Prince George's County Council Chairman Dorothy F. Bailey (D-Temple Hills) began her new leadership position last week searching for answers.

In an interview after she was elected chairman, Bailey said she couldn't understand why her nomination had stirred such debate. Why her leadership abilities had been questioned. Why her close relationship with County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D) had seemed to matter so much.

Seven of her eight colleagues voted to make her chairman Dec. 7, with one, Isaac J. Gourdine (D-Fort Washington) abstaining. But in the months leading to the vote, council members had fought bitterly over who should have the mostly honorary title.

Peter A. Shapiro (D-Brentwood), who was elected to the council in 1998, was made vice chairman.

Some council members had argued that Bailey's relationship with Curry would allow the executive to control the council's agenda.

Some also had suggested that Bailey, who already has served in leadership posts on the council, should have allowed another member a chance to be in a leadership position.

Council members are paid $54,332, the vice chairman gets $55,332 and the chairman gets $56,832.

Gourdine and Walter H. Maloney (D-Beltsville), who were elected in 1994, both want to be in the council leadership but have not been selected.

In the end, Bailey said, it should matter only "who can get the five votes" on the nine-member body. She said her relationship with Curry is irrelevant.

"I think it's an insult to my intelligence," she said. "It's an insult to my integrity, and it's an insult to my leadership style."

Bailey is one of Curry's biggest boosters, introducing him at his annual fund-raiser every year with effusive praise. They also raise campaign money together.

"Because they are so closely aligned politically, the concerns were that somehow that might hurt the [council's] independence, that when we differ with the executive that those differences won't be adequately presented to him," said council member M.H. Jim Estepp (D-Upper Marlboro), whose one-year term as chairman just ended.

Maloney said Bailey is not a leader.

"I don't think Ms. Bailey has the capability of providing much direction on her own," Maloney said. "We will continue to be an echo for the county executive, and to the extent that the county executive doesn't have a lot of direction, I don't see us having any either."

Bailey said she is confident in her abilities to lead the council.

"I bring a consensus for the most part, a calmness, a fairness, an objectivity and a love for this county," she said.

In her acceptance speech, Bailey outlined her theme for the coming year.

She is calling for the creation of a "Fatherhood Summit," in which the community would come together to develop "strategies and policies for creating strong fathers."

Bailey said she also plans to work with the county executive's office to develop legislation creating a new pension plan for county employees.

The council narrowly rejected a resolution this year that would have allowed county employees to join the state pension plan, which offers additional benefits. The measure was defeated by one vote.

Shapiro said growth management and school reform also will be big issues in the coming year.

Commission 2000, a 54-member task force led by former council member Stephen J. DelGiudice, is expected to issue a much-anticipated report on managing county growth. The council has charged the commission with proposing legislative and policy changes that reflect its findings.

"Hopefully, if we do our work, we'll reshape growth policies in the county," Shapiro said. "That will be our legacy."

Shapiro said he also expects the council to tackle teacher pay, an effort that will require the council to work with the county executive and the school board.

Bailey will be a key player in building consensus, he said.

Shapiro dismissed the criticism that Bailey is too close to Curry to be effective.

"Certainly, Dorothy is more supportive of the county executive than some of the other council members," he said. "She has a lot of respect for Mr. Curry. But it's demeaning to her to imply she's in his pocket."

CAPTION: Peter A. Shapiro shakes hands with new Chairman Dorothy F. Bailey.