Those who seek to fill the two newest Prince George’s County Council at-large seats presented their views Saturday, May 19 on public safety, taxes and health care at a forum at Greater Mt. Nebo AME Church in Bowie.
The county’s NAACP branch helped organize the discussion, which featured eight candidates who will appear on the ballot in next month’s primary election.
“A new day in Prince George’s County is about to take place with the at-large members coming on board,” said Bob Ross, president of the county’s NAACP. “They will have the whole county to cover. People run, but they don’t want to be held accountable. We need to hold everybody accountable once they get in.”
The at-large council seats has drawn the most interest with nine candidates seeking the two seats. Voters approved to amend the charter in 2016 to expand the board from nine to 11.
In addition, the charter not only allows a person to serve for two consecutive four-year terms, but also permit current council members who are term-limited to run for the new positions.
Because term limits end this year for five council members and two more seek re-election, voters could elect as many as nine new members.
Council members Mel Franklin (D-District 9) of Upper Marlboro and Karen Toles (D-District 7) of Suitland, both of whose terms expire this year, are pursuing the at-large seats.
The other six Democratic hopefuls are Juanita Culbrith-Miller, a member of the county’s Revenue Authority and former commissioner on the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission; Calvin Hawkins, a former senior adviser to Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III; Gerron S. Levi, a former state delegate from 2007-11; and political novices Melvin Johnson, Julian Lopez and Reginald Tyer.
The Maryland Board of Elections also lists Jonathan White as a Democratic candidate, but he posted on his Twitter account biography he decided to suspend his campaign.
Felicia Folarin stands as the only Republican in the race and will appear on the general election ballot. According to the state elections website, the Republican Central Committee filed March 8 on behalf of Folarin, a small-business owner.
As for Saturday’s forum, the candidates presented introductions and on public safety.
Hawkins has made helping returning citizens one of his main campaign focal points. He talked about his own armed robbery conviction more than 30 years ago and a nearly 10-year-old allegation of sexual assault and harassment.
“With so many [ex-felons] coming back and the recidivist rate shows they will be back in prison within three years, we have to tell them that they can do better,” he said after the forum. “Even with the hiccup of the 10-year-old allegation, all that is open up for discussion. You can make it.”
Johnson, a Vietnam veteran who later drove a cab to support six children, said the number one public safety concern rests on “unbridled development.”
“We are building a lot of houses, but we are not building a police force and not building enough fire departments,” he said. “Suppose someone gets a heart attack. We don’t have enough first responders to accommodate all this development in this county.”
Culbreath-Miller ranked human trafficking as the county’s most pressing public safety issue but didn’t elaborate, choosing instead to tout the county’s overall decrease in crime.
She said the new $543 million regional medical center in Largo will boost the economy and improve overall health care.
“It will bring better access to health care and specialized service,” she said. “It will boost jobs. In the long run, the hospital will be an economic engine that will drive businesses to Prince George’s County.”
Although the hospital will benefit the county in terms of health care, Levi said the overall operations and debt service must be constantly analyzed.
“It is a great opportunity,” she said. “I look forward to building things around it, but we will have to be vigilant to make sure this economic development deal works for us.”
A few differences surfaced regarding a question on how to strengthen the county’s tax base.
Franklin said his “jobs first” movement will ensure the county invests more in small and minority businesses.
“Those businesses hire our residents,” he said. “Those businesses pay taxes. If we grow our county businesses, we will grow our county tax base.”
Toles, who arrived at the forum late and left early to attend another event, said the county’s Economic Development Incentive Fund helped businesses such as Romano Vineyard and Winery in Brandywine.
“We have never had a winery in Prince George’s County,” she said. “People are coming from all over the state to spend money in our county. That’s what we can do as a council member at large to make bold moves and make bold decisions to grow our economic tax base.”
Tyer, who works at Thomas Johnson Middle School and admitted he’s “not a fan” of Baker, said the school system must improve before new businesses relocate to the county.
“It’s going to be tough for people to want to come to Prince George’s County if they do not have a thriving school system,” he said. “Until we get control of our county schools, it’s going to be real difficult.”
Lopez, a former federal agent, criticized current council members for helping to fund a new culinary arts center recently opened at Prince George’s Community College in Largo. He called it a “poverty mill” because students wouldn’t be able to receive prominent salaries after they graduate.
“It doesn’t give high-paying jobs — those are service jobs,” he said. “Why can’t we just spend those monies on a technology center? Our kids would graduate with a $90,000 salary. Shame on our County Council for approving this project. … It’s disgraceful.”