Like the owner of a baseball team in a slump, Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening was under pressure to make a management change.
Matters had gone from bad to worse during the summer and early fall at the new County Correctional Center: escapes, crowding, supply shortages and guard unrest, in addition to a federal report critical of security measures.
Through it all, especially since an August escape, Glendening chose to stand by the top manager, Corrections Director Samuel F. Saxton, contenting himself by shuffling key subordinates.
"Firing Sam Saxton would have been the popular political thing to do then," Glendening aide Tim Ayers conceded last week.
That Glendening has remained publicly loyal to the embattled Saxton speaks volumes about the intricate set of circumstances at work in contemporary Prince George's County, political leaders and activists say.
To jettison Saxton, the most visible black department head, was to invite comparisons to the forced resignation of his predecessor, and likely would incur the wrath of an increasingly assertive and politically powerful black community.
Additionally, such a drastic step would further dramatize the failures of a $50 million correctional center and remind the public again of the repeated embarrassments of the violence-ridden jail it had replaced.
The ticklish nature of Glendening's predicament was underscored two weeks ago when he met with a group of black business and community activists to discuss the county's minority-contracting policies.
At one point, a frustrated member of the group questioned the county executive's sincerity in supporting the black community and criticized his handling of Saxton's problems at the Department of Corrections.
Glendening dismissed the accusation and repeated his frequent public statements of support for Saxton. Then the county executive turned on the questioner, saying he had not seen any visible support for Saxton from the black community.
From that exchange grew a rally in support of Saxton at 5 p.m. today at the Correctional Center outside Upper Marlboro, the need for which is rendered questionable by Saxton's apparent job security.
"I think Mr. Glendening has been somewhat supportive of Mr. Saxton, but he does not know what public opinion is, so he is playing it close to his chest," said Cora Rice, one of the rally's organizers. "Mr. Glendening is a politician, and he would like to be reelected, so he is likely to do whatever public opinion dictates."
Glendening's staff and advisers say that Saxton enjoys unanimous support from the county's Circuit Court judges and from a majority on the nine-member County Council. Because of such support, Saxton has no plans to show up at Sunday's rally, although an aide said he appreciates the effort.
But in late August, after the third reported escape from the center in six months, the county administration heard a loud public outcry for changes at the correctional center. Glendening responded by placing two outside agency heads in the Corrections Department and requesting a Justice Department review of the facility's operations. At the same time, Glendening went out of his way to say that he had no plans to replace Saxton.
Glendening and his advisers were quick to point out that Saxton's record before the escapes and attendant management bumblings had been close to excellent.
Another factor considered, the advisers said, was that Saxton has been under personal as well as professional pressure because his wife has been ill.
It would have seemed unlikely four years ago, when Glendening selected the former U.S. Marine major after a national search to run the Corrections Department, that Saxton's future in Prince George's County government would ever be in question.
Saxton came to the job in 1983 with strong credentials, including several years as head of the Montgomery County jail and of running military detention centers. Within a year the jail gained national recognition for several programs. Morale among correctional officers, which had been low since a strike ended with more than 100 officers losing their jobs, was raised.
Saxton expected to bring more accolades to the county with the construction of a new jail that began drawing international visitors even before it opened.
But when the center opened in February, it was crowded, a condition that promptly led to a shortage of supplies and the housing of some inmates in unsecure areas.
In quick succession came inmate escapes in May, June and August, then reports that jail officials had been tipped off about the August escape but did nothing. About that time, a federal report criticized jail management for failing to implement important safety procedures.
To many county residents, the series of events was reminiscent of those that led to the forced resignation of Saxton's predecessor, Arnett Gaston.
Gaston, who was appointed to the job in 1979 by then-county executive Lawrence J. Hogan, was pressured into quitting after a series of escapes, a report highly critical of jail management and disclosure of sexual assaults.
Like Saxton today, Gaston blamed many problems on subordinates out to sabotage him.
"Gaston was run out by the same people," Rice said. "It is insulting for a man with Sam Saxton's credentials to have baby sitters sent to watch over him. He doesn't need baby sitters. He needs housecleaning."
Council member Sue V. Mills, who has been the most vocal critic of the jail, said that some problems have been caused by mid- and upper-level managers. But she said the director must take responsibility. "Gaston also had me convinced that he was the best jail director in the country," Mills said.
There are some parallels between the Saxton and Gaston administrations. Both men are black, and both held one of the most visible jobs in county government.
There also are some important differences.
In 1983, when Gaston was forced to resign as jail director, he was the only black department head in a county that was more than 40 percent black. But Gaston was not Glendening's appointee.
Four years later, Saxton is still the most visible black department head in Prince George's County. But other blacks hold important positions in county government, including county attorney and budget director.
Glendening's advisers maintain that race has not been a factor in Saxton's case. "To say that Sam Saxton is only holding onto his job because he is black is baloney," said Lance Billingsley, a lawyer and adviser to Glendening.