The way Sylvanus Bent, Byron Stewart and C. Anthony Muse see it, the District 27 slate of incumbents represents a powerful and intimidating political machine that, at best, is not accountable to voters and intolerant of those outside the status quo.
Bent and Stewart, candidates for the district's Senate seat, and Muse, a House of Delegates candidate, are each running independently in the Sept. 11 Democratic primary on that platform.
But to the slate of incumbents, Dels. Gary R. Alexander, James E. Proctor Jr. and Joseph F. Vallario Jr. and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., their ticket represents the experience, influence and teamwork that get things done.
Voters, said Alexander, "can't afford to take a chance on some pie-in-the-sky candidates."
In a district where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans almost 3 to 1, the Democratic primary winners are heavily favored to win the Nov. 6 general election. In the Senate race, the winner will automatically get the four-year term because there are no Republican challengers. The top three vote-getters in the Democratic delegates' race will go up against Republicans Ronald R. Austin, John Mitchell Brown and David A. Tibbetts.
Alexander, Vallario and Miller ran on a ticket in 1986. Proctor, who also ran then without the benefit of a slate, came in fourth in that delegates' race, drawing 18 percent of the vote.
Proctor, who works in the transportation department of the county public school system, was appointed this spring to fill the seat of Del. William R. McCaffrey, who resigned. Proctor, 54, is the first black legislator to represent this district.
District 27 takes up nearly half of the land in Prince George's County, running from Upper Marlboro to Eagle Harbor. Much of it is rural, such as Brandywine. But there is also suburban bustle, in Clinton and Fort Washington. In an area with scores of miles of rural roads and congested major roadways such as Indian Head Highway, transportation is a major concern.
According to some estimates, the district's population has increased by as much as 30 percent since the 1980 Census, with the numbers of minority residents now nearing that of whites.
In an area of rapid population growth and a growing black community, the legislative challengers, all of them black, believe the time is right for knocking over the old political machine.
But with Alexander and Vallario fairly entrenched after a combined total of 23 years in the House, Muse and Proctor may be left to vie for the third nomination.
Until recently, Muse was a supporter of Proctor's who worked on his 1986 campaign and gave one of the nomination speeches at Proctor's campaign kickoff reception last fall.
In the Senate race, the challengers and the incumbent are far from evenly matched. Miller's war chest, for example, reached $396,000 this year, according to campaign finance records.
"If I was to get $5,000, it would be tremendous," said Bent. "If I get $2,000, it would be applaudable."
The 27th District Legislative Committee, which raises money through a single major fund-raiser for the incumbents on the slate, brought in about $100,000 this year, according to Alexander.
Miller, 47, has been in the House and Senate since 1971, becoming the Senate president in 1987. He calls the criticism of him and the slate "campaign rhetoric."
Incumbents say they have brought the district major road expansion and improvement projects along Indian Head Highway, Branch Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue. The delegation has also brought a variety of cultural and recreational programs to the district, Miller said, including money for the Harmony Hall arts center in Fort Washington and $5 million for the Prince George's Equestrian Center in Upper Marlboro.
"By working together with the governor, by working with the county executive, we're able to bring big dividends," said Miller, one of the most powerful members of the General Assembly.
Bent, 58, a real estate broker who moved to the county 15 months ago, called equestrian and arts centers frills for the elite. The incumbents have failed to solve more pressing problems such as the need for affordable housing, lower taxes for senior citizens and health programs for at-risk infants, Bent said.
Senate hopeful Stewart, 34, an independent real estate contractor, seldom veered from the subject of machine politics during an interview but said he is also concerned about bringing comprehensive schools up to par with magnet programs and attracting better retail services to the county.
In the delegates race, Alexander, 47, is a Fort Washington resident and seven-year veteran of the House. He sits on the Appropriations Committee, where, he said, he is in a pivotal position to get money for local projects.
Vallario, 53, of Upper Marlboro, a delegate since 1975, was the main sponsor of laws that set mandatory life sentences without parole for convicted murderers. He pledges to work for victims' rights legislation.
Proctor is a 30-year resident of the county who has been both principal and teacher at five schools here. He has also served on local health and housing commissions. He said his long-held legislative goals -- to address education, affordable housing and transportation -- have not changed with his inclusion on the incumbent slate.
Muse, pastor of Gibbons United Methodist Church in Brandywine, favors drug testing for elected officials and more state support for drug treatment and rehabilitation.
Muse, 32, is married to televison news anchor Pat Lawson Muse. He has the harshest words for the incumbents, lumping them with other lawyer/legislators who, Muse said, factor loopholes into laws that they later use in court. Promising to be more accessible and responsible to constitutents, Muse takes particular issue with the Prince George's delegation's part in Proctor's appointment and in trying to extend the contract of schools Superintendent John A. Murphy.
Though widely recognized as an acknowledgment of increasing political demands from the black community, Proctor's appointment was made without consulting local black leaders, Muse said, as were efforts to lengthen Murphy's contract.
"The machine has already determined what's going to happen and we sit back and accept it," Muse said.
Miller said Proctor's appointment was a "widening of the circle." Increased black participation in politics is "a realism in all of Prince George's County," said Miller, a lifelong resident of Clinton.