Prince George's County Council member Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton) has propelled himself into controversy in recent weeks, first by proposing to change the special election process by adding a primary election and then by launching a petition drive to extend the term limits for council frican American members and its only two women. The other council members, including Hendershot, would be able to take advantage of the change.
Hendershot, a lawyer who is a former school board vice president, was elected to the council in 1997 in a special election to fill a seat vacated when Anne T. MacKinnon resigned to become executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party.
In an interview last week at his New Carrollton home, Hendershot, 55, talked with The Washington Post's Jackie Spinner about his recent proposals and about life in general on the council for the second in what will be an occasional series of conversations with council members.
Q. What was behind your proposal to stagger and to extend term limits for council members?
A. It is my view that the wholesale turnover of council members inherently weakens the body. It empowers unelected appointed officials, and for that reason, it's fundamentally undemocratic. Now in truth, I opposed term limits outright and believe that the best thing would be to eliminate them. However, in view of the fact that people voted to have term limits, it's been my suggestion that rather than eliminate them, we should modify them to create a staggering situation so we're only turning over three members or thereabouts at a time. That would maintain some institutional memory among the elected people as well as among staff people.
How is the petition drive going? [Hendershot has until August 2000 to collect 10,000 signatures to place the issue on the November ballot].
When I have an idea, I like to run it up the pole and see if anybody salutes, and so we're kind of in that stage. We have gotten some signatures, and we will be working on getting more, and we'll see how it goes. I would say generally that once people understand the purpose, they seem to think it's probably a pretty good idea to stagger the terms. It does not overturn the will of the people in respect to term limits. It simply adjusts them some.
Have you been surprised by some of the negative reaction to your proposal, particularly from the chair of the Democratic Party?
I'm surprised that she would take a position of that kind without consultation with her central committee and without the consultation with the proponent of the measure. That particularly surprises me because I think her comment in the paper was, "who does he think he is" or something to that effect. She sure as hell knows who I am when she wants money for the Democratic Central Committee. And so I thought her response was rather smart-alecky under the circumstances.
County Republicans, particularly Republican Party leader Michael Steele, have accused you of focusing too much on partisan politics in the past couple of weeks. How do you respond to that?
I've been on the Prince George's council now for almost two years in September. I've promoted measures to improve the county's ability to deal with dilapidated and abandoned housing. I've promoted measures to restore seniority for county employees, limit the government's ability to privatize employee jobs, and I took the lead in forging a partnership between the County Council and the Board of Education to improve teacher pay.
I haven't heard from Michael Steele or the Republican Central Committee on a single one of those issues. The only issue I've heard from him on is the one measure I promoted to, in my view, improve the special election process. I would suggest to you that it's Michael Steele and the Republicans that have raised their partisan head. I do not deny I said forthrightly I believe the current nonpartisan special election system permits partisan Republicans to hide behind the cloak of nonpartisanship. That's what happened in my special election. That's why John Anderson could get within 11 percent. Do you think he could get within 11 percent if it's me and him head-to-head? No way.
Council member Peter Shapiro and County Executive Wayne K. Curry are both reportedly drafting living-wage legislation. Where do you stand on living wage?
I generally support living wage. I, as you know, promoted the notion of a prevailing wage in county contracting. A living wage is not far different from that. I believe it's a good thing. What we know for sure is while there are fewer people on welfare, there aren't fewer poor people. While there may be more people working, there are more working in minimum-wage or substandard-wage jobs. We know that for a family of four to be able to subsist in a two-bedroom apartment in Prince George's County, they'd have to be working three minimum-wage jobs based upon the federal living standards.
What was your top priority going into the council? And has that changed?
To improve the relationship between the County Council and county government and Board of Education of Prince George's County public schools in general. To perhaps garner more support for public schools generally from the political community.
Do you think you've been successful?
I think we're making some progress. Certainly some of the things I've done as chairman of the education, health and human services committee is to have council members who are more thoroughly and more frequently briefed on some issues on a consistent basis. I think certainly we came very close to a real partnership in the recent budget deliberation. For the first time in modern memory, the board engaged the council and my committee in the budget reconciliation process, and the council proposed to add $8.5 million, and they agreed to find a similar amount [to cut]. So again, I think that was a significant step and we made good progress, but I think we've got a long way to go. And mostly I think the way I can help is to improve the flow of information.
Has your perspective changed at all as a council member in terms of how you see the challenges of the school system and how you address those problems? Being farther away from the system than you were as vice president of the school board.
I don't think so. The first thing to hit me when the very first education issue came before the council was that these people don't know any more than what they read in the newspapers, and much of what they read in the newspaper doesn't tell the whole story. And because I had the opportunity for many, many years to be much more deeply involved in education issues than people serving on the council, I believe I have a more fully informed perspective. And I'm able to bring that to the table. I'm able to get the right people in the school system to bring to bear the right kinds of information and that sort of thing.
How would you describe the council's relationship with the county executive?
I'm not sure. I think it's generally a positive relationship. In some measure because of the strong executive form of government provided for in the charter and because of some interpretations as to how that applies, for example, in the budget process, I don't think the council has been a co-equal policymaking institution--at least during the short period I've been there. I still think the council has more budget authority than it exercises, but others disagree with me. So I think the council could be more assertive in priority-setting, budget process and be more assertive and more aggressive as a policy institution than it is.
What's the biggest issue facing your district?
People in my district, like people elsewhere across the county, are very concerned about improvement of education. The areas I represent are basically older communities in the Beltway area and just inside the Beltway. So growth-management issues are also tied in with "smart growth" and what's going to be the rule where so-called infill development is concerned. The whole notion and whole business of revitalization comes into play.
As to public school issues, as it relates to the return to neighborhood schools, we have situations where we have older communities where schools used to be that were closed, and we're trying to reopen some schools. The Berwyn Heights Elementary School has been a particular interest of mine to get that reopened.
The county executive said revitalization was going to be one of his top goals when he announced the fiscal 2000 budget. What evidence have you seen that he has been successful in trying to address the issue?
I suppose we've had some reasonably good success getting some help from the federal level with some projects inside the Beltway. And I think it's fair to credit the administration with some of our success. Somebody has to write the grants. Somebody's got to work them through. Somebody's got to have relationships at the policy levels to get their attention, so I think it's fair to give credit to those guys.
Now one of the things I have been concerned about is where the revitalization is focused. There is talk of the inner Beltway, there's talk of the outer Beltway. You seldom hear talk of the Beltway area. The fact of the matter is College Park, University Park, Riverdale Park, Berwyn Heights, Landover Hills and New Carrollton and a very substantial portion of Lanham are on the Beltway. And my concern is that revitalization be focused in these older communities as well as the older communities that border the District of Columbia. My fear is that this administration will not consider the communities that aren't bordering the District of Columbia as priority communities for revitalization.
What are the biggest challenges facing [Iris T. Metts,] the new school superintendent?
In my opinion, to the extent that there are difficulties in our public schools in recent years, those difficulties are attributable to the policy communities, the political communities, the failure to do what's right for young people as they are to anything else. And we have a lot of people in the political community that give lip service when it comes time to step up. I think that resulted in the past couple of years in an awful lot of finger-pointing. That finger-pointing has got to stop.
So that's her biggest challenge and, quite frankly, I'm somewhat concerned. The day she was introduced to the public, some legislators were there, and I overheard them talking with the press, saying, "Well, if she does that, if she does this, if, if, if and da, da, da." They can't keep laying out things like that and telling the people who are running the schools how they're supposed to do it, and if they don't do it the way they want to do it, then they're not going to help.
It's very easy and it's almost instinctive, especially if you're a politician, to cast blame. And it's very easy to be defensive and all the rest of it. But that doesn't solve anything. And we've got to challenge the leadership communities. There's an old line in an old John Wayne western, one of the guys says, "My fault, your fault, don't matter. This is the way it's going to be." And we've got to be big enough as a leadership community to forget about whose fault it is. It doesn't matter. We have to come together and find a way to solve it.