It doesn’t get more pernicious in Prince George’s County than accusing a political candidate of “pay-to-play” politics.
The phrase — describing government officials who make decisions based on who has given them money — was used during the Washington suburb’s darkest political days, when then-county executive Jack B. Johnson was hauled off in handcuffs on federal corruption charges.
Now it is being levied by a super PAC backing county executive candidate Donna F. Edwards (D), in mailers, Facebook ads and other media attacks on her primary rival, Prince George’s state’s attorney Angela D. Alsobrooks (D).
One magazine-size advertisement sent to Democratic households in the county depicts Alsobrooks at the center of four rotating arrows that describe how real estate developers buy influence with political contributions and expect favors once candidates they back are in office.
Other fliers call her “pay-to-play Angela Alsobrooks” and describe her as “on the side of developers.”
The “We Are Prince George’s” PAC organizers did not offer evidence that Alsobrooks has done or will do favors for her political donors. But they said they are suspicious of her acceptance of hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from developers, most of whom have long given money to county candidates.
“They are calling me a criminal . . . when I’m the chief law enforcement officer in the county,” said Alsobrooks, who held a news conference Wednesday morning to denounce the attacks. “I am deeply offended. It is unfair, irresponsible and unethical.”
We Are Prince George’s has spent about $620,000 since March on advertisements, signs, paid canvassers, digital media and Washington consultants — a level of involvement that is highly unusual for a Prince George’s political campaign. Edwards is prohibited by law from coordinating her campaign with the PAC.
The other candidates competing in the June 26 Democratic primary — which in deep-blue Prince George’s is tantamount to winning the election — are state Sen. C. Anthony Muse, Obama administration official Paul Monteiro, former lieutenant governor Samuel W. Bogley III, Lewis S. Johnson, Billy Bridges, Michael E. Kennedy and Tommie Thompson.
“We are going to do what it takes to win,” said Samuel Epps, political director for Unite Here Local 25, which represents hotel employees, and is one of three unions supporting the effort. “Workers are coming together to amplify their voices and interests. We believe workers should have a right to organize.”
Also funding the PAC are two United Food and Commercial Workers chapters and the Laborers’ International Union of North America. All have been loyal Edwards supporters for nearly two decades, ever since she helped broker labor agreements with the developers of the National Harbor project.
The unions are dissatisfied with outgoing County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) because he endorsed large nonunion development projects in the county, such as the Hotel at the University of Maryland and Wegmans.
They predict more of the same from Alsobrooks, who has worked closely with Baker on law enforcement initiatives for the past eight years, and was a county prosecutor when Johnson, the future executive, was state’s attorney.
“I don’t work for Baker. I’m independently elected,” Alsobrooks said. “I didn’t work for him, but I’m being judged because of him.”
Although most of her donations are small-dollar contributions from county residents, dozens of developers have given Alsobrooks the maximum $6,000 — a contrast with Edwards, who has promised not to take developer money.
At the news conference, where Alsobrooks was joined by labor and faith leaders, she called the accusation of pay-to-play politics an “evil lie” and noted that she has been endorsed by 14 labor unions.
“She’s a person for the people, a grass-roots person,” said Cynthia Collins, political director of the Service Employees International Union Local 400, which backed Edwards in previous races but is supporting Alsobrooks. Collins said it is “sad” that Edwards is “using untruths to try to win.”
The unions funding the super PAC supported Edwards during her 6½ years in Congress, which followed her National Harbor activism. After she lost the 2016 U.S. Senate race to fellow Democrat Chris Van Hollen, they urged her to run for county executive.
“We have a candidate in Donna who helped us when we needed it,” said John Boardman, the head of Unite Here Local 25. “We are supporting her for her progressive history and understanding that development is good if it’s development that helps everyone in the county.”
Both Edwards and the PAC have used the hashtag “#alsobought” on social media, to underscore the pay-to-play message.
“Big corporate developers have maintained a tight grip on our County’s government for decades, and elected officials have gone to jail for it,” Edwards said in a statement. “Working families have every right to ask what big developer contributions to Ms. Alsobrooks will buy.”
A smaller PAC, called the Coalition for Change, has put out campaign literature criticizing Edwards and the unions’ efforts on her behalf.
Sandra Pruitt, an Alsobrooks supporter who is chairing the PAC, said it has raised less than $1,000 but plans to increase fundraising efforts in the final weeks before the primary.
At a recent forum, the group handed out 100 cards that call We Are Prince George’s a “sugar PAC” and say Edwards does not have to “invest time with constituents . . . the old-fashioned way” because of the resources the PAC is spending to boost her campaign.