- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 5, 2002

The five Democratic candidates for Prince George's County executive squared off in a debate yesterday, though all agreed that the perennially troubled school system and police department would need to be fixed for the county to improve its image.
Four of the candidates were late for the debate, broadcast on WTOP radio, because they were stuck in traffic which they said was a bigger problem in the District than in Prince George's County, where the main issues are education, police and economic development.
"We need to stop fighting and come together for the kids," said Major F. Riddick, 51, the county's former chief administrator, who went to Annapolis as chief of staff with Gov. Parris N. Glendening.
When asked what they would do about the school board, whose elected members were replaced by appointees, most of the candidates said they favored elected officials.
Delegate Rushern L. Baker III, 43, said he expects a return to school board elections. County Council member M.H. Jim Estepp, 60, was opposed to the appointments. And the Rev. C. Anthony Muse, 44, said the county executive should have more control over the budget to reduce class sizes and "go back to the basics of reading and writing."
The police department which has been under federal investigation for civil rights violations and has had several police shootings in recent years also was a topic of debate.
Several candidates said they would spend some of the $100 million budget surplus to make improvements to the department.
Mr. Estepp said he would hire 100 more police officers, improve training programs and possibly hire a new chief of the fire department.
Mr. Riddick would like to increase commercial and retail developments, an effort he hopes would lead to more available taxes, and hire more police and fire officers.
State's Attorney Jack Johnson, 53, also would fill 100 police vacancies, but he would concentrate more on keeping school teachers, because "education is critical."
Arguments over the school board and the police department have been racially charged, but all the candidates said race would not play a role in electing the next executive.
"Race is not an issue," said Mr. Estepp, the sole white candidate.
Mr. Riddick emphasized the need for good administrators working together to improve the county.
The key, they said, is that the county executive must be able to work with a diverse population, which is something Mr. Baker and Mr. Johnson said they have proven they can do.
Mr. Johnson is considered the front-runner because he is the only one to have run in countywide elections.
But his fractious relationship with the police department has cost him the support of the police union, which has rallied behind Mr. Estepp.
Critics also point out that Mr. Johnson's office has lost six police-misconduct court cases, but he defended his record.
"I have two people on death row. I have 270 convictions on the charge of murder," Mr. Johnson said.
He then explained that the six police defendants had waived jury trials, and judges had dismissed the cases.
The candidates also discussed other ways to improve the county.
"There is an opportunity here" to bring businesses, communities and government together, Mr. Baker said.
Mr. Estepp said the county's leadership image has been generally good throughout the state, but "regionally, we have not been the leader."
"I believe in Prince George's County. I love Prince George's County. Thousands of young people are doing well," Mr. Johnson said. "We need to build up and not tear down."
Mr. Estepp said he would establish an Office of Consumer Protection, mainly because "we are paying the highest car-insurance premiums."
Candidates expressed their desire for the endorsement of County Executive Wayne K. Curry, who cannot seek re-election because of term limits.

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