Josh Kurtz: A Perfect (Political) Storm Hits Prince George’s

By Josh Kurtz

Ah, it’s always something with Prince George’s County. Or a series of somethings.

In the county’s ongoing struggle for respectability, it’s always two steps forward and one step back, followed by one step forward and two steps back. Two years after Jack and Leslie Johnson were arrested, two years after Rushern Baker was elected to clean up their mess, what will it take for the county to truly and consistently move forward?

Pick a better cliché if you like, but right now Prince George’s County is Maryland’s Ground Zero as Election Day approaches. And the county, so full of potential but with so many demons to shake off, once again appears to be at a tipping point.

The tens of millions of dollars being spent to influence the ballot question on gambling, of course, are directly aimed at Prince George’s voters — and will have a lasting affect on the ability of Baker and other elected officials to govern effectively. Prince George’s also seems likely to provide the decisive votes for or against marriage equality and the DREAM Act, adding to the intense pressure being placed on the county electorate.

Moving beyond the ballot box drama, Prince George’s leaders and residents find themselves confronted with a handful of troublesome issues — all of which reflect, to one degree or another, on the county’s image and its ability to govern itself harmoniously and move beyond the scandals of the past.

If the ballot question on gambling fails, it will be a major embarrassment for an array of high-ranking Maryland Democrats, including Gov. Martin O’Malley and Senate President Mike Miller. But it would be a black eye especially for Baker, who staked so much political capital — and jeopardized longstanding personal relationships — on bringing a high-end casino to National Harbor.

Additionally, Baker, more than O’Malley and Miller, will have to cope with the consequences of governing without the gaming revenue he envisioned. Prince George’s budgets are already stretched unimaginably thin. It’s going to be hard to improve the still-struggling schools and provide the social safety net necessary in this still-shaky economy without additional revenues coming from somewhere.

It seems unlikely at this juncture that a defeat of the gambling referendum will bring Baker a high-level Democratic primary challenger in 2014, but you never know: there are plenty of predators out there, looking for signs of weakness. If nothing else, it will raise questions among developers and other powerful people looking at Prince George’s County as a potential place to do business about Baker’s ability to seal the deal.

Meanwhile, Prince George’s voters at this point, regardless of their views, are probably tired of being hectored about gay marriage and the DREAM Act. President Obama, whose embrace of gay marriage earlier this year temporarily helped boost the issue’s standing with African-American voters, has now specifically endorsed the Maryland ballot measure. But Obama’s sheen is off as he lurches toward possible defeat, even with his most loyal segment of the electorate. It may be that a majority of black voters side with their ministers and neighbors on this issue rather than with their president and other elected officials — a further cleaving of the traditional Democratic coalition.

So there will be innumerable pieces to pick up the day after Election Day in Prince George‘s, but then again, the county is already dealing with a series of political crises of varying severity:

1. The little-noticed collapse of the deal earlier this month to move the state Department of Housing and Community Development offices from Crownsville in Anne Arundel County to New Carrollton in Prince George’s. State officials are still talking resolutely about finding an alternative site in Prince George’s, but it looks as if they’ll be starting from scratch. This is bad political news for Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, who has been the primary cheerleader for this project.

2. The vacancy in the superintendent’s office at the county schools. There’s an interim superintendent for the duration of the school year, filling in for William Hite, who decamped to Philadelphia. But will county officials be able to find a stellar candidate — preferably without the messianic qualities of some of Hite’s recent predecessors — at a time when at least half the school board will be new after Election Day and the county is facing so many other challenges?

3. Del. Tiffany Alston (and Sen. Ulysses Currie). She has been suspended from the legislature for using legislative funds for her law office and for using campaign money to pay for her wedding. But whether she’ll be able to return after she completes her sentence — community service and a fine — is very much an open question. Alston insists she can; state lawyers aren’t sure. Either way, the Prince George’s County Democratic Central Committee is about to name a replacement — a temporary replacement, presumably. This one looks like it’s going to wind up in the courts — and the House of Delegates may find itself in the uncomfortable position of having to expel one of its members. Meanwhile, Currie, the former chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee who was acquitted last year in a corruption scandal, continues to serve in a diminished capacity. The legal system has run its course, the Senate unlikely to take any disciplinary action. But incredibly, no one of stature is gearing up to run against him in 2014, and most insiders now expect he’ll cruise to a sixth term.

4. The Democratic Central Committee. Less than a month before Election Day, the county’s Democratic Central Committee chose a new chairman — odd timing, given the proximity to an important election. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss: the new chairman, Terry Speigner, had previously held the job but was forced to leave in 2010 for professional and personal reasons. Speigner, who ran the ill-fated U.S. Senate campaign of Anthony Muse earlier this year, was not the choice of most of the county’s state senators. Whether his victory is a sign of any kind of anti-establishment movement afoot in county politics seems unlikely, but it bears watching. It’s rumored that Speigner may be angling for the appointment to Alston’s seat.

5. The departure of Del. Justin Ross. Speaking of the central committee, it will soon choose a replacement for Ross, one of the brightest lights in county politics who has decided to step down to spend more time with his family and focus on his business career. That’s a blow both for House leadership in Annapolis, where Ross was an adroit deputy whip, and for Baker, who is losing one of his top lieutenants in the legislature.

These are all serious challenges — and the election results are about to present several more. How Prince George’s leaders confront them will say a lot about the short- and mid-term success of their county.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at joshkurtz92@gmail.com.

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Sail Away

Nov. 6 Could Spell Trouble for Top Maryland Dems

Louie Louie

After the Blue Wave Crashes

The Impossible DREAM?

I’m Ready for My Close-up, Mr. DeMille

A Conversation with Ken Ulman

The Future Is Now?

Michael Row the Boat Ashore

Influencers: The Readers Speak

Will Battaglia Run for AG in 2014?