Thomas McEachin, president of the Prince George's firefighters union, remembers heading into his first meeting with County Executive Jack B. Johnson, ready for battle.
"I had my collar up and my boxing gloves on," McEachin said of the get-acquainted session shortly after last year's election.
McEachin, who had backed one of Johnson's Democratic primary opponents, expected to get what he had experienced with Johnson's predecessor, Wayne K. Curry: tension and conflict. Instead, there was what he described as a surprisingly friendly give-and-take.
"When I hooked up with Wayne, it was always confrontational," McEachin said. "There is no doubt about it -- a change is in place."
After nearly four months in the county's top elective post, Johnson is quickly establishing himself as the un-Curry.
If the former two-term executive approached the job with the soul of a chief executive, most comfortable operating out of the spotlight, then Johnson has come to it with that of a big-city mayor, who seldom squanders an opportunity for attention.
His administration quickly removed the county seal from its Web site's home page and replaced it with a snapshot of the new executive. When the roof of the Toys R Us in Lanham collapsed last month after heavy snow, Johnson rushed to the scene to lead a news conference carried live on CNN.
While Curry (D) was often out of sight, the former state's attorney has yet to meet a community forum or award ceremony he doesn't like. His appointment book is filled with breakfast meetings and other community appearances.
And while Curry generally steered clear of Annapolis, Johnson is a regular at the State House, lobbying for the county's legislative agenda. (Phone calls to Curry for comment were not returned.)
"He is the hardest-working person in Prince George's County -- I know that because everywhere I go, I see him," said Sharrarne Morton, past president of the Lake Arbor Civic Association.
What remains unclear is how effective the visibility and high-energy style have been in helping Johnson address the county's most significant problems: a beleaguered police department, a financially strapped and underperforming school system and an economic base in need of expansion.
"The rhetoric is strong. The question is the content," said County Council member David Harrington (D-Bladensburg). "There is still a lot up in the air."
Added McEachin, whose union is in contract talks with Johnson: "He's willing to listen. . . . The problem is he really hasn't had to put his cards on the table or lay it on the line."
Johnson, who will hold a public forum on his first months in office tonight at Prince George's Community College, rattled off his plans for the county last week during an interview in his office. He said he wants to bring "middle-class jobs" to Prince George's, repair school buildings and convince residents that the voter-imposed property tax cap is stifling the county's ability to provide quality services.
But like Johnson the candidate, Johnson the officeholder remains elusive about specifics.
He said he's talking to pharmaceutical companies about relocating to Prince George's. Which ones? What incentives is he offering? He won't say.
He made an oblique reference to repealing the Tax Reform Initiative by Marylanders (TRIM) during a recent speech to the business community. He now plainly says he is campaigning to get voters to understand why repeal is needed.
When might voters expect a referendum? He won't say.
"If I were to say tomorrow let's go out and eliminate TRIM, it would be the worst thing I can do," Johnson said. The objective will be to make as coherent and broad-based a pitch as possible for repeal, not earmarking new revenue for just one area, such as education.
"Are we willing to pay for transportation for people who must have dialysis, assist people who have AIDS, health care, family services to assist the elderly?" Johnson said. "These are things we have not adequately funded. . . . We have to create a debate first in the community."
Johnson said his biggest achievement thus far is the team he has assembled. It includes longtime allies such as Michael Herman, a former assistant state's attorney, as chief of staff, and Iris Boswell, a colleague from Johnson's days at the Internal Revenue Service, as special assistant for economic development. He has brought them together with outsiders including former Howard County educator Jacqueline Brown, as chief administrative officer, and Norfolk Police Chief Melvin C. High, for the same post here.
Johnson has been privately criticized for moving too slowly on personnel matters, but others are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
"If he'd come in and not been deliberative or thoughtful, it would have been a problem," said council Chairman Peter A. Shapiro (D-Brentwood). "Look at what's going on with [Gov. Robert L.] Ehrlich. Granted, it's Democrats and Republicans. But really, the changes in Wayne and Jack couldn't be more night and day, and yet it has been a smooth transition."
Johnson has retained one important element of Curry's vision: discouraging developers from filling the county with cheap housing.
In his first term, Curry told the development community that he wanted "executive-style" housing in the county and threatened to deny water and sewer connections to plans that didn't meet his standard.
Johnson recently told a civic group in Mitchellville that he will not approve a residential project if the builder's houses are not worth at least $50,000 more than the average assessed value of the homes in adjoining developments.
"This is not being elitist at all," Johnson told the crowd. "We are going to make sure when developers come in that they don't undervalue your homes. We're just insisting that they do what they have done in other parts of the region."
Johnson has also been trying to extend the olive branch to those he tangled with in the past.
"He's trying awfully hard to set a cooperative tone with council and legislators," said council member Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton), who opposed Johnson's candidacy last fall but has worked with him to pass a resolution ensuring that county employees who are called for active military duty continue to receive benefits. The two are also collaborating on the so-called living wage measure, which would require most companies that do business with the county to pay their workers at least $10.50 an hour.
But while constantly preaching unity, Johnson has acted unilaterally when he believes it is in his interest.
Last month, without the council's knowledge, he lobbied the General Assembly to give him sole authority over appointments to two powerful regional boards, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission and the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission. He later pared his request, asking lawmakers to allow him to dump the county's five representatives to the planning board and replace them -- with council approval -- with members whose terms would run concurrently with his. The county delegation recently passed the measure on a 14 to 5 vote. The Montgomery County delegation is expected to take up the bill soon.
The early months have also exposed a thin-skinned, and somewhat insecure, side to his governing style. This month, Johnson took on State's Attorney Glenn Ivey, questioning the prosecutor's handling of a domestic violence case that turned into a murder-suicide in Oxon Hill. During a radio show discussion of the incident, he ignored a caller's question and said the case was a "major failure."
Johnson said that when he was state's attorney, there was no instance in which charges against a husband who had abused his spouse were dropped or the case placed on the inactive docket. But in fact, there was at least one case on Johnson's watch in which a woman was killed after prosecutors placed charges against an abusive ex-boyfriend on the inactive docket.
The swipe at Ivey came just days after the resignation of assistant prosecutor Tae H. Kim, who acknowledged that he and his family had a stake in two topless clubs. Ivey said he had complained privately when Johnson hired Kim in the waning days of his tenure as state's attorney late last year, instead of leaving new hiring decisions to his successor.
Johnson and Ivey have since publicly denied a rivalry or tension. But it is no secret that Ivey, a Harvard University law graduate and former chief counsel to Sen. Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), has political ambitions, and observers say that Johnson may have been trying to send a message that Ivey upstages him at his own peril. The dust-up left others wondering about Johnson's commitment to cooperation and comity.
Council member Harrington said: "Jack portrays himself as a unifier, but what is his definition of unity and collaboration?"
Despite the skirmishes, Alvin Thornton, former chairman of the county school board, said that Johnson earns a "good grade" in his early weeks at the county's helm but that his leadership has yet to be truly tested.
"He has done nothing to diminish the fundamental faith that people have that he is a good guy," Thornton said. "But the tough days are coming."