Jack B. Johnson entered office in 2002 determined to show the Prince George's County Council that he was the dominant player in Upper Marlboro.
In his first state legislative session, the county executive lobbied to strip the nine-member council of its say in who sits on two powerful bi-county boards, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. The attempt not only failed; it left a residue of resentment.
When Johnson (D) later tried to get rid of Stan Derwin Brown, the county attorney who advised the council on land-use and zoning issues, ill will between the legislative and executive branches grew. Late last year, Johnson called a news conference to announce the county's legislative agenda for this year's General Assembly session -- while the council was holding its weekly meeting.
It appears that Johnson's heavy hand has created a formidable opponent on the council: a veto-proof voting bloc widely known in government circles as the Gang of Six. By many accounts, the group's members are slowly and methodically shifting the center of political power in Prince George's government.
The group's success has triggered a campaign that would effectively neutralize its influence. Two Prince George's developers, at the urging of one non-aligned council member, have bankrolled an effort to gather enough signatures to place on the November ballot a charter amendment that would add two at-large seats to the council. Six of nine votes is required to override Johnson's veto; the amendment would raise the bar to 8 of 11 votes.
The voting bloc consists of council Chairman Tony Knotts (D-Temple Hills), Vice Chairman Samuel H. Dean (D-Mitchellville) and council members Douglas J.J. Peters (D-Bowie), Thomas E. Dernoga (D-Laurel), Camille Exum (D-Seat Pleasant) and David Harrington (D-Bladensburg). The group has no unifying ideology or objectives, only a determination not to be steamrolled by Johnson.
Last fall, when Johnson negotiated with the state to bail out Prince George's Hospital Center without consulting the council -- whose approval is required on any deal -- the bloc triggered a two-month stalemate.
Although the council ultimately agreed to Johnson's plan, it made adjustments. It set a $2 million limit on fees to be paid to the management company hired to turn around the hospital's finances; won a seat on a new oversight committee; and secured an agreement to receive unredacted copies of reports relating to the hospital.
The standoff left Johnson wondering out loud whether the council knew its place in county government.
Dean said the council needed more of a place at the table before it signed off on a deal that would require the county to hand over millions of dollars to a financially troubled nonprofit health care system.
"It's about accountability," Dean said.
The Gang of Six also has won the council the power to appoint members to the county's redevelopment and revenue authorities. The bloc pushed through a plan to raise the county's park and planning tax.
And the group has steered the course of some major development projects. When Peters wanted adjustments in Karington, a $900 million residential plan based in his district of Bowie, the five other members supported his move to delay approval. Peters got what he wanted, and Karington went through.
Next month, members of the bloc said they will focus attention on the troubled suburban sanitary commission. They plan to ask the state for authority to remove the three commissioners that represent the county on the agency's governing board -- commissioners appointed by the county executive.
"There is no question this is a much more assertive council in its relations with the executive," said Peter A. Shapiro, who resigned from the council last month after often finding himself caught between his colleagues and Johnson.
Johnson declined to comment for this article.
Longtime observers of county politics have said they haven't seen such tensions in Prince George's government since the early 1980s, when Larry Hogan Sr., a Republican county executive, worked with a Democrat-controlled council. In this case, Johnson and the six members are Democrats.
Some have said the current state of play is a dramatic departure from the administration of Johnson's predecessor, Wayne K. Curry (D).
"When Wayne came in with the council, they built trust through shared work," Shapiro said.
Ronald Walters, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, said a strong council coalition, somewhat estranged from the county executive, signals a "brand new day" in Prince George's.
The county charter calls for a strong county executive form of government in Prince George's. Traditionally, that has meant the executive sets the agenda and the council works to move it forward. The penalty for stepping out of line: Members lost initiatives and pet programs for their districts.
"Members either dealt with the fifth floor [the county executive's office] or got crushed," one council member put it.
Harrington said the group does not exist to "outplay the county executive. . . . Clearly, we want to be a player on land use, on appointments, on the budget."
But council members not aligned with the bloc now risk being crushed not by the fifth floor, but their colleagues.
This year, the council voted 7 to 2 to pull $1.55 million earmarked for recreational projects in a district whose member is not a part of the six -- council member Marilynn Bland (D-Clinton). Instead, the money was used for projects in other communities, including Bowie, Capitol Heights and Kentland.
Council member Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton), an ally of Johnson's, has warned his colleagues of "going down a slippery slope."
He said he saw the vote as a way to get back at Bland, also an ally of Johnson's, who voted against the council-driven park and planning tax increase that would help pay for the recreational projects.
"It's wrong," Hendershot said recently. "It's an effort to control what one may or may not do."
Shapiro, who sided with the bloc on the Bland vote, said the council has not overstepped its authority, as some have charged. "There's no doubt that the deck is stacked for the executive under the county charter -- they're trying to adjust that," he said. "They're working within the charter to balance the power relationship between the two."
Hendershot, who is prohibited from running for reelection because of term limits, encouraged some developers to support a plan to add two at-large seats to the council.
Real estate broker Patrick Ricker said he supports the charter amendment out of friendship for Hendershot, not to neutralize the Gang of Six.
Still, Ricker added, the schism between Johnson and a majority of the council puts business leaders in a quandary.
"If you're doing business in the county, you've got to deal with both," Ricker said. "You can't choose sides."