- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 16, 2006

On Wednesday morning, WUSA-Channel 9 held a live televised debate of the D.C. mayor’s race. While the cameras reflected the most obvious commonality shared among the candidates (they all are black), the candidates failed to show conservative viewers any distinctive idea of what they would do as mayor. Guess that’s what happens when all the candidates are Democrats. The opposite is happening in the District’s Ward 9.

The tectonic shift is in nearby Prince George’s County, home to much of Washington’s former middle class.

Both whites and blacks began fleeing to the suburbs immediately after the 1954 school desegregation order and continued to do so after following the 1968 riots (and the assassination of Martin Luther King). The numbers steadily rose even as Congress and progressives debated whether to grant D.C. residents self-determination or make the whole lot of us part of Maryland during the 1970s.

Thanks to the progressives (and The Washington Post), we D.C. voters remain stuck between a rock and a very hard place called home rule.

Here’s the Prince George’s population spurts: 1950, 200,000; 1960, 380,000; 1970-1980, 650,000; 2000, 801,000.

The irony in all this is that the progressives and Congress are yet again debating what to do with D.C., while Prince George’s — the County that Barry Built, as a longtime editor friend of mine calls it — is, seven months out from the primaries, shaping up to be the battleground in Maryland politics.

That’s not such a bad spot to be in, either.

Prince George’s, or PG, as we outsiders call it, owes much to D.C. voters and congressional Democrats: Voters because they consistently elected Democratic mayors and ignored practically all signs that showed the city was going down the toilet; and Democrats on Capitol Hill because no matter how much things worsened in the city, the Democrats, who were in the majority, kept giving City Hall more and more money without holding City Hall — and the Board of Education, for that matter — accountable.

In the interim, black professionals hired by the Barry administrations fled to PG, and teachers, firefighters and law enforcers were in pursuit of other environs.

Those folk didn’t mind being on the city’s payroll; they just didn’t want to pay D.C. taxes or raise their families here. I call them the bouncing Democrats.

Now, PG residents are in another comfort zone. In 1994, while Republicans laid back and let D.C. Democrats elect Marion Barry to a fourth term, PG, where blacks had long been in the majority, elected its first black county executive — a Democrat named Wayne Curry, who served two four-year terms. Indeed, middle-class blacks had long lived in PG communities that ringed the Beltway and rural areas that lacked plumbing. But as the D.C. government grew by leaps and bounds throughout the 1980s and 1990s, so did PG.

Both the Democratic Party, which has a 2-1 edge in registered voters in Maryland, and the Republican Party, which made huge inroads in 2002 with Bob Ehrlich winning the gubernatorial race and elevating Lt. Gov. Michael Steele as the first black to win a statewide contest, have considerable stakes in this year’s Maryland elections.

Prince George’s County is key for more than one reason. No. 1, it is the Free State’s second-most-populous county (801,000). No. 2, it has more registered Democrats than any other Maryland jurisdiction (319,000). And perhaps most important of all, because of No. 1 and No. 2, there is the likelihood that Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. Steele could lose without significant support from PG voters.

Is this a black vs. white issue? Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, who is white, certainly seems to think so. Mr. O’Malley, who has nothing to brag about when it comes to Baltimore’s lousy schools and high crime rates, tapped some time ago a Democrat from Prince George’s to run as lieutenant governor. Another Democratic candidate for governor, Doug Duncan, who is the chief executive of Maryland’s most-populous county, Montgomery, has not ruled out having a black running mate. The sitting governor, Mr. Ehrlich, said earlier this week that he’s so preoccupied trying to stop “leftward, full-court press of the Democratic Party” in the General Assembly, he won’t likely focus on a running mate until the legislature winds down in April.

Interesting were comments made by one Richard Vatz, a professor of communications and political rhetoric at Towson University. Mr. Vatz told S.A. Miller of The Washington Times: “I don’t know who Ehrlich will pick, but I do know that it won’t be a white man.” Hmm.

There’s talk that that non-white-man running mate could be a white woman or a black man — perhaps out of Baltimore or Prince George’s. One name that has surfaced in Prince George’s is Wayne Curry. Will he bite? Will he switch parties and run with Bob Ehrlich?

One native of PG — Michael Steele — is running in the race of all races. Mr. Steele is a winner, and his chief Democratic opponents know he’s a winner. In November, Mr. Steele and Kweisi Mfume, who stepped away from his congressional seat to run the NAACP, were neck-and-neck in the Senate race, while Ben Cardin had a 49 percent to 41 percent lead over Mr. Steele, Rasmussen Reports said last month. “[Mr. Steele] now leads Cardin 45 percent to 40 percent and Mfume 45 percent to 38 percent,” Rasmussen said.

Maryland remains true blue to the Democrats, but there does appear to be a new dynamic at work, and Prince George’s County, with its bouncing Democrats, just might be the jurisdiction this year where red and blue make purple.

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