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Alsobrooks suggests upholding a fundraising ban for Prince George’s execs is racially motivated

Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks said Wednesday it’s “an injustice” that Prince George’s is the only Maryland jurisdction with such restrictions in place. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) is attacking a fundraising ban that applies to politicians in her county as racially biased, saying it’s an “injustice” that the majority-black jurisdiction is the only place in Maryland bound by the restriction.

County executives there, and candidate slates including them, have been barred for nearly a decade from taking donations from developers with pending projects in Prince George’s, the state’s second-most-populous jurisdiction.

Critics of the ban say it hurt fundraising efforts by then-County Executive Rushern L. Baker III during his unsuccessful 2018 gubernatorial bid and could similarly handicap a potential run by Alsobrooks in 2022.

Baker pushed for the restriction nearly a decade ago, when he first took office, as part of a series of changes intended to clean up the county’s image after the arrest of his predecessor, Jack B. Johnson, who pleaded guilty to taking more than $1 million in bribes.

Eight years later — with the county’s image having dramatically improved — he led in early polls in the Democratic gubernatorial primary but lagged in fundraising behind Baltimore lawyer James Shea, then-Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and former NAACP chief Ben Jealous, the eventual nominee.

Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s) cited Baker’s difficulty bringing in donations when he introduced a bill last year to repeal the developer-donation ban. Alsobrooks, in her first year in office, declined to take a position on the legislation. The bill was blocked by senators from Prince George’s who said it would be a step backward in terms of good government changes.

Davis said he plans to reintroduce the bill this legislative session, which began Wednesday. The optics still may be bad — state Democrats are reeling from a string of corruption charges against six former lawmakers in recent years, including three from Prince George’s.

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) who opposed the bill last year, said he plans to do so again this year — creating a significant obstacle to its passage.

“We almost have to go out of our way to be seen as nothing short of extremely clean and transparent,” Pinsky said. “If there’s a side effect of affecting some fundraising, then I feel bad, but we have to think about the 30,000-foot view of how our county is seen.”

But Davis said that when the original restriction was put in place, it was more about public relations than policy. Johnson took bribes from developers and others, not campaign contributions, Davis said during a meeting of the delegation last month, adding that County Council members — not the county executive — are responsible for land-use decisions.

He said he did not talk with Alsobrooks, whose supporters want her to run for governor in 2022, before deciding to reintroduce the bill.

During her visit to Annapolis on the first day of the legislative session, Alsobrooks said the ban disadvantages black candidates and suggested it could be racially motivated.

“Inequitable is one way to say it,” she said Wednesday morning. “I just can’t imagine why just one jurisdiction — which just happens to be the only majority-minority county in the state — is the only one that happens to have this restriction. It’s either all jurisdictions or none.”

Pinsky, who is white, said the original restriction had nothing to do with racism — and was supported by black and white members of the delegation. It was intended to address the perception of a “pay-to-play culture” in Prince George’s, he said, adding he believes that perception still exists.

Davis said he is open to making tweaks to the bill and hopeful that state senators — who, he noted, are not prohibited from taking developer donations — will give it further consideration this year.

“For those who might be resistant to take it up, I would ask that they make sure there is no hypocrisy,” Davis said. “If they are concerned about the exec and contributions to her from developers, that they are equally reluctant to take contributions from people who may appear before them and their committees.”

Davis, who was a top contender to lead the House of Delegates last year, said he was not initially planning to reintroduce the bill. He decided to do so after seeing how the leadership races played out in both chambers, neither of which will be led by an official from Prince George’s.

The leadership fight left a bitter taste for many in the county, who said they felt African American officials from Prince George’s are too often passed over for top leadership spots.

Davis said he is confident House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), the first African American to lead the chamber, and state Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) will look out for the best interests of all Marylanders. But he said he wants to make sure candidates from Prince George’s can compete for top spots — especially the governor’s mansion.

“People who run for governor, they come from the executive seats,” he said. “You’re just not going to get this done with spaghetti dinners or bake sales.”

Baker said Thursday that supporting the fundraising ban was necessary to restore trust among residents and businesses in elected officials. But he said Prince George’s now is in a different place than it was.

“What we did was right for the county then,” he said. “But it doesn’t mean it’s right for the county now — that is for the legislature and the county executive to decide.”

Baker had less than half as much cash on hand as Jealous days before the Democratic primary. Davis said he does not want to see another candidate from Prince George’s similarly hindered, whether it is Alsobrooks or a future executive.

Alsobrooks said she is not currently thinking about a possible run for governor.

“I’m a little fired up about the job I have,” she said, adding she would contemplate a gubernatorial bid later in the year.

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