Opinion: Opening Doors to Democracy in Prince George’s

House Economic Matters Chairman Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George's). Photo by Bruce DePuyt

Democracy in Prince George’s County depends on increasing access to power outside the tightly-held approval pipeline of the county’s large donor class and elected leaders.

The last thing ordinary folks need is to let big money further into the county’s electoral sphere.

The Prince George’s County Council, in 2018, grudgingly approved a small-donor Fair Elections measure, which would enable candidates who choose not to take big-donor contributions to tap limited public funds to match modest donations from the community. But the Council delayed the program until 2026 and did not allocate money to start it.

Meanwhile, Maryland Del. Dereck E. Davis (D) continues to try to remove a ban, in place since 2012, that prohibits developers from contributing to candidates for county executive and to campaign slates including county executive candidates, if the developers have projects pending approval from county government.

Davis, a powerful committee chair from Prince George’s, sees current County Executive Angela Alsobrooks (D) as a solid candidate for governor in 2022 and has complained that she would be hamstrung as a candidate for statewide office because she can’t scoop up developer money to fuel a race.

By Davis’ account, the developer funds ban was a misguided attempt to recover from the county’s deep humiliation after former county executive Jack Johnson was convicted of corrupt “pay-to-play” practices.

Most observers would not say that Prince George’s has successfully emerged from that degraded Jack Johnson moment. The political establishment pipeline brought us many of the officials whose infamy keeps providing reminders that “pay-to-play” did not end when Jack Johnson entered prison. Three Prince George’s officials – a state delegate, a former county councilmember later elected state delegate, and a county liquor board commissioner – were caught and convicted in conspiracy-bribery schemes in the years since a judge sentenced Johnson.

A real emergence from the bad old days would come, instead, from the county accelerating election reform by moving up the effective date of the Fair Elections measure. That would allow candidates who don’t have access to wealthy donors a fair shot at winning elections on the strength of small contributions matched by public funds.

The county also needs to eliminate use of a so-called “Official Democratic Sample Ballot” that lists candidates preferred by some campaign slates or special interests, but tricks some voters into thinking those candidates are the Democratic nominees that they, as Democrats, should vote for.

The real answer to fundraising struggles that Prince George’s candidates have faced in statewide races is an improved and more robust small-dollar matching program for gubernatorial candidates. Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) used a public fund matching program to win his first term in 2014.

Alsobrooks has described the ban on developer funds as racist and discriminatory because it applies only to majority-black Prince George’s, not to any of Maryland’s other 23 jurisdictions. However, former county executive Rushern Baker, who succeeded Johnson, led the push for the ban, along with other Prince George’s politicians and community leaders of color, who saw it as demonstrating determination to put the pay-to-play past behind us.

Most of the big-money developer contributors to political campaigns here and elsewhere are not working people of color. But working people of color are the ones most shut out of influence by wealthy contributors.

Prince George’s is not out of the woods yet. Its chances to emerge into the sunlight of democracy depend more on a Fair Elections system that would enable ordinary folks to gain power electorally, than on opening the county’s door for more big money and its consequences.

— TAMARA DAVIS BROWN

The writer is a lawyer and community activist in Prince George’s County.