James C. Fletcher Jr., Donjuan Lee Williams, Fred Price Jr. and Richard Stephen Brown are all civic activists who've been working their way through Prince George's County's political system, in some cases for decades. Now all are banking that the time is ripe to reap the rewards for that activism -- with a seat on the County Council.

The four are Democratic candidates for the District 5 County Council seat vacated by Floyd E. Wilson Jr., who is running for county executive against incumbent Parris N. Glendening. The top vote-getter in the Sept. 11 primary will get the job automatically -- there are no Republican challengers.

The candidates' backgrounds in the community have created a campaign with strange twists and turns. The race features a mayor and a town councilman who could split the vote in their Glenarden home town, a civil rights leader known for his confrontational style and a Cheverly Town Council member who alleges sabotage in this campaign.

Just last week at a candidates forum, sparks erupted when Glendarden councilman Williams questioned Mayor Fletcher for not opposing a sale of public land to a fellow councilman whose bid for the property was allegedly $12,000 lower than another bidder's. Williams criticized Fletcher for not using his option to veto.

"If a vote goes down 6 to 1, what good is a veto?" Fletcher asked in an interview, saying that the council would have overridden a veto.

In the interview, Fletcher criticized Williams for seeking a pay increase for council members soon after joining the council. And Fletcher questioned why Williams would seek higher office before serving out his first term on the council.

In another incident, Price blamed sabotage for the rewording of a message he sent over a local cable television station seeking volunteers to retrace the steps of census workers. The message was altered to falsely suggest that Price is part of an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against Cheverly.

"No question. It was an attempt to defame me . . . . ," Price said in an interview this week. The Cheverly police are investigating.

District 5 is one of the more troubled ones in the county. Stretching along the county's western border and extending roughly from Route 450 to Central Avenue, District 5 is home to an economic spectrum of 85,000 low- to middle-income residents in apartments and homes in Glenarden, Bladensburg, Fairmont Heights and Cheverly.

The predominantly black district has some of the county's oldest communities and suffers a higher rate of illegal drug use, teenage pregnancy, student dropouts and homelessness than any other district, according to Wilson.

Crime, affordable housing and education are the top concerns. Schoolchildren in District 5 are bused to 97 different schools around the county to meet desegregation goals. All of the candidates want more money to go into neighborhood schools.

Price, 50, said he would seek line-item veto power over the school budget for the council.

An administrator with the state highway department, Price also seeks more affordable housing, development for the neglected inner Capital Beltway communities near the District line and recreational facilities for younger teenagers.

Brown, 68, has been a longtime critic of local government, routinely appearing before the council and Board of Education on issues ranging from student suspensions to minority staffing and police brutality. Brown has been on the board of the county chapter of the NAACP for more than 20 years and serves on the board of Betterment for United Seniors and the local Southern Christian Leadership Council.

Brown, who retired as a public school principal 10 years ago, puts education at the top of his agenda and said county officials should rearrange their budget priorities. He criticized county expenditures on art, the Prince George's Equestrian Center and the leasing of private buildings for county offices while school properties remain vacant.

Lifetime county resident Fletcher, 56, has been mayor of Glenarden since 1985 and has served on human rights and substance abuse commissions and task forces. Fletcher is getting a big push from Glendening and his name will appear on Glendening's slate, which is headed by popular Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

A retired federal computer analyst, Fletcher said he would like to pass legislation to increase incentives for first-time home buyers, to address the needs of an aging population and to involve the educational system in training county inmates. As mayor of Glenarden, he said, he was instrumental in getting renovations for the once drug-ridden Glenarden Apartments.

Fletcher has been criticized for joining the county's political machine. He answers that by casting himself as a negotiator who "tends to work with the system" rather than attacking it from the outside.

Glenarden councilman Williams, 28, is marketing his youth and independence. He opposes the real estate transfer tax and wants to bring recreation facilities and county jobs to district residents.

A substance abuse counselor for the Department of Social Services, Williams is host of a cable television show, organizes seminars for residents on subjects such as home improvements, and runs a holiday charitable campaign for needy families.

"I'm not just out here saying I'm for affordable housing or education. I'm out here," he said.