When Hilda R. Pemberton, chairwoman of the Prince George's County Council, began work last summer on a minority procurement bill, her closest advisers proposed a strategy that would have put her squarely in the camp of black activists.
But Pemberton rejected the advice. "It wasn't the right thing to do," she said. "I could have done the easy thing." But, she argued, her relatively moderate tactics appeared likelier to "get money and additional contracts to the black business community."
"It's frustrating when people misunderstand your good intentions or characterize it as something else," she added.
During five years on the council and the past year as council chairwoman, Pemberton, 47, has emerged as a consensus builder. Pemberton, who holds one of the highest political offices of any elected black county politician, has won praise from whites and blacks for molding the County Council into a more powerful force. She also has frustrated other black elected officials and advisers by following her instincts.
Pemberton, whose term as council chairwoman ends next month, is widely expected to run for a third term on the council. She is seen, along with State's Attorney Alex Williams, as a key figure in black efforts to maintain a high political profile in the county.
"She is at the cross-current of a number of different things," said County Executive Parris Glendening. "She tries very aggressively to represent the council as a group and as a result has demanded a stronger role in policy making in the county. She has probably been one of the strongest chairs in several years.
"Within her own area, her personal constituencies, that's been a struggle," Glendening added. "She feels the pressures of the more militant sections of the black community. As the first black woman chair, she was looked to from both groups with special expectations."
Pemberton has encountered bitter criticism from blacks who see her as too willing to avoid confrontation with white county leaders and too easily manipulated by Glendening. After the vote on the minority procurement bill, several black activists threatened to work to turn Pemberton out of office in 1990. "Hilda relinquishes leadership too much," complained one senior black elected official did not want to be identified.
"The black business community still feels strongly about the minority set-aside," said June White Dillard, president of the National Business League of Southern Maryland, a black business organization. Dillard, a Prince George's lawyer, was the author of a bill defeated by the council. "We feel that she was not responsive to the needs of her constituency."
The minority procurement debate pitted Pemberton against the NAACP, the National Business League and most other black elected officials in the county.
Her advisers had urged her to press for a mandatory set-aside option that would ensure contracts for minority firms. They had recommended creating a watchdog commission to take enforcement away from the county procurement office. And they wanted her to call a news conference to unveil the plan.
Instead, Pemberton acted on advice from county attorneys, who said a set-aside program could be struck down by the courts. And she let Glendening announce a more moderate plan that would earmark contracts for minority firms in narrowly defined circumstances.
The plan's advocates say it is likely to work because it is backed by the county leadership and the white business community. But some black activists say they feel betrayed.
Pemberton, who represents a district inside the Capital Beltway that includes Capitol Heights, Forest Heights and Hillcrest Heights, has gone against the views of her constituents in the past.
Three months after the start of her first term in 1983, she angered residents in her 70 percent black district by abstaining on a critical council vote to extend the long-delayed Metrorail Green Line to Branch Avenue in southern Prince George's. In her campaign, Pemberton had supported the Branch Avenue plan, but she was lobbied heavily by developers who wanted to shift the line north to a route ending near Rosecroft Raceway.
Pemberton said then that she abstained because she believed that a federal judge should rule first on a suit brought by Branch Avenue advocates. Some critics called her decision "political suicide."
Only after a later court ruling had blocked prospects for the Rosecroft plan did Pemberton vote to endorse the Branch Avenue route. By that time, federal money for the proposed Metro extension had all but dried up.
"People were disappointed and put a lot of pressure on her," said Lorraine Sheehan, a former state delegate and secretary of state under Gov. Harry R. Hughes, who was a leading advocate of the Branch Avenue plan. "The people who financed her wanted her to do one thing. The people who elected her wanted her to do another."
"I think people perceive Hilda as having a certain style or approach to government, and it is a nonconfrontational approach," said state Sen. Albert R. Wynn (D-Prince George's), who was on opposite sides from Pemberton on the Branch Avenue and minority procurement issues. "She takes a profile-in-courage view: 'I believe in doing things this way. If that results in criticism, so be it.' "
Born in Norman, N.C., a town of 500 in the heart of Tar Heel tobacco country, Pemberton went to Prince George's in 1971, a divorced mother of two children. She worked for the county's model cities program. After receiving a master's degree in business from Southeastern University, she was employed by the county personnel department. It was through her involvement with model cities that Pemberton became a Democratic Party worker, manning election polls and doing campaign legwork.
In 1982, when a female council member decided not to run again, black leaders in the district tapped Pemberton. Over the years, she has built a network of supporters, largely made up of black women, sororities, church groups and civic leaders.
Pemberton is expected to draw on that network when she faces what may be the toughest political battle of her career: persuading voters next November to revise the county charter to allow for future set-aside legislation.
Glendening opposes the plan. The council and the business community appear lukewarm. Many black leaders, bitter over the council defeat of the mandatory set-aside program, have indicated that they will not work for the charter amendment. "I know getting the charter amendment passed is not going to be easy," Pemberton said. "But I'm going to win."