Josh Kurtz: P.G. Law

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If they could throw people in jail for hubris and chutzpah, then Prince George’s County state Sen. Tony Muse would be in serious legal jeopardy, with his declaration last week that he may challenge U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin in the Democratic primary next year.

Lesser men than Muse have toppled greater incumbents than Cardin through the years, so anything is possible. But Muse sure didn’t start out of the gate offering voters a compelling reason to replace Cardin, whose most fireable offense (and, ironically, his greatest selling point) may be the fact that he has held elective office for 45 consecutive years.

Muse, on Larry Young’s radio show, where he made the announcement, talked about jobs for youths, ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the fact that there are no African-Americans in the U.S. Senate – all worthy issues. But is Muse a worthy messenger?

He is a talented and energetic minister, who delivers pointed and pungent sermons as he jumps around the stage at the Ark of Safety Christian Church in Upper Marlboro like a latter-day James Brown. As a politician, he is perhaps best known for extracting concessions – some would say smartly, others would say crassly – from powerful forces to hire more minorities for their government-funded projects.

But consider Muse‘s electoral history. 1994: Elected to the House of Delegates. 1998: Loses a Democratic primary for state Senate against an entrenched incumbent. 2002: Loses the Democratic primary for Prince George’s county executive. 2004: Considers running against then-Congressman Al Wynn. 2006: Elected to the state Senate in an open seat race. 2010: Contemplates running for Congress and county executive before opting to run for re-election.

At this point it’s hard to argue that Muse’s musings aren’t anything but another attempt to advance his career and boost his ego.

In 2006, the colorless Cardin was almost defeated in the Democratic primary by Kweisi Mfume, a former Congressional colleague and one-time NAACP president who had a far more substantive record than Muse – and just as much stage presence. In fact, if Mfume had actually bothered to raise money and burn a little more shoe leather on the hustings, he’d be preparing to run for his second term in the Senate right now.

The notion that Muse would challenge Cardin from the left, as some accounts have suggested, is laughable. Cardin has one of the most liberal voting records in the Senate, and Muse is no one’s idea of a progressive (see his stance on gay marriage, for starters). It’s as if the media reflexively see an African-American candidate taking on a white candidate and assume that the former is more progressive than the latter.

Cardin, meanwhile, has worked hard to shore himself up in the one part of the state where he knows he could be vulnerable to a serious challenge, the D.C. suburbs, by offering solid constituent service and showing up at events there as often as he can. On top of that, he was sitting on $1.8 million in his campaign account as of June 30, a number that is sure to grow when the latest campaign finance statements are released later this month.

Muse may be good at collecting money – Ark of Safety worshipers most Sundays are invited to stuff cash in two envelopes, one for the church and the other to show love for their pastor – but that doesn’t mean he should be taken seriously as a U.S. Senate candidate.

But his putative candidacy does shed more unfavorable light on Prince George’s politicians at a time when state Sen. Ulysses Currie (D) is on trial in federal court in Baltimore on corruption charges, when state Del. Tiffany Alston (D) was just pinched for allegedly using campaign funds for her wedding and other personal expenses, and when former County Councilwoman Leslie Johnson (D) is due to be sentenced this month for witness and evidence tampering in the wide-ranging corruption case of her husband, former County Executive Jack Johnson (D), whose own sentencing has been delayed until December.

Each case reads like Greek tragedy in its own way.

Currie is a classic up-from-the-bootstraps politician, the son of dirt-poor North Carolina sharecroppers who went on to become a dedicated educator and successful legislator. Known as one of the nicest guys in Annapolis, he has come off in court testimony as a bully (or at the very least, a very persistent nudge), badgering state officials about matters of interest to his client, Shoppers Food Warehouse – without ever revealing that he was on the supermarket payroll.

The Johnsons? Well, plenty of ink has been spilled about their shocking fall from grace already, and plenty more will follow. It will be interesting, both with Currie and the Johnsons, to see whether their cases ultimately wind up singeing other powerful politicians.

The Alston case, while the pettiest, is in some ways the most venal, if the state prosecutor is to be believed. She came from the political stable of former state Sen. Nat Exum (D), who was no saint, so perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that these unsavory charges are being leveled against her.

On the other hand, she was, along with her classmates at Seat Pleasant Elementary School, the recipient of a college scholarship from Abe Pollin, an inspiring story, and should have had a bright political future. Instead, her trial is set to begin on Jan. 10, 2012 – one day before the likely opening of the legislative session.

Alston is boldly proclaiming her innocence. But it’s fair to say, in the immortal words of Ricky Ricardo, that she has "some 'splaining to do" at the very least.

And for a depressing coda to the Alston mess, there is already talk that if the freshman delegate has to step down, then former County Councilwoman Camille Exum (D), Nat Exum’s daughter, and fingered for using county-issued credit cards for personal travel, will be tapped to replace her.

Prince Georgians weary of all the dismal political developments got some decent news last month when Derrick Leon Davis won a special Democratic primary to replace Leslie Johnson. With County Executive Rushern Baker and other leading pols endorsing Davis, he was not immune to charges that he would be another product of the political machine (and another candidate, Mark Polk, a lawyer and former cop, seemed to have stronger reformer’s credentials). But at least Davis is not affiliated with the Johnsons. The earnest and likable Baker needs all the allies he can get.

Last year, David Harrington, another Prince George’s state senator, used the slogan "it’s about the community," in his unsuccessful bid for re-election. Unfortunately, for too many Prince George’s politicians, it’s been "about me." While he isn’t being hauled into court, Tony Muse’s flirtation with a Senate bid just seems like the latest example. Until the county produces more officeseekers without that mindset, Prince George’s won’t truly be able to heal itself.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Race and Races

The Company He Keeps

Baltimore Ravin’s

Jack Johnson and the Offal Truth

Betting the Chalk

Death Knell for Democrats?

The Bruce of Summer

Nightmare Scenario

Sources: Congressional delegation Dems eye Bartlett as redistricting target

Talkin’ 'Bout Their Generation
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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.


But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.


The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.


In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.


Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.