The county where Black women hold power — a few miles from the White House

The hallway was lined with sharply dressed Black women, awaiting the new administration’s first cabinet meeting.

Who are they, the deputy fire chief wondered that December day in 2018. She had attended such sessions for eight years, but had never seen the foyer look like this. As the women took their seats at the table, she read their names and titles. These women, she realized, were in charge.

There was the county attorney, used to seeing the shock in her clients’ eyes when they learned a Black woman was representing them. The head of community relations, who wanted to touch poor communities like the one in which she had grown up. The chief of staff, who built a high-profile career by pushing past doubts about whether she was ready to handle the work.

At the head of the table was County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D), the woman who had brought them there.

Prince George's County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D). (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

She was launching a new era in Prince George’s County, Md., as the first woman to lead a suburb known for its concentration of Black wealth and complicated record on racial justice. Alsobrooks, who had also been the county’s first female elected prosecutor, knew the loneliness of being a woman in power. She had been lifted by Black female mentors — among them Kamala D. Harris, the future vice president — and has tried to lift others in turn.

“This is like the Super Bowl game that we have all been preparing for,” Alsobrooks said to her cabinet that day. “I want you to give me everything you have.”

Over the next two years, Alsobrooks and her team would grapple with deep economic, health, criminal justice and educational disparities in the Washington suburb, long-standing problems that would only worsen when the coronavirus pandemic hit.

She has emerged as a passionate advocate for her constituents, earning praise for her caution regarding the coronavirus and for pushing agency heads to make government more responsive. But she has also stumbled, including with the vaccine rollout. Some of her most vocal critics are other Black women, who want to see her do more to address structural racism and bridge inequity in Prince George’s, which is 64 percent Black and 20 percent Latino.

Black women now hold 22 of 39 positions in Alsobrooks’s cabinet, as well as influential positions outside the executive branch like state’s attorney and chief judge. Their collective power stands out in the United States, where Black women remain severely underrepresented at the top levels of government. No Black woman has been elected governor in any state, for example, and just two, including Harris, have won bids for the U.S. Senate. Of Maryland’s 23 counties, only Prince George’s is led by a Black woman.

Alsobrooks’s top aides have each other to lean on, cheering promotions, offering solidarity in the face of criticism, and lending support when family needs arise. Many grew up in poor or working-class households. Several, including Alsobrooks, are single mothers. All navigated mostly White, mostly male workspaces during their climb.

“The women that I work with know me, without knowing me intimately, because we probably have had similar paths to get here,” said Joy Russell, Alsobrooks’s chief of staff. “We ask different kinds of questions from the beginning … how does this affect the kids? How does this affect the single mothers or the parents or students?”

When she hired these women, Alsobrooks told them she made the choice not because they were women or because they were Black, but because they were the best. Her team remembers and values her words. At the same time, they say they recognize the significance of working for a Black woman with the authority to empower them.

Tiffany Green, the deputy chief at that first cabinet meeting, who last year became the first female fire chief in county history, puts it this way: “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

Alsobrooks, center, a leading contender in the race for Prince George's County executive, parades down Addison Road in Seat Pleasant, Md., on May 5, 2018. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

‘Get out of the car, and go do it’

The male state’s attorney candidate brought a clipboard and a volunteer to the campaign event back in 2009. Alsobrooks, making her first run for office at age 38, had only her 4-year-old daughter, Alexandra, asleep in the back seat of her car.

She called a friend from the parking lot and asked: “What am I doing down here?”

Growing up, Alsobrooks had watched the county transform from a mostly White, working-class suburb forced to integrate its schools into a destination for Black professionals, who moved into stately subdivisions built on former plantations. She saw much that still needed fixing, including low-performing schools, a police department with an ugly history of brutality, and crime rates higher than in more affluent, neighboring counties. So she was running to become the county’s top prosecutor, in charge of the office where she had spent five years prosecuting domestic violence cases.

In her car that summer day, her friend gave her the push she needed: “Get out of the car, and go do it." Alsobrooks stirred Alexandra, and together they walked toward the voters.

Alsobrooks and her daughter, Alexandra Alsobrooks-Laney, campaign at Eagle Harbor Day during the state’s attorney’s race in 2009. (Courtesy of Angela Alsobrooks)

Other women would guide her through the race.

When a man she had worked with as a prosecutor repeatedly called Alsobrooks his “subordinate," women in the crowd shot her knowing glances. Then-Rep. Donna F. Edwards, who was in the audience, pulled Alsobrooks aside.

“Don’t grimace,” said Edwards, who is still the only Black woman to have represented Maryland in Congress. “Just smile.”

When Alsobrooks was on the campaign trail, she touted the ideas of Harris — at the time a dynamic prosecutor in San Francisco. They’d never met. But Alsobrooks had read Harris’s book, “Smart on Crime,” and embraced her belief that in addition to jailing serious lawbreakers, prosecutors should also create programs to help low-level offenders change course.

Shortly after winning the Democratic primary, her phone rang.

“Angela,” the voice said. “This is Kamala Harris.”

Harris, recently chosen as the Democratic nominee for California attorney general, had heard a young candidate in Maryland was name-dropping her.

“I will do whatever I can,” she told Alsobrooks, “to help you succeed.”

Over the next eight years, Alsobrooks occasionally called on Harris for guidance, including a visit to California to learn about the “Back on Track” program, which offered education and job training to young, nonviolent drug offenders.

Alsobrooks also began assembling the team of Black women who would carry her through the next decade.

Tara Jackson, left, and Joy Russell in the early 1990s at Greek Fest in Virginia Beach. Jackson and Russell met and became friends at James Madison University. (Courtesy of Joy Russell)
Tara Jackson, shown on Dec. 22, 2020, is the Prince George's County chief administrative officer. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
Joy Russell, shown on Dec. 22, 2020, is chief of staff to Alsobrooks. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
LEFT: Tara Jackson, shown on Dec. 22, 2020, is the Prince George's County chief administrative officer. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post) RIGHT: Joy Russell, shown on Dec. 22, 2020, is chief of staff to Alsobrooks. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Russell, a sorority sister and law school friend, helped set up the Prince George’s version of “Back on Track.” Tara Jackson, another member of Delta Sigma Theta and native Prince Georgian, became Alsobrooks’s principal deputy, helping her increase case closure rates, launch a truancy program and start a community prosecution initiative.

When Alsobrooks decided to run for county executive in 2018, she asked Russell to manage her campaign. Russell, who at 45 had just had her second child, hesitated, fearing she would let down her family, Alsobrooks or both. But Alsobrooks told Russell she trusted her political instincts. And, just as important, she trusted her.

“Put the baby in the stroller,” Alsobrooks remembers saying. “Let’s go.”

Russell’s confidence had been shaken on the first day of work at a different job, when her boss, a White man, told her to be “more measured” and warned that she could come on too strong. Working with Alsobrooks and the other women, she said, allowed her to be her authentic self.

“There’s a care and concern,” she said. "Not just for my well-being, but an encouragement to be the best person I was meant to be.”

As she was launching her campaign, Alsobrooks reached back out to Harris, who had recently become the first Black person elected to represent California in the U.S. Senate. They met at a Mexican restaurant on Capitol Hill to strategize about Alsobrooks’s bid to lead Maryland’s second-most populous jurisdiction.

Harris did not talk to her about the challenges of running as a woman, Alsobrooks remembers. She talked to her about how to win.

Get a good lawyer. Be open-minded. And with every policy decision, the future vice president said, think about the root of people’s pain — and find ways to fix it.

Building the team

Alsobrooks triumphed in a bitter Democratic primary, then won the general election in a landslide.

As her cabinet appointees introduced themselves in that first meeting, Green, the deputy fire chief, listened in awe.

There was Russell, now chief of staff.

Jackson, then a deputy and on her way to becoming the chief administrative officer, responsible for day-to-day operations of the government.

Monica Goldson, the charismatic teacher who rose through the ranks to become superintendent.

Euniesha Davis, who grew up in Chester, Pa., where one-third of residents lived below the poverty line, and was heading the 54-person community relations office, promising to make the sprawling government bureaucracy more accountable to residents who had long felt ignored.

And Gloria Brown Burnett, director of social services, who had been shamed by a social worker decades earlier when applying for medical and cash assistance as a pregnant, unmarried recent college graduate. She was determined to treat everyone with respect, no matter their circumstances.

Green told the cabinet she was acting as interim fire chief because her boss was out of town. The women around her broke into applause.

“They were very much confident and secure in their positions,” Green said. “I left there thinking, we’re going to do this.”

In their first year, Alsobrooks and Goldson pushed state lawmakers to approve one of the first public-private partnerships in the United States to build and maintain public schools. Davis hosted more than 500 community events and revamped the county’s 311 system, reducing the average wait time from nearly five minutes to six seconds. Brown Burnett laid the groundwork for the county’s child advocacy center to get accredited.

When a handcuffed Black man was fatally shot by a Prince George’s police officer in early 2020, Alsobrooks urged her police chief to charge the officer with murder — the first time the department had done so for a line-of-duty killing. She worked with County Attorney Rhonda Weaver, whose views of police conduct were shaped in part by growing up in Prince George’s, to craft a $20 million civil settlement with the victim’s family.

And after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis police custody, Alsobrooks formed a police reform work group. She is pushing forward its recommendations to reduce police presence in county schools and has shifted some funding from policing to addressing addiction and mental health issues. In recent weeks, Alsobrooks has hired an outsider with reform experience to serve as police chief and engineered the departure of the top public safety official in her cabinet, declaring “a period of reformation within our department.”

Alsobrooks has apologized for early mistakes in distributing the coronavirus vaccine, when people from outside the county grabbed available appointments at the expense of residents. She has disappointed those who want schools to reopen more quickly, and faced criticism from community organizers and advocates who say she has limited public access to school decisions.

Other detractors cite a federal discrimination lawsuit brought by Black and Latino police officers, details of which Alsobrooks and Weaver fought for months to keep from public view, and say she has not gone far enough to address the ways racism is baked into government structures.

Those organizers have formed a sisterhood of their own, centered on a complicated tension they say they find no joy navigating.

“The thing that hurts me so much about this work is having to hold Black women accountable, because I want to embrace Black women,” said Qiana Johnson, a community organizer who first tangled with Alsobrooks six years ago when Johnson was prosecuted for her role in a real estate scam and convicted of burglary and theft.

Since her release from prison, Johnson has pushed for prison and police abolition — which Alsobrooks strongly opposes (her budget this year includes funding for two new police recruitment classes). Johnson and others say Alsobrooks has not found ways to help the most marginalized groups in the county, even as she has done important work elevating Black women to power.

“Those two truths can exist at the same time,” Johnson said.

Alsobrooks, communications director Gina Ford and Fire Chief Tiffany Green take a selfie at a Toys for Tots giveaway in December 2020 in Prince George's County. (Gina Ford)

The sisterhood

One of the last times the members of Alsobrooks’s cabinet gathered in person before the pandemic was to watch Green be sworn in as fire chief, after her longtime boss retired.

“I believe she will open the eyes of young girls and women in Prince George’s County and beyond,” Alsobrooks said at the ceremony.

Green’s husband, also a career firefighter, stood behind her as she took the oath. Her teenage daughter held her Bible.

“When I started in this department in 1999, the concept of a female fire chief was unheard of,” Green said. She thanked the women who came first, and vowed to write a new story for the service.

Again, the women in the cabinet cheered.

Prince George’s County Fire Chief Tiffany Green at the county's Fire/EMS Training Academy in Cheltenham, Md., on March 23. (Will Newton for The Washington Post)

It wasn’t long after that Alsobrooks realized how hard Prince George’s would be hit by the deadly virus. She listened to her county health officer explain the dangers for people with underlying health conditions such as high blood pressure, asthma and diabetes — diseases that disproportionately affect Black Americans.

“Oh crap,” she remembers thinking, “that is us.”

Maryland’s first case of community transmission was identified in a man from Prince George’s on March 12, 2020. The next day, visits at nursing homes across the country were canceled.

Russell, usually unflappable, was visibly shaken after realizing she could no longer visit her father, who had Alzheimer’s and days later would die of covid-19. She had retreated to her office when she heard a knock on the door. Her boss walked in. They held hands and prayed.

Another day that month, Alsobrooks looked across the room at a meeting and saw a staffer she knew was pregnant.

Alsobrooks typed her a text: “I want you and baby girl to go home."

“Thank you,” came the reply.

Gina Ford, shown on Dec. 22, 2020, is director of communications for Prince George's County. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
Monica Goldson, shown on Dec. 22, 2020, is chief executive of Prince George's County Public Schools. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
LEFT: Gina Ford, shown on Dec. 22, 2020, is director of communications for Prince George's County. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post) RIGHT: Monica Goldson, shown on Dec. 22, 2020, is chief executive of Prince George's County Public Schools. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Gina Ford, who was promoted to communications director a month before the pandemic began, said Alsobrooks notices when she looks tired and will insist she take time off. Ford does the same for her own staff.

“People reflect the leadership,” Ford said. “She has a way of making people valued and important.”

Goldson spent two sleepless nights in June deciding whether to reopen county schools for in-person learning, at a time when the Trump White House was pushing to get students back in classrooms. She knew many of her students relied on the meals they got at school, and were suffering academically.

But while coronavirus caseloads had plummeted in Prince George’s, they were still higher than anywhere in Maryland. Families, especially those who lived in crowded, multigenerational households, were fearful about returning their children to poorly ventilated classrooms.

Goldson consulted with her pastors, who told her to follow her instincts.

And so she decided. Schools would remain closed in the fall. The first words out of Alsobrooks’s mouth, she remembers, were of support: “I fully understand, and I’ve got your back.”

Alsobrooks is sworn in as Prince George's County executive, with her daughter, Alex, at her side, in Upper Marlboro on Dec. 3, 2018. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Taking care of the details

Alsobrooks sat beside her mother and her daughter on Jan. 20 as Harris was sworn in as vice president — the first female, first Black woman and first woman of South Asian heritage to ascend to national office.

As she contemplates her own political future, Alsobrooks has often found herself thinking about advice Harris says she received from her mother: “You may be the first to do many things, but make sure you are not the last.”

Alsobrooks is considering running for governor in 2022, and raised the most money last year of any of the known potential candidates.

That history-making potential is not lost on her, she said. But she also wants to finish the job in Prince George’s, where she believes her record could define people’s perception of women leaders for years to come.

“I would like for people to say, ‘This is why we give women these chances — they do excellent work,’ ” Alsobrooks said. “‘She took care of the details that maybe weren’t taken care of before.’”

For her, those details include reforming the police department, building new schools and addressing the long-standing health disparities that made Prince George’s so vulnerable to the coronavirus.

But they also include empowering those who have earned it, and using her own life experiences to do so.

“I was the one with the 4-year-old,” she said, “trying to get out of the car.”

From left: Prince George's County Attorney Rhonda Weaver, economic development chief Angie Rodgers, Fire Chief Tiffany Green, Chief Administrative Officer Tara Jackson, County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks, schools chief Monica Goldson, Chief of Staff Joy Russell and communications director Gina Ford. They are shown in Largo, Md., on Dec. 22, 2020. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Photo editing by Mark Miller. Videography by Amber Ferguson. Designed by J.C. Reed.

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