The lure of multimillion-dollar profits has drawn a veritable "Who's Who" of politically potent figures into the battle over cable-TV franchise rights in Prince George's County.
In a competition that is beginning to resemble last year's political wars, the former Democratic county executive, two close associates of the current Republican executive and three other county politicians are vying for cable franchise rights, which are to be awarded by the county within the next year.
The former county executive Winfield Kelly, has emerged as the local agent and stockholder for a national cable firm, Storer Communications. Gerald Holcomb and Charles Dukes, two of County Executive Lawrence Hogan's closest friends, are representing CableCom. And Gary Alexander, a Democratic party official, is lobbying for yet another cable company in which he and two state legislators -- Frank Komenda and Kay Bienan -- hold interests.
These influential personages or their designated representatives all showed up when the County Council held its first hearing on cable television this week, confirming what other jurisdictions in the Washington area already have discovered: In the lucrative cable TV market, political connections are the coin of the realm.
"For these firms going after a cable franchise is like a crap shoot," said Robert Sikorski, director of the Prince George's Cable TV Commission. "The companies often find that politically connected local people reduced the odds against getting the franchise."
But in the case of Prince George's, it seems, the only sure bet is that there is going to be one long and bitter fight before cable finally comes to some 220,000 county households in 1981. Already, Hogan and the all-Democratic County Council are at odds how and to whom the franchises should be awarded.
Hogan has asserted that the council is maneuvering to make sure the franchise rights go to the company represented by Kelly, who although defeated by Kelly, who although defeated by Hogan in the election last year, still has close ties to many council members.
Some council members, in turn, say they fear that the Hogan appointed county cable commission -- empowered to advertise the one or two possible franchises open in the country and to recommend which companies should get the awards -- will be biased in favor of Holcomb's group.
Indeed, at this week's cable hearing, the council considered two bills that would strip the commission of its role in selecting the winners in the franchise fight. One bill, which appeared to have the support of the council majority, would allow the commission to evaluate applications when bids are opened this spring, but would leave the franchise choice entirely to the council.
"The feeling was, if you let them (the commission) choose, you know who they're going to choose," said one council member. "It's like a stacked deck. It's not acceptable."
But the commission members, and Hogan, think just the opposite, arguing that it is the council that would be unable to make an unbiased decision. When Hogan was asked about the bill stripping the commission of its powers, he said: "That's the Winny Kelly bill. It's special interest legislation, pure and simple."
The sponsor of the bill, council member William B. Amonett, took a less partisan posture 'We just wanted to make sure everybody was fair and square and above board," he said. "We want to make sure we'll get all the information sent to us before we approve anyone."
Kelly said he had nothing to do with either bill before the council, although he favored one authored by Council member Gerard T. McDonough, a longtime friend and political ally who Kelly fondly refers to as "Jer-Bob." McDonough's bill would allow all interested cable firms to apply for licenses and, once licensed, allow them to compete for subscribers in the best traditions of free enterprise.
"No one wants to be in the position of choosing among friends," said one council member in support of the McDonough bill. "Just let them work it out in the marketplace among themselves."
For many of the 20 cable firms interested in getting a stake in Prince George's -- where the profits may be as much as $7 million per year -- the thought of "choosing among friends" is frightening.
"Politically, Winny (Kelly) is the person we worry most about," said Arthur Barber, president of a Bethesda consultant company that owns shares in Prince George's Community Cablevision Corp., a local group without any strong political ties in the county. "He knows the most people and if the award is based on public relations, he'll be a big factor."
A recent decision by Hyattsville, which, as a municipality, was not bound by the county franchise law and sold its franchise to Kelly's firm, points to Kelly's strength as a factor in County cable sales.
Kelly acknowledges that his longstanding relationship with Hyattsville residents and municipal officials may have helped his firm. "It gave Hyattsville someone to look to whom they had some degree of confidence in," he said. "However it was primarily on the strength of the company that they decided. There were no politics involved."
Said Charles Dukes, another Hogan associate on the board of CableDome, "Anytime you apply for something that's at someone else's discretion, you always worry it won't be done on the merits. We believe that the local officials will vote for what they believe is in the best interests of the county."
Like Kelly and Dukes, most other cable firm representatives are anxious to avoid the appearance of political wheeling and dealing. They do have refrained from the political name-calling that has been building over the cable issue.
However, after the fireworks between Hogan and the council this week, most of them also echo the sentiments of the county's cable commission director when he said, "When it gets closer to giving out the awards, it tends to get bloody. There's not much way to avoid it."