Josh Kurtz: Forget Prince George’s – Check Out King Charles for Political Intrigue

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By: Josh Kurtz 

Middleton’s Cedar Hill Farm is a bucolic oasis in Waldorf just a few feet away from the roaring traffic of Route 5 -- 300 acres of working farmland that the Middleton family has owned since the 1660’s.

It is operated these days by state Sen. Mac Middleton (D), the chairman of the Finance Committee, a powerhouse in Annapolis and a fixture on the local political scene for more than 30 years.

But agriculture is fading quickly from the Charles County landscape. And so is the brand of politics that Middleton has practiced all these years – down-home, neighborly, with a decidedly rural bent – even as he remains, at age 68, the county’s pre-eminent political leader.

Nowhere in Maryland is change – physical, sociological, economic and political – happening faster than in Charles County. Once the most prominent leg of the three-county Southern Maryland stool, Charles is now something else – far more like Prince George’s County, its neighbor to the north, than the other Southern Maryland counties, Calvert and St. Mary’s, which remain rural outposts and are, increasingly, Republican strongholds.

Charles County’s population has grown rapidly in the past couple of decades, and as of 2012 was more than 42 percent black. African-Americans by most estimates now represent more than half of all registered Democrats. To see how Democratic Charles County has become in just a decade and a half, consider that Bill Clinton took 44 percent of the vote there in 1996 while Barack Obama won 65 percent in the last White House election.

But the changing racial complexion of the county isn’t the only thing roiling its politics. As in any jurisdiction that is changing from rural to suburban, there are huge tensions between pro-growth and slow-growth forces. Old-timers are resentful of newcomers, and vice-versa. The place is still small enough where relationships – and political personalities, and shifting alliances – matter.

Democratic primaries in Charles County have been close and contentious for the past few election cycles. This year things seem even more acrimonious – and a lot of the jockeying now has plenty to do with ambitious politicians positioning themselves to succeed Middleton sometime down the line.

The biggest jolt was a political switcheroo – which may or may not have been orchestrated in advance – that went down in January, when state Del. Peter Murphy (D), who everyone had been expecting to seek reelection, announced that he was running instead for president of the County Commission. The outgoing commission president, Candice Quinn Kelly (D), who three months earlier had said she wanted a break from politics, immediately jumped into the House race.

Suddenly, two sleepy primaries had been transformed. It was widely assumed that the three incumbent delegates – Murphy, Sally Jameson and C.T. Wilson, each of whom has different bases and political strengths – would run together on a slate with Middleton and coast to reelection with just token opposition. And poised to succeed Kelly as commission president – and make history as the commission’s first African-American to hold that post -- was Commissioner Reuben Collins (D), who was running with Middleton’s endorsement.

Instead, there is now a top-tier Democratic primary fight for commission president between Collins and Murphy, who is white. And instead of a cakewalk for incumbents, there’s a five-way primary race for the three District 28 House seats, featuring incumbents Jameson and Wilson, plus Kelly, Realtor John Coller, and former County Commissioner Edith Patterson – who lost to Kelly by just 114 votes in the 2010 Democratic primary for County Commission president.

Kelly’s feuds with fellow officeholders have become fodder for the campaign. Kelly had been trying to obtain records that Collins and County Commissioner Debra Davis had submitted to county offices outlining their use of county-owned SUV’s (Collins and Davis are the only black members of the five-member commission – and apparently the only two currently using county-owned vehicles).

Kelly was rebuffed, so her former campaign manager filed a public records request to get the information, and later sued the county. Just last week, after a testy court hearing, a retired Prince George’s judge who was presiding over the case ruled that the records should be made public, but according to the Maryland Independent, he took note of some of the personal divisiveness driving the dispute.

This was not the first time that county-owned vehicles have produced controversy. In 2011, Kelly acquired a county employee’s tax form in what she described as an inquiry into the use of the vehicles. Charles County State’s Attorney Tony Covington (D) launched an investigation amid suggestions that Kelly had obtained the information improperly. While he did not press charges, news of the investigation was made public, and grand jury documents were released earlier this year. Two weeks ago, Kelly hit Covington with a defamation lawsuit, accusing him of abusing his powers.

To say that Kelly does not always endear herself to her fellow officeholders may be an understatement. Additionally, and this could become an issue in a Democratic primary, she used to be a Republican – and served on the commission on an interim basis as a Republican, before losing a bid for a full term in 2006. Four years later, she made a political comeback, winning the president’s race as a Democrat.

Meanwhile, the race to replace Kelly as commission president is heating up – with slow-growth forces largely lining up behind Murphy, and business groups, like the Southern Maryland Association of Realtors, backing Collins.

Race has not factored overtly in the primary. But Murphy’s big campaign signs feature his picture and the phrase “Coming Home,” as if to suggest he’s coming home from Annapolis to save the county. Collins held a fundraiser last month headlined by Greg Boyer – a well-admired jazz and funk trombonist who grew up in Charles County and has played with George Clinton, Prince and Chuck Brown, among many others.

Handicapping this race is no easy feat, and through May 20, neither had raised a ton of money. Collins, a lawyer, did himself no favors when he was popped for DUI earlier this year – right around the same time that Murphy was jumping into the race. He pleaded guilty, with probation before judgment, in April.

Most of the other primaries for County Commission seats are also competitive. One of them is a grudge match between Commissioner Ken Robinson (D), who, with his Phil Spector-like hair, is a regular at Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown’s campaign events, and former Commissioner Sam Graves (D), whom Robinson ousted four years ago, primarily by running on a slow-growth platform.

But probably none of the county or legislative races approach the toxicity of the Democratic primary for Charles County sheriff. That race features two-term incumbent Rex Coffey, who is white, against Troy Berry, a black lieutenant in the Sheriff’s Department who maintains he was demoted by Coffey in 2010 for investigating officers that were close to the sheriff. The Fraternal Order of Police, which, in a vote last year, fell just six votes short of declaring no confidence in Coffey, has endorsed Berry.

Earlier this year, The Maryland Independent reported that Coffey’s right-hand man, Maj. Buddy Gibson, had launched websites with URL’s similar to Berry’s – designed to confuse voters looking for Berry’s websites. Four years ago, Coffey’s unsuccessful Democratic primary challenger accused Gibson of being a patronage hire unworthy of such a high-ranking position.

And several weeks ago, Coffey was hit by the release of a video, taken from a police cruiser, showing him and some of his top officers dragging a motorist out of his truck at around 2 o’clock one October morning. A police captain blocks the camera as the officers pull the motorist, who was accused of speeding and reckless driving, farther away from the truck. Charges were later dropped against the motorist, but a lawyer has told the Maryland Independent that the truck driver believes that the police used excessive force, and that he is likely to sue.

It was of small comfort to African-American voters that the motorist in the video was white. Berry – like many other black politicians in Charles County – is displaying his picture prominently on his campaign signs.

How this all shakes out on June 24 is anybody’s guess. But anyone interested in Maryland politics ought to be watching closely. The results will say a lot about the Charles County of the present – and the Charles County of the post-Mac Middleton future.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.