Josh Kurtz: Since When Did R-E-S-P-E-C-T = C-A-S-H ?

Former Prince George's County executive Jack Johnson (center) with his attorneys in 2011 after pleading guilty to evidence tampering charges in a wide-ranging corruption case. Photo courtesy of WTOP

For Prince George’s County lawmakers, the watchword every General Assembly session is “respect.”

Prince George’s officials never feel like they get enough of it in Annapolis. They watch their counterparts from Baltimore City Hoover up prodigious sums of money every legislative session. And they look at their neighbors from Montgomery County, envious of that county’s supposed riches (even as Montgomery becomes a lot more diverse – racially, ethnically and economically, than it used to be).

So it’s no surprise that the subtext of the argument in favor of legislation lifting a ban on developers giving money to the Prince George’s County executive or county executive candidates when they have a project pending before the county government, is respect. That’s not exactly how the bill’s sponsor, House Economic Matters Chairman Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s) puts it, but it’s there anyway.

The ban was enacted by the General Assembly in 2011 at the request of Rushern L. Baker III (D), who was then the new Prince George’s County executive. It came on the heels of the vast corruption scandal that ensnared Baker’s predecessor, former Prince George’s executive Jack Johnson (D), and other officials, developers, and businessmen.

The Johnson scandal wasn’t really about developer contributions per se. It was a case of good old-fashioned home-grown bribery.

But throughout Maryland history, in many jurisdictions, the unholy dance between developers and the elected officials who control the fate of their projects, have produced many a scandal. So Baker decided for appearance’s sake to swear off a sizable chunk of developer cash. Good for him.

Now, Davis, who has introduced a bill to lift the ban, is saying that this wasn’t quite the right remedy. In an interview, he likened it to a person who has broken her arm getting a flu shot.

Davis’ bill passed the Prince George’s House delegation by an 18-5 vote. There was a hearing in the House Ways and Means Committee earlier this month, but the panel has yet to vote on it.

Davis also asserted that Baker – his former colleague in the legislature and his former boss (in his day job, Davis is deputy director for community relations in the Prince George’s County government) – may have been hamstrung during his bid for governor last year by the fact that he hadn’t banked a whole lot of developer money.

The contrast between Baker and the late Baltimore County executive Kevin B. Kamenetz (D), whose gubernatorial war chest was bulging with developer cash, was stark. But anyone who has followed Baker’s career closely knows that the lack of access to real estate money wasn’t exactly what hampered his campaign; Baker, for all his other talents, was never a particularly gifted fundraiser.

Yet here we are again. Whether it’s spoken or unspoken, Baker’s successor, the new Prince George’s County executive, Angela D. Alsobrooks (D), might also run for governor some day. And wouldn’t Alsobrooks like to have access to more developer cash in the future? Maybe.

But Alsobrooks isn’t crass enough to say it or think it. She seems 100 percent focused on the job at hand and shies away from all talk about her political future.

Still, follow Davis’ logic a bit. He appears to be suggesting that lifting the ban on developer contributions – in other words, allowing developers to pay greater tribute to the county executive and/or county executive candidates – is a privilege Baker’s successors ought to enjoy, because the same shady practice happens in other jurisdictions. It’s simply, he implies, a question of respect.

Here’s a counter-argument: If Prince George’s officials really want to be shown respect, why don’t they keep this modest model of an ethics law in place?

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Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.

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