The distance from Wadmalaw Island to Paradise Acres is far more than miles. It's a journey in time, class and culture, from where Jack B. Johnson started life in rural South Carolina to the Mitchellville subdivision where he now lives.
The Democratic nominee for Prince George's County executive comes from proud but humble roots, fertile ground for the populist appeal he used to advantage in the party primary and now hopes to ride into office.
As he trudges from one church to another, to a candidates' rally in Hyattsville, to a Latino nightclub in Langley Park, he stresses his distance from the rich and powerful, particularly developers whose contributions have carried other campaigns. "I believe in the working people," he says.
And whenever critics question his competence during eight years as Prince George's state's attorney, he bristles and suggests they are out of touch with the community.
The accent is down home, the speech sometimes difficult to understand. The sentences don't always parse. But Johnson's ascent is emblematic of the American dream. As he says, "Coming from a poor family and in one generation moving to a position where you can be county executive of one of the great counties in America, that's amazing when you think about it."
When he won the five-way Democratic primary with 37 percent of the vote, he immediately claimed a mandate. In the seven weeks since, he has avoided all attempts by Republican opponent Audrey E. Scott to go one-on-one on the issues before Tuesday's general election.
He has stuck instead to the generalities of his platform -- better schools, less crime and cleaner neighborhoods. They play well with his base, which has been seen largely as inside-the-Beltway, churchgoing black residents. In reality, his supporters are a complex ethnic mosaic of middle- and working-class residents. His campaign organization includes a multicultural diversity committee with people originally from the Caribbean, Latin America, Asia and Africa.
"He's a candidate for everybody. It doesn't matter if they are black or white or yellow or blue," said Shailender Kumar Gupta, a Greenbelt accountant who is campaign treasurer.
As a child, however, Johnson's world was very much black and white. "There was no white-black problem per se," he said. "They live in their world, we live in ours."
Neither of his parents finished high school. His father raised vegetables on the family's 26-acre farm and labored as a union dockworker in Charleston, 12 miles from home. Johnson helped him in the fields, while his mother, who worked as a maid and cook, pushed education. In time, all 10 of their children -- Johnson was their fifth -- would receive college degrees.
Their segregated rural community offered limited opportunities. Johnson wanted to be a Boy Scout, but in the 1950s and 1960s there was no black troop to join. (Years later, he became an adult Scout leader after noticing how few defendants in the criminal justice system had been involved in scouting. He served as head of the Twin Rivers District in southern Prince George's.)
So at Haut Gap High School, he pursued other activities. He was chosen president of his 40-member senior class and voted most likely to succeed. "A very bright kid, a go-getter," remembered Gladys Peterson McIntyre, who also was Class of '67. "He loved challenges, loved to explore new things. We all expected him to do great things."
Still, Johnson spent his first years after graduation in a five-and-dime chain's warehouse, until a former teacher pushed him to do better. She had a connection with Benedict College in South Carolina, a small Baptist school founded for newly freed slaves, and he worked his way through, as a custodian, assistant dorm director, professor's aide and even counselor in a mental hospital.
Johnson excelled as a business and accounting major at Benedict. He made the dean's list. He led his fraternity. His best friend, Bobbie Gist, now a college administrator, cautioned him not to squander his potential: "You're either going to be speaking in a stadium or sweeping out the stadium. You got a choice."
After a six-month tour of active duty in the Army Reserve and a first job in New York for a life insurance company, Johnson came to Washington to study law at Howard University. He graduated in 1975 and began trying criminal tax cases for the Internal Revenue Service. He was all business.
"He always wore a suit, white shirt and tie. He was kind of a formal guy," said Joel Gerber, a U.S. Tax Court judge who was his supervisor.
He maintained his Howard links, and in 1986 when Alex Williams, whom he knew in law school, was elected Prince George's state's attorney -- the first black in county history to hold that position -- Johnson moved to the county to become his administrative deputy. Despite his lack of courtroom experience, he decided to run for the top job after Williams was appointed to a federal judgeship.
In his first election in 1994, Johnson defeated seven others. The second time, he faced neither Democratic nor Republican opposition. He portrayed himself as the people's champion against abusive police.
As chief prosecutor, though, he has remained an administrator; unlike his counterparts in other jurisdictions, he has delegated even the highest-profile cases.
His independent streak extended to personnel decisions: He seldom hired judges' law clerks, saying that doing so would only perpetuate "the same old ties." The attitude rankled a judiciary already critical of Johnson's decision to prosecute police misconduct cases they found without merit. The prosecutions yielded headlines but not one conviction.
"The state's attorney's office is not a professional office," Circuit Court Judge William B. Spellbring Jr. said last summer. "They have a scattershot approach. They toss whatever they have against the wall and see what sticks."
Johnson defends his record in characteristically populist terms, noting that virtually every officer prosecuted chose trial by judge instead of "their peers." Some of the same critics acknowledge that his political abilities could serve him better as county executive.
"That's a whole different ballgame," said Circuit Court Judge C. Philip Nichols. "To give him credit, he paid a lot of attention to his constituency and his base. He never stopped working the crowds. That's a usable skill as county executive."
Indeed, Johnson has established himself with voters far differently than most state's attorneys do. He's attended community events, neighborhood parties, Sunday church services.
"In African culture, you deal with those you know," said supporter Chris Osuji, a Nigerian immigrant who lives in Glenn Dale. "We've known Jack for eight years. When you're having a birthday for your son, Jack is there. When there is a wedding, Jack is there."
He has yet to win over all constituencies. The county police union has remained neutral in the general election, though that is a significant step given its primary election ads accusing Johnson of using police cases "to forward his own political ambitions in a court of law."
He also has not overcome his image problem in the Latino community, which bitterly remembers the charges he dropped against four of seven black teenagers suspected of stomping a Salvadoran youth to death in 1998.
But Johnson claims private support within police ranks and counts many Latino supporters, among them Maj. Roberto Hylton, the Hyattsville area district commander. "He's a politician who'll embrace all cultures and all people living here in Prince George's County," said Hylton, whose brother, Leonardo, is a victim witness coordinator in Johnson's office.
That message resonates with Landover activist Theresa Dudley. "I'm leaning more towards Jack because I have gotten commitments from him on issues important to me, like holding developers accountable and managing growth," she said. "I believe Jack will be good on his word."
On the campaign trail, he has maintained a self-effacing mien.
"Jack's not egocentric," said U.S. Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.), whose endorsement in July was a major boost. "We all, myself included, tend to be much more cynical than Jack. We look for angles, advantage, the self-aggrandizement. I don't think that's there with Jack."
Johnson, 53, met his wife, Leslie, when they were in law school together, and they have two sons and a daughter, the youngest a parochial high school senior. Johnson is protective of his family's privacy. "I'm the one in public life," he said.
The candidate lives at the end of a cul de sac in Mitchellville, in a 20-year-old house with a two-car garage and rear deck. The half-acre property is nice but hardly ostentatious.
Johnson has been known to swing a golf club, but months of nonstop campaigning have allowed little opportunity. On a recent Saturday, his schedule included a Capitol Heights church visit at 9 a.m., a 90th birthday party at Martin's Crosswinds in Greenbelt, a seniors luncheon in Glenarden, dinner with firefighters at Rosecroft Raceway, yet another dinner in Oxon Hill and, finally, a banquet for a minister at LaFontainbleu in Lanham.
"I just really believe in retail politics," Johnson said. "People have to know you, feel you, feel you're connected to them, that you understand the problems they have."