Council member M.H. Jim Estepp is confident that he can convince a majority of voters in Prince George's County that he should be county executive in 2002.

"I certainly feel I have the experience, background and vision to do the job," said Estepp, who represents the southern part of the county and recently completed a one-year term as council chair. And he thinks that being white will not make a difference in a county that has become majority black.

"I think the beauty of Prince George's County is that people will look at me or any other candidate on basis of how well qualified they are."

In fact, Estepp--former fire chief, deputy chief administrative officer for public safety, erstwhile chairman of the County Council and current chairman of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments--is already banking on it.

In October, he held what he calls a "kick-off" fund-raiser for his still formally unannounced candidacy that attracted 500 people--including business and union leaders, and politicians from across the state--and raised $20,000 for his presumptive campaign coffers. The co-chairmen of Estepp's exploratory committee are African American.

"Race will always be a factor in anything in this country, but it certainly won't be the overriding factor," Estepp said. "I really think we are past looking at people on the basis of color. Content of the individual is what people are going to look at."

Estepp, 58, was born on his grandfather's farm in Virginia and has lived in Prince George's since he was 6. He graduated from Suitland High School in 1959, dropped out of Montgomery College, became a county firefighter and worked his way up through the ranks, rising in 1978 to chief, a post he held for 13 years.

Estepp won his 9th District council seat in 1994 and prides himself on raising the profile of the legislative body in a government whose charter provides for a strong executive. He said he has tried to bring the council's budgetary concerns to the executive early in the process, with some success.

He is also proud of his regional role at COG, where he said he has pushed the Prince George's agenda of more equitable distribution of burdens and rewards--experience he said will stand him in good stead should he be the next county executive.

Estepp hopes that his resume and his reach across ethnic lines will carry him into office. But will they? Watch this space.

CAPTION: M.H. Jim Estepp