I adopted the state of Maryland and made my home in Prince George’s County in the Spring of 1970 when I returned home from four months of “active duty” as a member of the Maryland National Guard. I did so for a variety of economic, political, and existential reasons. I was entering my second semester of law school, rental housing (garden apartments) were more plentiful and more affordable in Prince George’s County than in wealthier Montgomery County, Maryland and the two Virginia Counties suburban to Washington, D.C. It never occurred to me to reflect on why apartments were so plentiful in Prince George’s and not in the others and I certainly along with a lot of others never thought to explore the relationship between the local political culture and the lack of “smart growth” as well as the proliferation of the other kind of growth.
I was interested in politics and law. Prince George’s politics was even then “colorful” and therefore very interesting. In the 60’s (before my time) I am told there had been a “political machine” in power in Prince George’s County. In 1962 the “Machine” was defeated by “Reformers.” These “Reformers” remained in power for approximately eight years. Even though they were elected to “clean up” Prince George’s politics and arguably at least in some respects did so, apparently other politicians perceived that at least a working plurality of the voters in Prince George’s County were not 100% enamored of their reforms and in 1970sought to replace them with a combination of new faces and former machine politicians.
In 1970 there were three separate and complete “tickets” or “slates” running for all 76 state and local offices from Governor to Party Central Committee in the Democratic Party Primary. In other words there were 228 candidates running for these 76 offices. No one except hard-core state and local political junkies knew or even tried to know all of their names. All we knew were the names of each “ticket”. The electoral strategy of each ticket was that those candidates with “name identification” would lead the ticket and they would make it easy to vote for the “team” or the whole ticket because all you had to remember was the name of the ticket not the names of the candidates.
Straight back from active duty in the Army, I volunteered to work for the “ticket” which called themselves the “Alliance 4 Action” (because a politically aware friend told me they were going to win) . The “4” was a double entendre which stood for the four incumbent state senators and the other select incumbent elected officials and new candidates that they decided to support as well as the conjunction linking the “Alliance” to the word and image it evoked of “Action”.
As a 23 year old impressionable law student who grew up in Virginia where the “Byrd Machine” reigned until it cracked and then crumbled under the weight of its own racism, sexism and toward the end (1969) corruption, I had never observed grown men and women running for public office on “tickets” and giving themselves group names, some of which were unintentionally entertaining. For instance one of the opposing “tickets” called themselves the “Constitutional Democrats” which
immediately caused the campaign staff of the “Alliance 4 Action” to henceforth refer to them as our opponents, “The Condoms”.
In any case, the “Alliance 4 Action” won in 1970 and again in 1974 when they called themselves “Democrats 74” and again in 1978 when they called themselves “Democrats 78”. After that different tickets or slates formed every four years for state and local elections. But they were and are still seldom complete and were much more balkanized regionally particularly as the demographics of the electorate and the political class that emerged from it changed to majority African American and became more diverse generally.
What didn’t change was that the community did not demand increased accountability. Accountability does not result from electing nameless, faceless, individuals who are known only as a member of a slate and who are financed in the same manner. In addition, many of these “leaders” are totally dependent on politics for their livelihood and for positive reinforcement in their lives. For that reason their primary if not exclusive goal is always to keep getting elected or appointed to some office. Indeed the refrain often heard was “Now it’s our turn” which raises the immediate question of your turn to do what –run the same old system. Let’s hope not!
In the last 20 years a new set of leaders emerged. But they did not see fit to try to change the culture which as described had emerged much earlier in the county’s history. Instead they chose to simply take it over until NOW.
Now new leaders, led by newly elected County Executive Rushern L. Baker whom former Prince George’s County Council Chair, now director of the Chesapeake Center for Public Leadership, Peter Shapiro, hopes will be “Transformational Leader” in the model described by leadership scholar, James MacGregor Burns will need to raise the ethical aspirations of both him and his fellow leaders and the people they were elected to lead.
In my 40 years participating and observing the intersection of politics, law, economics, and governance in Prince George’s County and its effect on land use decisions, liquor license regulation and encompassing police, sheriff’s law enforcement and their auxiliary employment activities, I have observed the numbing effect that these mixed political and economic relationships can have on the confidence of the people of this highly educated and comparatively wealthy jurisdiction in the integrity of their elected and appointed officials. That cultural and political anesthesia in turn encourages some of these elected and appointed officials to test cynical tolerance to its limits. Well, those limits appear to have been defined by the apparent arrogance of the former County Executive Jack B. Johnson and his wife newly elected County Councilwoman Leslie Johnson.
Nevertheless changing this entrenched political culture will not be easy. It will be time consuming and will require the expenditure of considerable political capital. Indeed, if the new County Executive’s takes his own rhetoric seriously, he could very easily find that changing the political culture could have the same effect on his popularity and be as little understood and appreciated as was “Health Care” for President Obama. It could affect his ability to accomplish his other goals. Indeed some of the County Executive’s own supporters will surely not be happy with him for taking this on.
So the County Executive and his team need to assess the priority he wants to give this challenge. It needs to be No. 1. It is far too important to compromise on its timing, priority and substance. If we fail to make an all-out effort, we will face the loss of our self-confidence and respect for our leaders for a long time. Finally in providing leadership on this issue, the leaders of Prince George’s County should heed the words of the Machiavelli in “The Prince”, “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions and lukewarm defenders among those who may do well under the new.”
Let’s hope that we have a Happy New Year and that it marks the beginning of a new era.