During the only public forum on Question J — the ballot question that would allow Prince George’s officials to serve three terms instead of two — the measure’s strongest proponent was absent.
In his place, County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) sent an attorney to square off against opponents of loosening term limits.
While those close to Baker know how much he dislikes the term-limit law, Baker has refused to campaign for the ballot initiative — unwilling to attach his name to an effort that would benefit him personally and has failed twice in the past 20 years.
Just over a week before the general election, there are no yard signs, robo-calls or e-mails to voters in favor of the referendum from Baker or any of the County Council members who stand to benefit from it.
Baker — who is running unopposed for a second term and will be forced to leave office after that if the ballot initiative fails — is relying on the “yes” vote recommended on the sample ballot distributed by the county’s powerful Democratic party central committee.
Meanwhile, activists who want to keep the stricter limits in place are exhorting the electorate to vote “no” through community e-mail discussion groups, public meetings and on the Internet.
“I think people understand where I stand on term limits,” Baker said. “There are term limits, and they are called ‘the voters.’ ”
Baker said proponents of term limits assume voters are not mature enough to make the right selections and argued that forcing politicians out after two terms destroys institutional knowledge and governing momentum.
“This is the most popular council in 30 years with constituents,” Baker said. “People like what they see.”
Opponents of the term-limit extension fear political entrenchment and say the ballot referendum is premature, coming just four years after the federal corruption investigation that toppled Baker’s predecessor, Jack Johnson.
Not one Prince George’s County incumbent has been defeated in the two decades since Judy Robinson and her group collected the 18,000 signatures that instituted term limits in 1992.
Gerron Levi, a former state delegate who lost to sitting council incumbent Derrick Leon Davis (D-Mitchellville) in the primary, said the political system can have a corrupting influence on any long-serving elected official. “The longer you are in office, the longer you are captive to moneyed interests, because that’s how you get reelected,” Levi said.
Prince George’s is the only local government in the region to limit how long its local officials can serve (although the Virginia governor can remain in office only four years and the Maryland governor is limited to eight).
County officials say that means more turnover for Prince George’s County than for its neighbors on regional boards that oversee topics such as water, transportation and planning.
“We are constantly being outmaneuvered by Northern Virginia, where that long tenure exists,” said M.H. Jim Estepp, a former county council chair. “There was a lot more I could’ve done for my constituency if I had more time.”
Baker said his vision for the county will take more than two terms to achieve. It took four years to “get used to the job” and craft the details of his agenda, he said, and he doesn’t expect his marquee education revisions and economic development plans to fully take effect until 2015.
By that time, Baker added, five council members who voted for the school system changes and his new policies will have reached term limits.
The Charter Review Commission considered those arguments before concluding that term limits had “outlived their usefulness” and asking voters to revisit the law.
“There was lots of conversation and opinions that term limits require you to get rid of the good folks,” said Kenneth Battle, a lobbyist who served on the board. “You’re essentially throwing out the baby with the bath water.”
After the council voted to place the question on the ballot, Baker pressured a reluctant Democratic Central Committee to endorse it. County leaders, wary of publicly lobbying for a measure that would benefit them directly, are relying on that ballot to give them a victory — a tactic that has drawn criticism from opponents.
“That’s not democracy, that’s bullying. And it’s wrong,” said state Del. Aisha N. Braveboy (D-Prince George’s), who is not subject to term limits herself but supports them for county officials.
Proponents of term limits say allowing politicians four more years would aggravate an enduring problem in county politics: the power of incumbency. Officials running for reelection are almost universally included on the party-endorsed slate committees — a collection of candidates, typically led by a state senator, who pool money and power and appear together on the sample ballot. And, at least in the past two decades, they always win.
“No matter how bad they are, you can’t get rid of them,” said Joe Gaskins, a Prince George’s labor activist. “Once you’re supported by the slate, you are supported by the system.”
While proponents of the referendum argue that good leaders should not be kicked out after two terms, Fort Washington resident Sarah Cavitt posed a different question: “Who is to say the next person might not be even better?”
Kettering Civic Federation president Deborah Spencer attended the Oct. 18 League of Women Voters forum on the ballot question, listening carefully to the lawyer sent by Baker and to opponents of the change, including Braveboy.
She said she was struck by the fact that a grass-roots citizen movement put term limits in place, and that politicians since then have tried repeatedly to undo them.
“I’m upset now,” Spencer said. “I’m going to really get my team together to make sure this does not pass.”