Elected leaders are pushing voters to end term limits in Prince George’s County, while neighboring Montgomery County voters are considering imposing such limits for the first time.
The two jurisdictions could be heading in different directions, depending on voters’ reactions to ballot questions appearing in each county Nov. 7.
Though the bipartisan issue rose in both suburban Maryland localities at the same time, the circumstances that led to the initiatives are unique to each.
In 1992, a grass-roots coalition of Prince George’s residents seeking to remove “lifetime politicians” collected more than 18,000 signatures to put the term-limits measure before county voters. It passed, 51 percent to 49 percent.
With elected leaders limited to two four-year terms, seven of nine council members, along with County Executive Wayne K. Curry, would be prevented from running for re-election in 2002.
That prompted Isaac Gourdine, one of those council members, to propose the repeal before the council’s Committee of the Whole in June.
“I don’t think it’s good for the democratic process,” Mr. Gourdine, Fort Washington Democrat, said at the time. “I think we need stability.”
He could not muster enough support, but the issue re-emerged a month later and the full council voted to place the initiative on the ballot.
“I’m very opposed to the repeal of term limits by the council putting it on the ballot,” said Audrey Scott, Bowie Republican, whose second term expires in two years.
“It’s not an issue of whether or not term limits are good or bad. The issue is who put it on the ballot and who will benefit. That’s totally different than what they’re doing in Montgomery County.”
Mr. Curry, a Democrat, quietly supports the repeal, and U.S. Reps. Steny H. Hoyer and Albert R. Wynn, both Maryland Democrats, have given their endorsements.
The issue took an added turn when proponents of repeal told the black community this week that they would lose out if term limits remain. Of the seven council members finishing their second term, four are black, as is Mr. Curry.
“We are just beginning to build up a cadre of African-American elected officials who know the ins and outs of county government,” state Delegate Rushern L. Baker, a Democrat who is heading the repeal effort, said in a press release.
Mr. Baker asserted that black residents making up about 60 percent of the county’s population now have the numbers to oppose the white voters who pushed for term limits in 1992.
Michael Steele, co-chairman of the Keep Term Limits Coalition, said playing the race card is wrong, especially because black leaders could very well be replaced by other black leaders.
“They disrespect the people of this county, and they don’t give them enough credit,” said Mr. Steele, who is black.
Mr. Steele, whose organization has raised about $5,000 so far, mostly from private $5 and $10 donations, also called the ballot language confusing. There are actually two questions, one for county executive and the other regarding the council.
Both sides will be waging a war of lawn signs and mailings leading up to the election. Advocates of repeal, who call themselves the Committee to Restore Democracy, have raised $11,000 as of Oct. 22.
The Montgomery County ballot question is the work of former state delegate Robin Ficker, who also seeks to limit leaders to two four-year terms. He gathered 14,000 signatures far more than the 10,000 necessary to place an item on the ballot.
Mr. Ficker has been seen placing his green signs promoting fresh ideas and an end to gridlock on light poles and roadway medians.
“If [elected officials] haven’t done anything in eight to 16 years except to add new development that contributes to gridlock why would you have hope that they will?” asked Mr. Ficker, who lost the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in March.
He referred to his detractors as “a bunch of white people in Rockville who want to protect their own turf.”
“If there’s a racial argument to be made, it’s in Montgomery County,” where the composition of the county council does not reflect Montgomery’s great and growing diversity, Mr. Ficker said.
Only one person on the nine-member Montgomery County Council isn’t white longtime member Isiah Leggett, a Democrat. Mr. Leggett, who is black, opposes term limits.
I. Dean Ahmad, president of the Montgomery County Civic Federation, said the issue goes beyond Mr. Ficker, a perennial petitioner for charter amendments.
“He is pushing something that a significant number of people want,” said Mr. Ahmad. “I can’t tell you if they’re a majority or a minority.”
The federation, he added, took no position because members were split evenly on the issue.
Opponents of term limits, including U.S. Rep. Constance A. Morella, a seven-term Republican who represents most of Montgomery County, formed a group called Citizens for Voter Choice to run aground the initiative.
“I believe in the people, and I trust the people” to make decisions about who should be returned to office, Mrs. Morella said amid Democrats and Republicans gathered at the Board of Elections in Rockville earlier this month.
The newest member of the council, Howard Denis, rattled off names of presidents, senators and local leaders who have been ousted from office by astute voters, not term limits.
Montgomery County, he noted, has had five county executives since 1970.
“What it really is is limitations on voter choice,” said Mr. Denis, Bethesda Republican.
County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a Democrat, supports a three-term limit, but not the Ficker amendment.
Mr. Ficker has successfully put 17 questions on the Montgomery County ballot through the years. Thirteen of them have been defeated.
Margie Hyslop contributed to this article.