Josh Kurtz: How to Make Prince George’s County King

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More than 1,000 Prince George’s County residents chose to spend the first day of spring indoors, rather than outside in the glorious weather. They came together at the invitation of the Prince George’s County Planning Board, to sketch out their vision for the future of the county.

It was a beautiful scene, something to give all Prince George’s residents pride in their community and faith in their neighbors. Among the laudable priorities voiced at the meeting: better schools, less crime, more high-end places to shop, green jobs, and so on. Nothing fancy. Just basic quality of life issues.

But can this vision ever become reality?

That, more than anything, is a political question.

Despite the presence of some talented and civic-minded individuals in public office, Prince George’s politics is plagued by dysfunction from top to bottom. From eight years of Jack Johnson’s “meh” administration in Upper Marlboro, to endless, pointless turf fights on the County Council and school board, to state legislators who pursue their own, selfish agendas, to hundreds of municipal officials who have carved out their own little fiefdoms, there are alarmingly few political leaders with the energy, skills and broad focus to help Prince George’s residents reach their goals.

More than any other place in Maryland, Prince George’s County always seems to be teetering between greatness and calamity. The potential is unmistakable: Excellent location, a prosperous, striving population, interesting, diverse communities, strong institutions like the University of Maryland and the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and plenty of territory to develop (or re-develop).

Yet the county’s problems are also there in plain sight: Pockets of poverty and high crime. A school system that is failing too many of its students. A spotty record, at best, on the economic development front. A government that’s been hamstrung by the bad economy and self-imposed fiscal restraints.

How to diagnose the political problems? Start at the top, with the county executive. It would be wrong to call Johnson an unmitigated disaster because that would be suggesting he actually had much of an impact.

Johnson won in 2002 on shoe leather alone: he simply turned up at every church chicken dinner in the county for years and years, and between that and his competent tenure as state’s attorney, voters had a certain level of comfort with him (remember, too, that he won the all-important Democratic primary that year with just 37 percent of the vote). But he never laid out a bold vision for the county, and you’d be hard-pressed to say what his achievements have been, beyond doling out lucrative government contracts to some of his cronies — if the Washington Post is to be believed.

Let’s move on to the school system, which has been wracked by power struggles for almost a decade now (full disclosure: my wife is an elementary school teacher in Prince George’s). To put it charitably, the Board of Education has been wrestling with its identity and role, first as an appointed entity, now back as a fully-elected board.

But regardless of how one evaluates the structure of the board and the personalities on it, it’s fair to say the members have made some bad choices when it comes to school leadership, hiring self-styled Messiahs who delivered very little. Perhaps the best thing so far that can be said about the relatively new superintendent, Dr. William Hite, is that in contrast to his two immediate predecessors, he is neither a crook nor an asshole.

In Annapolis, Prince George’s County has one of the most seasoned and savvy legislative delegations in the state. But is the county being well served? The Senate president, Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D), is from Prince George’s originally, and still practices law there. His family still operates its liquor and grocery store in Clinton, where Miller grew up.

But Miller is a man of Calvert County now, living in waterfront luxury. He has built a prosperous law practice during his time in the Legislature — but still insists on throwing his weight around Prince George’s politics when it suits him.

Sen. Ulysses Currie (D) is chairman of the powerful Budget and Taxation Committee — but he’s been embroiled in a scandal over his unreported lobbying activities on behalf of a big supermarket chain. Sen. Nat Exum (D) has a talent for advancing legislation that benefits his employers. Del. Joe Vallario (D), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is a defense attorney by trade. Any guess as to how well the defense bar does in his committee? And Sen. Tony Muse (D) is also the pastor of one of the biggest and most influential churches in Prince George’s County. Sometimes it’s hard to see where his political work ends and his church work begins.

At the local level, Prince George’s has an eye-popping 27 municipalities — that’s almost one-fifth of the total in all of Maryland — from Bowie (population 50,000-plus) to Eagle Harbor (population 55, according to the last Census). That’s an awful lot of political layers, an awful lot of bureaucracy, an awful lot of rings to kiss, if you want to get anything done in the county.

But perhaps there is some hope. It’s an election year — Jack Johnson is term limited, and there are a few good candidates running to replace him. Four of the nine County Council members are also term limited. There will be a new sheriff and a new state’s attorney, thanks to incumbents moving on. There promises to be some turnover in the Annapolis delegation and school board as well.

In recent high-profile elections, Prince George’s voters have shown some zeal for reform. Rushern Baker almost upset Johnson in the 2006 Democratic primary for county executive, and now-Rep. Donna Edwards bounced Al Wynn in the 2008 Congressional primary.

Here’s hoping that spirit continues — and that Prince George’s voters elect some more officials with the dedication, wisdom and vision to make the dreams expressed at Saturday’s planning board session reality.

Josh Kurtz is senior editor at Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper. He can be reached at .

Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Kane is Able

To Be Frank

Gay Rights and Political Wrongs?

The Washington Post Goes to War

Snow Job

Unsolicited Advice for Ehrlich — Wait Till 2014

The Early Bird Gets the Worm?

Wayne's World May Be Another Planet

Miller Time Comes Early

Owings Owes an Explanation
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