Prince George’s County activist Tamara Davis Brown is accustomed to going outside the usual political channels.
Over more than 15 years, Brown has cultivated an email group of 5,000 members that she uses to explain how local government affects residents’ daily lives — in a way she hopes will keep them reading.
“Shenanigans,” she declared in one email last year about a council member’s effort to rezone rural land. “Stay woke — folks!!” she wrote in a dispatch outlining Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s financial ties to two proposed development projects in the county.
Now Brown, 50, is again bucking tradition, running as a write-in candidate for the District 9 County Council seat against Clerk of the Court Sydney Harrison, who defeated her by 55 votes in the June 26 Democratic primary.
“On the campaign trail, people would say, ‘I get your emails, and I get more information from them than I get from my elected officials,’ ” said Brown, of Clinton. “That is what motivated me to run and what has motivated me to keep going.”
But she faces tough odds in November.
The Democratic primary is usually decisive in deep-blue Prince George’s, and Election Director Alisha Alexander said she has never heard of a write-in candidate winning an election in the county in recent years.
In 1990, Stephen J. Del Giudice, a Democrat, made history as the first write-in candidate to win county or state office in Maryland when he was elected to the Prince George’s County Council after incumbent Anthony J. Cicoria (D) was convicted of income tax fraud and stealing from his campaign funds.
Brown and Harrison are the only two candidates seeking the District 9 seat.
Harrison, who defeated Brown and six other opponents in the District 9 race, is an experienced public servant who is backed by the county’s public safety and Realtors unions and several elected officials, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and incumbent Mel Franklin (D-District 9).
“The people of District 9 have spoken about who they want to represent them,” said Harrison, of Brandywine. “What’s important now is coming together as a Democratic Party and getting behind our nominees.”
Standing outside the courthouse where he works in Upper Marlboro and where his parents signed his adoption papers nearly four decades ago, Harrison, 43, said his experiences in the county, including graduating from its public schools and working as a small-business owner and Realtor, have prepared him to be a lawmaker.
“I’ve seen the district grow from the 1970s until today, and I’m aware of the challenges we face,” said Harrison, who oversees a staff of 208 in the clerk’s office and has dramatically decreased its backlog of child support cases since he was elected in 2014.
Brown, a lawyer specializing in telecommunications law who also sought the District 9 seat in 2010, said she understands the difficulty of running as a write-in candidate. Her name will not appear on the ballot. But because she has registered, the Board of Elections will count ballots cast for her.
She said she is hoping to raise $40,000 before Labor Day to finance her campaign, capitalizing on energy from a growing number of progressives in the county and their frustration with the Democratic political establishment, which she says “handpicked” Harrison.
“We need new leadership,” said Brown, who moved to Prince George’s in 1988 from Texas and was endorsed during the primary by several unions and the grass-roots groups Our Revolution and Progressive Maryland. “There have been improvements from the outside, but when you follow the laws, you see that little has changed.”
The race between Harrison and Brown in some ways reflects an establishment-progressive divide in Prince George’s that is also apparent statewide.
Former NAACP president Ben Jealous, who is challenging Hogan in November after defeating Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III and four other candidates in the June Democratic gubernatorial primary, has struggled to win support from some more moderate Democrats.
The same split was on display last week in Prince George’s during a tense Democratic central committee meeting in which establishment favorite Cheryl Landis beat Theresa Dudley, president of the county’s teachers union, in the race for committee chair.
Brown, who watched the meeting online, said she would have supported Dudley. Harrison, a member of the central committee, voted for Landis.
Brown, who began paying attention to zoning laws when a developer sought to replace an airport in her neighborhood with housing units and retail space, said developers wield too much power in Prince George’s and need to “pay their fair share.”
Clinton resident Tammie Barnes, who began receiving Brown’s emails eight years ago, said the messages have helped her understand how complex zoning laws affect development in District 9, which stretches from the rural portions of Upper Marlboro to Fort Washington and contains the majority of the county’s less-developed land.
“I get information from her that I have not received from the county council,” said Barnes, 50.
In the “Shenanigans” post Brown sent last fall, she encouraged residents to attend a public hearing on a resolution introduced by Franklin to rezone rural land to mixed-use development. More than 50 people spoke at the hearing, she said, and the council rejected most of the rezoning. Franklin said the decision was not related to Brown’s involvement.
Franklin was precluded from seeking a third term in the district because of term limits. But he won one of the council’s two new at-large seats, so he will remain on the dais next year.
“There are always strong feelings” after a primary, Franklin said. “But it’s important that Democrats come together . . . hopefully Tamara and the others will do that.”
Harrison deflected when asked about Brown’s complaint that he was unfairly boosted by the political establishment.
“It’s not up for me to debate that,” he said. “I want to bring everyone to the table and move District 9 forward.”
Update: This article has been updated to include Del Giudice’s victory as a write-in candidate in 1990.