A mother needs help getting her son out of jail. A scrawny young man cashes a social services check. An elderly woman asks for a loan, ten bucks, which she promises to pay back in a week, maybe two.
Midnight has descended on "the Hill." And so has the nightly parade of people -- the poor and the powerful alike -- seeking a word with the man who presides over the ramshackle cluster of businesses set back from the road in Prince George's County.
Here's the state legislator, stepping past the thick-necked beer swillers and the exotic dancers to greet the man they're all looking for -- the proprietor, a short, portly figure with a diamond-encrusted wristwatch, diamond ring and wad of cash too fat for any wallet.
Tommie Broadwater Jr.
The one they still call senator, nearly 20 years after his fall from grace.
A generation ago, Broadwater rose from poverty to become the first African American state senator and power broker from Prince George's. In a predominantly white county, he was the youthful face of black political advancement.
His reign ended in scandal in the early 1980s as Prince George's became home to a new wave of arrivals, the black professionals whose fancy homes beyond the Capital Beltway are a symbol of the county's promise.
But Broadwater has not faded away, far from it.
He remains a powerful figure at the county's core, the old working-class neighborhoods that ring the District. Certainly for the single mothers and laborers who rely on him for a loan, but also for the county's most ambitious politicians, who regularly seek out his counsel.
The kid he once baby-sat for, Wayne K. Curry, grew up to become the first black county executive in Prince George's. On any given day, Curry can be found conferring with Broadwater about political strategy or using him as a sounding board. "Tommie is as close to a guru as I've ever had," Curry said.
Then there's the crowd of candidates jockeying to replace Curry next year. They view Broadwater not only as a conduit to voters inside the Beltway but as a political wise man whose knowledge of the players and feel for the county's history are invaluable.
Inevitably, they descend on Broadwater's world, a parcel on Sheriff Road known as the Hill, where he owns just about everything: a bail bonding office, a drive-through liquor store, a barbecue rib joint, a nightclub and a motel called the Ebony Inn.
Here, they find an incongruous swirl: construction workers buying beer after work, mothers picking up takeout orders of ribs, bounty hunters tracking bail jumpers, winos mumbling about nothing in particular.
In a suburban setting, Broadwater is singular, a decidedly urban archetype who evokes a time when politics was more about small favors and personal connections than telemarketing and image.
"He's as close to a ward boss as we've got," said John Lally, a lawyer who has long been involved in Prince George's politics. "He's at the weddings and the funerals and the evictions. He bails you out and props you up. And when election time comes, he can mobilize a lot of people to work the polls, pass out literature and work the phones."
Broadwater disappears into an office between the rib counter and dance floor and pulls from a safe a bundle of cash that he counts as quickly and expertly as a bank teller.
Same as he did more than 50 years ago, when he was a boy stacking play money in the cinder-block house he grew up in a few blocks away. So much play money that everyone called him Rocky, as in Rockefeller, because he was going to be a millionaire by the time he was 35.
He missed by only a few years.
Broadwater drops the bills into the cash register behind the bar, then he's out the door, moving across the parking lot and up a flight of stairs to his office, where he sits behind a desk waiting for another call for a bond.
On his walls are framed photographs. Broadwater with the former governor of Virginia. Broadwater with a Maryland congressman. Broadwater with a lobbyist.
Now it's 2 a.m. The dancers will be gone soon. So will the crowd. Why doesn't Broadwater go home? "Can't go nowhere, got to stay," he says. "Nobody's gonna come and take over the Hill. This is my Hill."
Rise Paralleled County's
Tommie Broadwater's life story -- his rise from poverty to wealth, his passage from the social margins to the county's apex -- is an essential chapter in the story of how Prince George's evolved from a place where blacks had nothing to a place where blacks rule.
Broadwater was there when blacks went to segregated schools and were shut out of white neighborhoods, when they wielded no power in the worlds of politics, law and business.
He was also there, and played a major role in the transformation of Prince George's, one that began with the black migration from the District in the 1960s and remade the county's social and political landscape. The evolution culminated in 1994 with Curry's historic election as county executive.
At one time, it might have been Broadwater.
In 1974, he was elected to the Maryland state Senate and distinguished himself in political circles not only with an orange Cadillac and outsize Afro (a "high-bush," as he called it), but by doling out jobs and appointments to blacks.
Then, in 1983, at the peak of his power, Broadwater was convicted of committing $70,000 in food stamp fraud. He spent four months in a federal prison, lost his Senate seat and was publicly humiliated.
Broadwater launched three failed comeback bids, the last in 1994, when he ran for his old Senate seat. But he has learned that he doesn't need public office to retain influence and remain a voice in a slice of Prince George's that remains poor and struggling.
Curry relies on Broadwater as a kind of pollster who can tell him how he's faring among the blue-collar voters who visit the Hill. "Tommie takes the pulse," Curry said. "He keeps me informed, and he knows politics."
Their relationship runs deep. When Curry was a youngster, his father hired Broadwater to baby-sit. All these years later, you can find them in Curry's office, or at a Washington Redskins game, or on a late Friday afternoon at the Ebony, Tommie and Wayne sitting alone in a darkened corner, eating ribs and gossiping about politics. The normally fastidious Curry is as you rarely see him, without a tie and jacket, sockless, smoking, drinking beers.
"I feel relaxed here," Curry said between swigs of a Miller Lite.
Curry has charted a course that took him into the rarified worlds of law and business. For politics, he returns to his babysitter.
It's Broadwater, for example, who prods Curry to forge ties to black leaders in Baltimore as he mulls whether to run for statewide office. Last month, Curry invited Baltimore lawmakers to Prince George's for a tour. It's Broadwater, perhaps more so than anyone in Curry's circle, who complains to him that the county police department is too tolerant of abusive officers. It's Broadwater who urges the often remote Curry to mix more with constituents at parades and barbecues.
And it's Broadwater who pushed Curry to blunt his famously jagged edges and reach out to the Prince George's legislators who opposed his election in 1994. Curry for the last two years has invited the lawmakers to join him as he unveiled his agenda for the legislative session in Annapolis.
"He has admonished me frequently not to be pugnacious, and that has been very helpful," Curry said. "He's told me that if you make it too contentious, then people won't listen to the substance."
With Curry exiting after next year, a cluster of politicians already is jockeying to replace him. Several of them have sought out Broadwater's counsel. Broadwater is regarded as a player in the race not only because he's still popular in a district with nearly 40,000 voters, but because of his ties to an array of politicians and his vast experience playing the game.
"He's the Godfather," said State Del. Rushern L. Baker III (D-Cheverly), 42, a lawyer who entered politics in the early 1990s and who says he plans to run. "If you're going to make a political move in Prince George's County, especially if you're an African American, you talk to Tommie. People won't take you seriously unless they know you've gone to see Tommie."
Broadwater has not promised his support to anyone, but he told at least one likely candidate who made the pilgrimage to the Ebony, County Council member M.H. Jim Estepp (D-Croom), that he would not get his endorsement.
The reason: Estepp is white.
"We need someone black who can do the job," Broadwater said. "So our kids will think they can do it. So their kids will think they can do it."
He added, "We've come too far to give it up."
'I Was the Man'
Tommie Broadwater stands outside his office and sees the last five decades of his life stretched out before him as they've unfolded on Sheriff Road. Up the street is the Esso Station where he pumped gas as an 8-year-old. Across the street was the pool hall where a gambler let him hold his bankroll while he shot craps on the sidewalk.
"Mr. Deal taught me how to count money," he said. "When I was 8 years old, I was the Man."
He certainly grew up fast. By the age of 16, he was married and the father of a baby boy. By 19, he had dropped out of college to sell insurance.
He entered politics not only because he wanted to help blacks get better services, but also because he hoped that the connections would help him in business. His rise was rapid. He was elected to the Glenarden Town Council in 1968, to the county's Democratic Central Committee two years later.
His seat on the committee linked him to the white politicians who controlled the Democratic Party. Their support was instrumental in his victorious campaign for the state Senate in 1974.
At the time, County Executive Winfield Kelly's administration set aside up to 20 percent of its jobs for blacks, and none got hired without Broadwater's blessing. "Tommie's idea wasn't to get a seat at the table," said Lally, who managed Kelly's appointments. "He wanted to buy the table."
Curry and Albert R. Wynn were among the young blacks whose hiring -- Curry as a constituent worker, Wynn as director of consumer protection -- was approved by Broadwater. When the election rolled around, they campaigned on his behalf.
"I learned about politics working on Tommie's campaigns," said Wynn, now a congressman. "Went door-knocking with him in Seat Pleasant, Cheverly, up and down side streets. He was shaking everybody's hand, hipsters, old ladies, old men. He went to the back corners of the room, whether it was a Chinese restaurant or a 7-Eleven."
Broadwater's fortunes crashed when a supermarket he owned across from the Ebony Inn failed in 1983. Then the nadir: the food stamp fraud case that ended his political career. To this day, he won't say he committed a crime. "I shouldn't have been sent to jail," he said, before rambling on about how the feds used food stamps "to set people up."
Broadwater's failed comeback campaigns included two bitter races for his old Senate seat that he lost to Decatur Trotter. He found revenge when he helped Nathaniel Exum oust Trotter from the Senate in 1998.
Yet, such victories are little consolation. If not for his conviction, he might have run for Congress or even county executive. "I was the best . . . senator around," he said. "It was the people who lost."
His best revenge, he says, is making money. It's one way to measure how far he has come.
There he is a few blocks from his office, outside the modest, two-bedroom house in which he grew up with nine siblings. Then climb in his light blue Rolls and drive east, way past the Beltway, to his new home, a 14,000-square-foot mansion on 75 acres in Upper Marlboro.
The same property where blacks once labored as slaves on a tobacco plantation.
Broadwater says he can spare a few minutes for a tour. Then he spends more than an hour showing off the seven bedrooms and 12 bathrooms, the Corinthian columns, the walk-in closets, the beauty salon he's building for his wife, the marble floors, the oversize chandeliers and the swimming pool. "I'm a long way from the other house," he said. "But it's still a struggle. I want to leave a legacy."
He offers one. "I'm 58 years old. I buy what I want."
Business on the Hill
Another night on the Hill.
Broadwater is seated at his desk, his business cards stacked at the edge: one side advertises his bonding business, accompanied by a drawing of a jail cell door and the motto, "24 hour Service -- Anywhere -- Anytime"; the other side promotes the Ebony and its "North Carolina Style Bar-B-Que, liquor, beer and wine."
The usual parade is passing through: the Metrobus driver who cashes a $190 check; the artist who wants to sell her latest work (an oversize oil painting of the Redskins for $2,000); the shy man in the cap who asks for $5.
Broadwater peels off a bill. No matter that he can't remember the man's name. "I know he always pays me back."
The phone rings.
"Hey baby," he says to his wife, Lillian. They're still married after 42 years, the parents of four grown children. One of them, Tanya, died two years ago at 38 from respiratory failure and an infection. Sometimes, Broadwater thinks about her and tears stream down his face.
He tries to explain how he shadowboxes a lifetime of anguish: a father who was a drunk, a brother who joined a drug gang and who was killed, a felony conviction, a dead daughter. "You got to keep moving," he says quietly. "You just keep moving."
Inevitably, the talk turns to politics, the next county executive's race, and suddenly Broadwater imagines himself in the mix. "If I ran, I'd win." He stands up, his voice rising to a near falsetto. "I got the charisma, I got the name recognition. I'd beat them all."
Except it's never going to happen. Broadwater's nearly 60. He's tired. And he's a felon. He talks of working less and relaxing more. No more 16-hour days. How about eight hours like everyone else?
But what will happen if he stops moving?
Broadwater puts on his black leather coat and walks down to the liquor store to check the register. Then he steps outside. A car rolls by, then another.
The young hipsters in their baggy pants murmur greetings; the drunks limp toward another night in oblivion.
Broadwater is far from his new mansion on the other side of the Beltway, and all those fancy houses that have lured the yuppies. But he's where he feels most at home, the place where it all began. "See how peaceful it is here?" he asks, pulling his coat closed before disappearing through a door and back up to his office.