Donise Cameron admires acerbic humorist P.J. O'Rourke, Theodore Roosevelt's "carry a big stick" philosophy and '90s alternative rock.
She's not the average member of the League of Women Voters, if for no other reason than her youth.
She is 26 in an organization that consists mostly of women at least twice her age. In May, she became president of the league's Prince George's County chapter, which began in 1921 but has been deteriorating for about a decade.
In that time, membership has dwindled to its current level of 100. Of those members, about 30 are active. Important jobs, such as the community outreach position, are vacant. The remaining members must double up on duties in the league, a nonpartisan group that puts out voters guides, holds election forums and sponsors policy studies.
Joan Paik, the state league president, said the situation is not unique to Prince George's County. Paik, 53, said that fewer younger members are joining because they work full time and there is not enough outreach to the growing minority population.
Cameron's three immediate predecessors resigned, citing job obligations and health concerns.
To some, she is the epitome of hope.
"So many people are so old, she's like the messiah," said Treasurer Forest Williams, 72, trumpeting what he sees as the league's general attitude toward Cameron.
But Williams, of Lanham, is a little skeptical of the buildup. He's unsure whether Cameron really will solve the lack of participation within the organization.
Cameron, who was the vice president, has a few big outside commitments herself. By day, she tracks legislation for the Rosslyn-based Gas Appliance Manufacturers Association. The College Park resident also is getting her master's degree in legislative affairs at night at George Washington University. "I'm not going to say, 'It'll be wonderful. It's so easy,' " Cameron said. "I saw three presidents go."
She hopes that during her summer break, she can draw in enough new people to be able to delegate the league's workload.
Cameron, who lives only a mile from the University of Maryland, wants to reel in younger members with fliers and by offering internships, as was once done in the county chapter. Cameron, who is white, also proposes holding more forums in minority neighborhoods to attract interest throughout the county. The county chapter is predominantly white.
Cameron's aims are crucial if the league is to survive, many members said.
"The demographics of the county are changing, and we're just not finding people interested in the league any more," said George B. Stryker, who just left the presidency after a year in the post, filling in when two members left. Stryker's co-president resigned.
The retired civil engineer also attributed the difficulty finding people to volunteer to shifting gender responsibilities in society. "More and more women are working, and younger ladies today just don't have time or won't take time to be a part of the league," said Stryker, 78, of Fort Washington. "The membership is getting older all the time in our county."
Stryker's onetime co-president, Dawne Lawson, who is black, said the league has failed to market itself to the African American community as an organization that does more than hold forums at election time. Lawson, 45, of Upper Marlboro, who is still a member, said that only after she joined did she know how regularly the league addressed school crowding and other issues that are a particular concern to her friends and neighbors.
Stryker said the league's plan for the year is to study various educational issues, such as health care concerns and possible ways to improve the financing of public schools.
From a financial perspective, Williams said the league has a lot of potential. The group has $18,500 cash on hand, up from $15,000 last fiscal year. Partly, expenses have declined, and income was high because of last year's elections, he said.
Meanwhile, a few people are doing many jobs, said Williams, who also is in charge of membership records. "If you can lift a finger, or just breathe, you'll be pressed into service," he said.
Former president Esther Nichols, of Riverdale, a member for the last 30 of her 80 years, said she remembers a time when the group had 300 active members. Citing the loss of many potential young members to more advocacy-oriented groups, such as the National Organization for Women, Nichols said she hopes the county chapter will not have to disband and blend into other, healthier county leagues or the state league.
Ursula Shubert, state league secretary, said state membership increased to 2,070 this year from 1,950 last year. The increase comes largely because many people joined the national league without becoming a member of a state or local league but still are considered at-large state league members.
Cameron, who has a political science degree from Salisbury State College, decided to join the league when she moved to the Washington area a few years ago as a way to "understand the community and know the issues and make some friends."
She was not prepared for the attention she would get because of her age. After working as the newsletter editor for less than a year, Cameron was urged to run for co-president with Stryker. She declined because she thought she had more to learn and instead accepted the vice presidency. In that role, she assisted Stryker, who had a heart bypass operation and was hospitalized several times during the last few months fighting a flu atop his congestive heart failure.
Still, in the last year, the league published voters guides for the county's primary and general elections, and held more than 10 forums during the election season.
Stryker tersely summed up his presidential legacy: "I've not done much. I've just been a facilitator to keep things going temporarily."
To reach the League of Women Voters of Prince George's County, call 301-864-1016.
Men in the League
The national league, started in 1920 as an outgrowth of the women's suffrage movement, voted to admit men in 1974. There were 14 male presidents countrywide as of January, said Bonnie Burgess, a national spokeswoman. Male membership among the 1,000 leagues is not tallied, but it is a small percentage of the 80,000 total members, she said. There are about 10 men in the Prince George's County chapter, 225 statewide.
CAPTION: Donise Cameron, the new president of the Prince George's County League of Women Voters, talks with outgoing president George B. Stryker before Saturday morning's meeting.