Because of an editing error, an article yesterday on the primary races in Prince George's County misstated the affiliation of state Sen. Decatur W. Trotter (D). He is not on the countrywide party slate. (Published 9/11/90)
A proliferation of yard signs tells the story of this year's Democratic primaries in Prince George's County: A crowded field of independent candidates -- many of them black -- are staking their claims.
Not in 20 years has Prince George's seen such a range of candidates challenging the Democratic slate, traditionally made up of incumbents and overwhelmingly white. Black candidates independent of the slate are running against incumbents for county executive, Congress, County Council and the legislature.
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), for instance, has stepped up his campaign against Nation of Islam national spokesman Abdul Alim Muhammad by increasing his speaking schedule and purchasing television spots for the first time since he was elected to Congress nine years ago.
In the state Senate's 26th District, surrounding Temple Hills and Oxon Hill, Del. Gloria Gary Lawlah, who is black and in 1986 became the first Democrat to unseat a slate candidate in a legislative race, is running a fierce campaign against white incumbent Sen. Frank J. Komenda (D-Prince George's). And council members such as Jo Ann T. Bell and Sue V. Mills are running tough campaigns against a field of black challengers.
Many of the challengers are viewed as underdogs with little chance of unseating incumbents. But political observers note the races this year signify an important change in the county, one in which independents are willing to take on incumbents rather than wait for their turn on the slate, and where even black incumbents are finding themselves threatened by minority challengers.
Although minorities make up roughly half of the county's population, blacks hold 15 of 54 elected offices in Prince George's, and only one of those is a countywide seat. Most political gains for minorities have come since 1984, when Jesse L. Jackson's presidential bid spawned significant increases in black voter registration in the county.
The greatest test of black political strength may come after the elections, when those elected and those defeated see if they can find common ground. The county's black population is hardly monolithic: It includes pockets of poverty and relative affluence and a range of candidates who do not always share the same political concerns.
"No one has a free ride and that means the old system is changing," said State's Attorney Alex Williams, a black Democrat who does not face competition in the primary but will face Arthur M. "Bud" Marshall, the man Williams unseated four years ago, in the general election. "Incumbents are working harder than they ever have since I have been involved in politics."
The proliferation of candidates in the primary elections comes as good news to black political leaders and civic activists who say the county's traditional political machine has stifled the rise of blacks to elected office.
"There was a time when it was almost impossible for a black candidate to mount any kind of serious campaign against the Democratic Party," said Sen. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.), who is running for reelection against state Del. Juanita R. Miller, herself a black candidate who previously ran on Wynn's team. "They had the money. They had the power. They controlled the elections plain and simple."
Several black candidates, such as Miller, were groomed within the party establishment but have stepped outside for this primary to challenge incumbents in higher offices. In other cases, black hopefuls who fought in the trenches for slate candidates such as Williams -- the first black elected to a countywide post -- have decided to strike out on their own as independents rather than wait for a nod from Democratic leaders.
"The fact that the machine has been unable to establish a smoothly running motor in this election is certainly indicative of change," said Bennie Thayer, a local businessman who is challenging council member Bell, who is white, in the primary. "It tells us that a new day has arrived in Prince George's County. Blacks have been shut out of the process for too long and told to sit back and wait and be patient."
The relative paucity of minority officeholders stems in part from a county tradition of slate-making that has historically excluded blacks. But bickering among black political factions and lagging black voter registration since Jackson's first presidential race have also slowed black gains.
Even so, black and white politicians acknowledge that a shift in political power is inevitable. The 1990 census figures are certain to trigger legislative redistricting that could pave the way for blacks to win more elected offices.
Politicians speak of a newly carved congressional seat -- one reserved for a largely black constituency -- as if it were a foregone conclusion. Under one scenario, Hoyer's 5th District boundaries would be pushed north to allow Hoyer, a longtime fixture in county politics, to run in an area that would include portions of Prince George's and parts of Anne Arundel or Howard counties. Prince George's would then host a new, largely black district.
But, noting that white politicians such as County Executive Parris N. Glendening, Hoyer and state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. will greatly influence the redistricting effort, some black politicians say they cannot depend on boundary shifts alone to gain clout.
"Redistricting is inevitable, everybody knows that, but we have to come up with our own plan and put together a united front of leadership to make that happen," said Tommie Broadwater Jr., who is running a stormy campaign against Democratic Sen. Decatur W. Trotter, a black on the county-backed slate, to regain the seat he held before he was convicted of conspiracy and food stamp fraud.
Realizing that blacks could end up with only slight increases in their representation after tomorrow's primaries, black politicians are now setting their sights on 1994. Although no official plan is in place, politicians speak almost uniformly of the desire to elect a black county executive, increase the number of blacks on the nine-member council from two to four, and increase the black representation in the county's eight-member state Senate delegation from two to four.
Black and white politicians agree that the number of elections that pit black candidates against each other is a sign of political maturation and energy.
"It used to be the case that the black community would close ranks behind their candidate to pick off a white incumbent," said Richard Steve Brown, the former president of the county NAACP branch who is running for the County Council seat vacated by Floyd E. Wilson Jr., a black challenging Glendening.
"But the black population has grown to the point that we have the largest concentration of middle-class blacks in the country. No one speaks for everyone anymore. The black voter in this county has a lot more to choose from when he goes to the polls."