When Calvin Hawkins asked his former prison warden, Salanda Whitfield, whether he should run for Prince George’s County Council, Whitfield hesitated.
Hawkins, 56, said he would run on his 23-year record in county government and make no excuses for past mistakes. He asked Whitfield, his friend and mentor, for his support.
Whitfield said yes. So did top members of County Executive Rushern L. Baker III’s administration, current council members and county business leaders, all of whom are backing Hawkins’s campaign for one of two new at-large council seats.
Hawkins, a longtime adviser to Baker (D) and County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D) before him, speaks openly to voters about his criminal record, and about allegations of sexual harassment made against him by a colleague a decade ago.
“My past has been a bumpy one,” Hawkins told an audience by way of introduction at a forum last month. “I am a redeemed individual. I’m a second-chance kind of guy.”
Many in the packed audience nodded. Such candor is well-received in Prince George’s County, a majority-black jurisdiction where churches hold great sway and it is not uncommon for candidates to quote scripture or preach themes of repentance and forgiveness.
“My story is the Prince Georgian story,” Hawkins said later in an interview. “Every family in Prince George’s, they have gone through it, or they will go through it: the moment when a loved one, neighbor or friend becomes involved in our justice system.”
Derailed by drugs
Hawkins grew up in Oxon Hill, a few miles south of the D.C. border. One of three siblings raised by strict parents, he became a father at 17 and said he stayed away from drugs and alcohol after seeing relatives struggle with addiction. He studied political science at Bowie State University, pledging a fraternity and planning to join the Army after graduation. He was elected class president his freshman year.
“He was that student that everybody loved,” said Ervin Reid, Hawkins’s campaign manager and friend, who jokes that it’s hard to go anywhere with the candidate because of how many people he stops to greet.
As a college senior, Hawkins reconnected with Oxon Hill friends who introduced him to freebasing cocaine. He says he tried it, got hooked and turned to armed robbery to get money for drugs.
Over a nine-month period in 1983, he held up two fast-food restaurants in Prince George’s and a D.C. gas station at gunpoint, according to court records. He was convicted of the D.C. robbery and sentenced to serve “not less than six years” in the now-closed Lorton prison.
During his first months there, Hawkins made an appointment to see Whitfield, who recalls that Hawkins “stuck out” because he didn’t make excuses. “He said, ‘I made a terrible mistake,’ ” Whitfield said.
Hawkins says he reached a true turning point when his daughter — by then 7 — asked when they would be able to do “father-daughter activities, like her friends did with their fathers.”
“I prayed to God that night, and I said then that if I got a chance to leave prison, I would never let my daughter down,” he said in the interview, tears rolling down his face.
Tori Hawkins-Plummer, 39, has three children of her own now. She said she can barely remember asking the question that so motivated her father. But she sees his quest for office as a mission.
“People don’t see how hard he works, and how passionate he is about Prince George’s County,” Hawkins-Plummer said. “This is destiny; it’s his time.”
Hawkins got his start in local government in the District, working to rehabilitate youth involved with crime after his release from prison and performing constituent service duties for then-D. C. Council member Kevin Chavous (D-Ward 7) for three years. In Prince George’s, he has worked for the Department of Public Works, the Office of the County Executive and the Office of Emergency Management.
The council race is his first run for public office. Eight other Democrats and one Republican are also vying for the two at-large council seats. Hawkins’s Democratic opponents include County Council members Mel Franklin (D-District 9) and Karen R. Toles (D-District 7), each of whom has had their own run-ins with law enforcement over serious driving infractions; former state delegate Gerron S. Levi; and Juanita Culbreath-Miller, an outspoken former member of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission who played a central role in a controversy over racial preferences.
Hawkins told The Washington Post in February that he worked as an aide to Baker, who is seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Gov. Larry Hogan (R) this fall. Baker said at that time that Hawkins had done a “phenomenal job” working for him.
In more recent interviews, Hawkins said he left Baker’s office in November to separate his council campaign from Baker’s gubernatorial campaign. But Hawkins’s website still says he is an adviser to Baker. Scott Peterson, a spokesman for Baker, confirmed the November departure date and said the county executive “was not aware of Calvin’s criminal past” when Hawkins was working in his office.
Baker has not endorsed Hawkins or personally donated to his campaign. But support from the county executive’s top staff and family helped Hawkins raise nearly $200,000 in 2017 — more than twice as much as his main primary rivals.
“Raise your hand if you love Calvin Hawkins,” said Glenda Wilson, Baker’s chief of staff, during a “Women for Calvin Hawkins” event in Landover recently.
The room was filled with more than 200 supporters. Hawkins wove his way among the tables, speaking without a script about how he “lost his way” as a young man and then dedicated himself to a life of public service.
“There is redemption in believing in Christ, who died on the cross so we all could get a second chance,” said Hawkins, who goes to church every Sunday at 7:30 a.m. and credits religion with helping to save him in prison and keep him on track since he got out.
Members of the audience — many of them in pink heels and pink jackets, which organizers said was to accentuate that the event was focused on women — leaped to their feet, clapping and cheering.
“We are all ex-offenders,” said Mary Hopkins-Navies, who owns eight McDonald’s restaurants in Prince George’s and said she takes pride in hiring people who have been incarcerated.
Former council member Dorothy Bailey put it like this: “Why am I going to church every Sunday if I don’t believe in redemption, if I don’t believe that people can change?” She said she has never met anyone more dedicated to public service than Hawkins but understands that his incarceration might “turn off” some people.
“For me, it works in his favor — he can be an amazing inspiration,” Bailey said. “We have young people who need to hear his story.”
More recent mistakes
Not everyone who has worked with Hawkins believes he has atoned for past behavior. Tonya Hairston, a county government employee who accused Hawkins of sexual harassment a decade ago, says he never apologized to her and has tried to “sweep the whole thing under the rug.”
Hairston says Hawkins, at the time a division manager, restrained and forcibly kissed her. A county personnel review board found that Hawkins touched Hairston in “an unwanted manner” but did not conclude that sexual harassment occurred. In 2009, a jury said the county knew or should have known about Hawkins’s behavior and ordered the government to pay Hairston $12,500 in damages.
“How could you want someone in office like that who won’t apologize to the victim?” Hairston said in an interview. She said Hawkins’s supporters “can’t identify” with the pain he caused her unless they or their family members have personally experienced harassment.
Hawkins disputes the details of Hairston’s allegations but acknowledges that his behavior was inappropriate and says he will not “make any excuses.”
After The Post reported on the allegations in February, Hawkins organized what participants described as a difficult meeting for campaign volunteers.
“There was disappointment,” said volunteer Ramona Barber. Some people who had been canvassing for Hawkins for months — especially women — were angry. “But Calvin was sincere and emotional. He was hurt, because he hurt the women on the campaign and his family.”
After the women had voiced their concerns and Hawkins responded, Barber said, the vast majority of volunteers left feeling confident in their candidate once more.
“We pledged then that we were still with him,” she said.