From her corner office on the top floor of the Wayne K. Curry Administration Building in Largo, Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) is taking stock of her first six months in office.
Asked to talk about her accomplishments, she launches into a discussion about the relationships she has attempted to build with other elected officials and the public. Also, the importance she has placed in setting the right “tone.”
In doing this, she repeatedly uses a word that the hard-charging Curry — who served as executive from 1994 to 2002 — would not have uttered had he served 108 years, and not just eight – “humility.”
“The effort has been one of humility,” she tells Maryland Matters. “It’s just been a real effort to bring people together. It’s not to say we have to agree on every issue, but just a spirit of respect and professionalism. So I’m proud of that.”
The first African-American to serve as Prince George’s executive, Curry died in 2014 at age 63, after a battle with cancer.
Alsobrooks, 48, doesn’t need to be told that the word “humility” is nowhere to be found in the Curry playbook.
But she believes their styles are more alike than it would appear.
“He had an attitude about his county that was pride,” she says. “How he displayed it was in bravado, maybe. But I display it in a different way. But it’s the same characteristic.
“It’s the feeling that people are not listening to us, not paying attention, not caring. I have the same impatience, but I display it differently.”
In her first six months on the job (after serving eight years as state’s attorney), Alsobrooks has staffed up her government, shepherded her first budget through the County Council (a spending blueprint that included the first teacher pay raises in years), and won approval from the General Assembly for the county to build schools using a public-private partnership model.
But she may be the most energized by the turnout she gets at community meetings — and the sense that her constituents believe Prince George’s is headed in the right direction.
“I have not gone to a community meeting yet where there wasn’t a capacity crowd, people around the side,” she says. “People here are engaged. They are interested. They are enlightened. And it’s been helpful to me.”
It wasn’t that long ago that Prince George’s was rocked by the corruption scandal that sent former executive Jack B. Johnson (D) and his wife to prison.
Alsobrooks and others credit Rushern L. Baker III (D), Johnson’s successor, for bringing respectability and honesty back to county government.
David Harrington, the head of the Prince George’s Chamber of Commerce, says Alsobrooks, a Baker protege of sorts (she also worked for Johnson as a prosecutor in the state’s attorney’s office), is helping the county heal by adding momentum to the progress his administration made.
“I think she’s building upon on what Rushern Baker’s done, and I think that’s smart,” Harrington observes. “Because now you’re creating a consistent identity and certainty, and that’s what businesses want to see.”
Other highlights from the Maryland Matters interview:
— Alsobrooks touts the $1.5 billion in state aid the county is set to receive in fiscal year 2020.
— She calls the 2019 high school graduation season the first in years in which the focus was on student achievement and not dysfunction within the school system. On Tuesday, Alsobrooks announced that she was appointing Monica Goldston, the interim schools CEO, to the job permanently.
— The General Assembly approved legislation that will eventually pave the way for Prince George’s to build schools — as many as 18 in the next seven years — using a public-private partnership approach. Alsobrooks says the P3 model will allow the county to catch up on an $8.5 billion backlog in school upkeep while keeping the debt associated with traditional school construction off its books. (Prince George’s has a coveted AAA bond rating from Wall Street.)
— Alsobrooks says she is “enraged” by the lack of decent restaurants in the county, particularly inside the Beltway. She claims she once took a developer to task over what she regarded to be the middling caliber of his tenants.
“We don’t need more nail salons and beauty supply stores,” she says. “You have seniors who live in that neighborhood. What about a sit-down breakfast restaurant where they could go and have a decent meal?”
— She recently returned from the International Shopping Center convention in Las Vegas and hints that a big-name company is set to open or expand its presence in Prince George’s. (“More on that very soon,” she teased the audience during her first State of the County address last week.)
— While the County Council appears to be solidly opposed to Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s plan to build express toll lanes on the Capital Beltway, Alsobrooks resists giving a direct opinion one way or the other.
“I don’t think anybody can dispute that something aggressive ought to happen,” she says, referring to the chronic traffic tie-ups that commuters face each day. “People want the relief. They’re just skeptical.”
She says some of the public opposition to Hogan’s road-widening plan is a reaction to the proposed high-speed Maglev train running north from Washington, D.C., through Maryland and up the eastern seaboard.
“The Maglev train is the best example of why people are skeptical,” Alsobrooks says. “The sheer disrespect of saying we think it should go from D.C. to New York in 2.2 seconds except, oops, it doesn’t stop in your community. Well, who would agree to that?”
Even while offering analysis on Hogan’s road-widening plan, Alsobrooks has avoided taking a firm position on the state’s negotiations with the Washington Redskins — amid reports that the governor was trying to win control of Oxon Cove, an environmentally sensitive parcel near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge that is owned by the federal government.
Perhaps the only hits Alsobrooks has taken since taking office revolves around her decision to bring back Major F. Riddick, a veteran of prior administrations, to serve as chief administrative officer, and Alvin Thornton to return as chair of the Board of Education.
While the two are highly regarded, her selections struck some as overly cautious. “These are not exactly change agents,” one observer quipped after the State of the County address.
But others praise Alsobrooks for mixing seasoned pros with newcomers.
“She’s got the right blend,” says M.H. “Jim” Estepp, head of the Greater Prince George’s Business Roundtable. “I’m very excited about what we’re seeing.”
“I think she’s fabulous,” says Marva Jo Camp, vice chair of the county’s Economic Development Corporation. “She has people who understand the county but then she’s brought in people who have perspective.”
No less an authority than Wayne Curry’s widow, Sheila Curry, is also an Alsobrooks fan — and is working down the hall from her, as director of stakeholder engagement for the county government.
Alsobrooks notes that Curry doesn’t need the work. Instead, she says Sheila Curry told her that “Wayne wouldn’t let me rest” if she wasn’t doing everything she could to help the county and its new executive.
Estepp, a former County Councilmember who says Alsobrooks displays “an enthusiasm that you don’t normally see in elected officials,” worries about the pull of statewide office.
But Alsobrooks, who has long heard speculation about her future, is signaling she is not about to rush back to the campaign trail.
“I have to accomplish something first,” she says. “I haven’t even earned the right, in my mind, to talk about running for some statewide office until I have performed in this job.”
“So come back in a couple years and see how I’ve done,” she adds. “That’s the standard I hold for myself.”
This is the first in series of stories called “Under New Management” on the five highly populated counties with new executives. Next week we look at Anne Arundel County.
We are grateful to the readers who suggested that we expand coverage of Maryland’s counties. If you have suggestions for coverage or news tips, please contact Josh Kurtz: [email protected]. Thank you!