political fight in Prince George's that demonstrates the problems of change in a once-rural county. Simply put, the county's growing and increasingly powerful black voters want more representation on county boards, particularly salaried ones like the elections board, which pays $4,000 per year, and the Board of License Commissioners, which oversees the county's liquor industry and pays $8,000.
The three-member liquor board has no black members and the elections board, which supervises voter registration and runs elections, has only one black alternate among its three voting members and three nonvoting alternates. To leaders of a black community that has seen itself grow from 13 percent of the population in 1970 to at least 37 percent in 1980, such numbers are unacceptable, particularly when blacks helped push the county's voter registration rolls to an all-time high in the 1984 election.
But what do you say to Estelle and Mickey?
"With regard to appointments, Thomas Jefferson said, 'Very few die and none retire,' " noted state Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Prince George's), who heads the county's state senate delegation.
"It's very hard to say to someone who's been doing a good job that it's time to step aside now. Quite appropriately, they look at you and say, 'Why don't you?' "
Appointees "are the public representatives of power," counters Alvin Thornton, a county activist and political science professor at Howard University.
"By sharing this kind of power with blacks and women, I think it makes the political process more fluid. They are very significant . . . as well as symbolic."
Appointments in general are a sensitive subject in Prince George's these days, with complaints from some quarters that county residents do not receive their fair share of state jobs and that Hughes does not consult elected officialdom enough in his choices, which his aides deny.
Nevertheless, the Democratic Central Committee -- granting itself the task of "providing some political accountability," according to its chairman, state Del. Gary Alexander of Prince George's -- is holding a meeting tonight in which the group will review resumes of county residents who hold state appointments. Black officials, in turn, are asking blacks to make a special effort to submit their resumes, too.
While all understand the realities of politics, Wood, Devaney, and Garnett (the minority party must be represented, according to state law) all want to be reappointed. Most of the attention is focused on the two women, since most county blacks, like most whites, are Democrats.
"This is a goody. I really enjoy it," said Wood, who was once one of Washington's few female congressional aides, and then one of its pioneer female journalists. She is known as a free spirit -- she once appeared at a press conference in a riding habit and has been known to grace a political fund-raiser in a ball gown and formal gloves.
"Since I had covered the Hill, I had a fairly good knowledge of the players in the county ," recalled Wood, who worked as a reporter at the old Washington Times-Herald. "In those days, of course, you waited to be invited to participate . I think I mentioned once that I was one of 2,000 guests invited to shuffle through the White House at some point and immediately, nobody paid attention," she said.
Having moved to the county with her husband Walter in 1956 -- "Clinton had everything, including a good fire department, which was important" -- she participated in numerous campaigns and voter registration drives and was appointed to the elections board in 1977.
Devaney was one of the first residents of Bowie's modern Levitt-built homes. She was registered to vote soon after her arrival in 1961 by state Del. Gerard Devlin (D-Prince George's), then a young law student and one of the intimates of a political group centered on the young Steny Hoyer now a U.S. representative and Peter O'Malley, which dominated county politics for years.
Devaney spent years helping with campaigns and serving as an election judge before being asked to serve as an alternate member of the elections board in 1971. She became a full member in 1977.
Garnett, a retired federal employe, became a member in 1983. Connections help with the Republican Party as well: His wife, Dee, is a member of the Republican Central Committee, which recommends appointees to the governor.
At the same time, Lona Hatter, 62, an elections board alternate who is the only black member of the board, was involved in much the same activities -- except that she lived in the predominately black North Englewood area of Landover and her children's PTA was fighting for the integration of county schools.
After her own work for the Democratic Party, she was invited to serve as an alternate in 1977 -- but only after former state senator Tommie Broadwater Jr., then leader of the county's black officials, got a bill passed to add another nonvoting seat.
In the past, said Hatter, many of her neighbors wondered whether votes from black neighborhoods were actually counted. She was happy to learn that they were, and says she has been welcomed to the board and her opinion sought. But she still believes blacks must have a vote on the board.
"We're not saying that the board members are being unfair," she said. "But there are some situations where they don't really see the point." One example was during last year's primary election, when blacks complained that their efforts to run voter registration drives were being hampered by elections board rules.
Meanwhile, the county's black leadership, long known for its willingness to play pragmatic politics, has introduced bills that would expand the elections and liquor boards to five voting members each, so that new appointments could be made without firing anyone.
"Either we're going to expand the board or someone is going to have to give up one of those positions," said Democratic Sen. Decatur Trotter, the county's only black state senator. "It's just right"
Most county representatives are supporting the bills, as are all the current members of the elections board. If pressed, the board members might admit to being just a little hurt.
"I don't feel a black on the board would meet the needs any better," said Devaney. "It would just maybe expand the concept."