Prince George's County Council member Peter A. Shapiro (D-Brentwood) is the rookie on the nine-member council. He was elected in November to represent one of Prince George's most diverse districts, an area that includes Mount Rainier, Cottage City, Colmar Manor, Hyattsville, Chillum, North Brentwood, Adelphi and Langley Park.
Shapiro, a former Brentwood Town Council member, has emerged as a pro-labor voice on the County Council, often aligning himself with Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton) when it comes to workplace issues. But in general, Shapiro said that he has no "fixed alliances" with any of his colleagues and that he is still in the process of developing policy platforms.
In an interview last week in his Upper Marlboro office, The Washington Post's Jackie Spinner asked Shapiro about his first seven months in office, in what will be an occasional series of conversations with council members.
Q. How would you characterize your contributions to the County Council during your first seven months in office? Report card time.
A. One of the things that I've been focusing on has been good communication with local elected officials and residents of my district, and for me that's very important. In terms of what I've contributed to the effectiveness of this body, I think I have developed a good working relationship with most of my colleagues, and sometimes I can play a role of fence-mender and bring folks together who often are less comfortable working together. That's a role that I've played in the past, and I think I'll continue to play in the future. It doesn't always work.
What has surprised you most about your role as a council member, the breadth or limitations of the job?
I really get to be a leader. I get to take a public position on all sorts of issues that I care very deeply about and help make them happen. We get to do a lot of problem-solving all the time, and that feels great. Obviously, we get to help shape the direction of the county and, at some level, the state, and that's good. That's what I wanted to do. That's why I got elected.
At some level being on the outside was also a heck of a lot easier because I got to choose the issues that I worked on. So if I wanted to be nothing but an environmental activist, then that's what I would be. If I wanted to stay away from some of the harder decisions around growth and development, then I could stay away from them. Right now, most of the time, I have two choices. When a bill comes before me, I have the red button or I have the green button, and that's it. I'm voting yes or no on so many bills, some of which I almost feel like I wish I didn't have to vote on.
Do any particular bills come to mind?
I think on some of the development issues that we're facing, we're taking too much of what I would consider a piecemeal approach. Some of these bills, I don't think we should be voting on because it needs to fit into a bigger picture of controlling growth and managing development.
I think that happened with CB-15 [The council passed a bill earlier this month that tightened the loophole in a law that requires developers to pay fees in areas where schools are severely crowded.]. At some level, this is what we wanted Commission 2000 to do. Now I certainly support the intention of the bill, and I voted for it, but I wanted it to fit into a bigger picture of truly managing growth and setting healthy growth and environmental policies for the whole county.
What was your top priority going into the council and has that changed?
It hasn't changed, and it's providing for excellent public education for the residents of my district. That's the number one priority.
And how do you do that on the council if you have limited control over the budget, you have limited control over the school board, have limited control of the system?
True, but I have more control than I did as a resident. There are two things that I can do. One is softer, which is just to have my office be a bully pulpit for promoting public education and the importance of public education. More specifically, we actually have a fair bit of power in terms of funding for new schools, and my district is tremendously overcrowded. We need three more elementary schools, and I'm well on my way to getting that to happen. We are going to have a new school in the Port Towns area, a new school slated for the West Hyattsville area and a new elementary school for the Langley Park-Adelphi area.
That's something very concrete that I can feel good about. They weren't going to happen before I got here. I had to develop a collaborative process between Park and Planning and the county executive's office and the board of education to recognize the extent of overcrowding in the district. Our overcrowding is more invisible because we don't have a lot of new growth.
How would you describe the council's relationship with [County Executive] Wayne Curry?
I would say the council has nine relationships with Wayne Curry, and that's for good and for bad. I enjoy working with Wayne Curry. I think he's an excellent county executive. There are certainly things that he does that I disagree with. But I would say, in general, he's been very good for Prince George's County. He's really raised the profile of the county. He's created a much more positive image for the county, and he's on his way toward improving the economy of the county as well.
Sometimes, it's hard to remember what it was like in Prince George's County before Wayne Curry, which is a testament to his strength as a leader. It's a different world since he's been county executive. Some people may not like this world as much. I do. I think he's made it a better county.
Getting back to the CB-15 legislation. The development community has complained that the council keeps changing the rules. Others say there should be no loophole at all. Where do you stand?
Obviously, I'm going to support facilitating developers paying their fair share so when push comes to shove, and the bill's sitting in front of me, that's how I'm going to vote. I'd rather look at it in a more holistic way. There's a good third of the county that I just don't think we should build in at all. We need to preserve. And then I see a portion of the county, especially what you would consider central county along the Beltway, where there's a lot of potential for healthy, especially commercial development, and we need to manage that but encourage it. Then I look at areas like my district, the Inner Beltway area that needs massive reinvestment, and part of the problem is that we have a suburban zoning model. I live in an urban area with suburban zoning so it doesn't encourage the kind of development that I'd like in my district, and I think that that's very similar to other Inner Beltway communities.
What is the biggest challenge, the biggest issue facing your district?
We have the fastest-growing Latino population in the state of Maryland in my district. That's an asset, that's not a challenge. The change in demographics is one of the most wonderful things about my part of the county. That's why my wife and I live there, and it's our greatest asset. It does present some challenges. I think the biggest challenge that it presents is to the school system. People say all the time how there are representatives from 140 countries that go to school in Prince George's County. Probably 139 of them are in my district. It's a wonderfully diverse community. People talk about the lack of restaurants in the county, good restaurants. That's not true. On University Boulevard, there are some of the best restaurants in the region, right in my district.
We're still a working-class community, and we're still a majority of color community. Let's face it, this is America, and it's a pretty racist world we live in. What we're facing are perception problems with our district, and that's typically a problem for white folks who look at our area and say, "Well, I'm not sure if that's a safe place to live." So we're fighting a perception problem. In the long run, that just has to work itself out on its own. Now what I can do is work to improve the schools and work to encourage economic development, good economic development so it becomes a better place to live, and that, in turn, will change the perception.
The county executive said revitalization was his top initiative when he announced the fiscal year 2000 budget earlier this year. What evidence have you seen that he's addressing this, and what can the council do to help?
He's making a commitment to inner Beltway revitalization, and I think at some level he's put his money where his mouth is. He's put some teeth into the Redevelopment Authority. He's given more money to the Economic Development Corp. Both have a large role to play in revitalization.
Developers need real incentives to make a commitment in areas that they consider risky, and part of what I think we need to do is have a good conversation with specific developers in specific cases about the kind of incentives they want. I'd like to see more of that from the county executive's office. What I find over and over is often the incentives we provide are not necessarily the incentives the developers want. Let's match what we offer with what the need is.
His commitment for me is clear. It's a question of being open to different ways of getting at the problem. He's very focused on raising the ceiling. In terms of economic development in this county, we have a glass ceiling, which is something that you would typically look at in terms of women's opportunities for moving up in a corporation or organization. We have a glass ceiling for economic development because the glass ceiling is racism. Part of the negative perception of this county is because it's a majority African American county. That's something that the county executive has been very focused on. I support that, and I want to do everything that I can to help break that glass ceiling.
At the same time, I also want to raise the floor. I want to make sure that we raise people out of poverty in this county because in addition to a very large black, Hispanic, and white middle and upper class, we have an even larger black, Hispanic and white working class. I want to figure out how you provide people with the opportunities to get out of poverty. That's one of the reasons why I'm going to be sponsoring "living wage" legislation similar to Montgomery County. If we're going to use our county dollars to create jobs, let's make sure the jobs they create pay a family wage.
CAPTION: Prince George's County Council member Peter A. Shapiro, left, talks with staff members Michael Lawson, center, and Karen Ashby at Franklin's Deli. In an interview, he called public education a priority but said that he also is concerned about development issues and providing opportunities for people to get out of poverty.