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Eight Dems vie for first-ever at-large council seats

Elections VOTEGLENN DALE — The Prince George's County Council will grow by two seats after the upcoming November election, but while the positions may be new to the county, most of the candidates running for them are not strangers to county politics.

In fact, that is the very angle that at least two of the candidates are coming at the primary election with and they both already hold seats on the council. District 7 Councilwoman Karen Toles and District 9 Councilman Mel Franklin are both looking to come back to the council next year, despite being term-limited in their district seats.

Toles said she decided to enter the race after a number of her constituents asked her to consider continuing her work on the council.

“The people of Prince George's County asked me to run. They said you've done a lot of great work in District 7 and you have a heart full of gold,” she said.

She hopes to focus on continued economic development, particularly at underdeveloped Metro stations, working with federal partners to bring more jobs to the county and continuing her work on public safety - particularly in community policing.

Franklin is also running on his experience on the council and said he has a “calling for public service.” Although he has served as the District 9 councilman for the past two terms, he spent two years as the council chair, which he said is already an at-large appointment.

His slogan is “social change through economic empowerment,” and he plans to use the at-large seat to make the county a world destination by propping up minority businesses and “investing in the things that matter” such as public schools, public transportation and services for seniors and youth.

“I truly believe experience plus fresh ideas equals visions,” he said.

The residents of Prince George's County gave both Franklin and Toles, as well as the rest of the council, the opportunity to seek terms outside of their district seats last year when they voted to pass Question D.

The question, which asked if there should be two at-large seats added to the council, was met with fierce debate throughout Prince George's as some feared it would help politicians circumvent term limits. Others argued the at-large seats would give the council new leaders with a more holistic view of the county to match the district-focused members of the current council. The estimated cost of the new seats and their offices is around $1 million.

Now, nine have put their name in for consideration for the seats, with eight Democrats and one Republican running. The Prince George's County Democratic Central Committee hosted a Democratic forum on April 17 at Reid Temple AME Church in Glenn Dale where new idealists and seasoned politicians went head-to-head.

Julian Lopez, one of the lesser-known candidates for the at-large seat, is focusing his campaign largely on eliminating corruption in county government.

“There are a lot of problems here in Prince George's County, and not a lot of folks are talking about them,” he said.

Lopez, a former federal agent, wants the county council to focus on honest government, improving the education system by turning around the department of corrections and using the saved funds for schools, and turning the county in a “premier retirement destination.”

Reginald Tyer, another newcomer to county politics, also harped on several discrepancies he sees in the current county government. As an educator and employee of Prince George's County Public Schools he said his focus is largely on restoring public trust and honesty in government.

“A lot of these folks (running for these seats) have been in politics for many years, but they have failed to recognize that schools should always be the first priority because, at the end of the day, our children come first,” he said.

He has a personal stake in veteran supports, domestic violence and mental health services and said those issues are among his top priorities.

While the fresher faces are pushed against the current status quo and insisted new faces and ideas necessary on the council, former countywide politicians largely make up the at-large ticket.

Juanita Culbreath-Miller, a former educator, and educational administrator believes her professional experience is proof of her qualification for the job. She has served as a state delegate for legislative district 25, was a Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) Commissioner and sat on several other boards and committees.

“We have deficits because there is no accountability. There's been no consistency in terms of how we itemize and items in the budget have not be scrutinized,” Culbreath-Miller said.

The branding of county schools is another large focus of her campaign, which she said she will address through replicating successful programs, funding the classrooms and cutting through school bureaucracy.  

For the last 23 years, Calvin Hawkins has largely been a behind-the-scenes man in county government, working under two county executives and with several iterations of the county council.

“I have a perspective on where we need to go, from the northern part of the county to the central part of the county to the southern part. I've listened to you. I’ve heard your concerns,” he said.

Hawkins said he is running to “take the people's issues to the council” and would focus his time on the council on addressing the county's structural deficit.

Gerron Levi is another former state delegate running for the at-large seat. She represented legislative district 23A from 2007 to 2011 and is now a lawyer and federal lobbyist in Washington, D.C. working on federal bank regulation and affordable housing issues. She created a “Levi Pledge” for her campaign, saying she will “hold the line” on the county's property tax rate.

“I'm going to be laser-focused on restoring value for homeowners in the county and also working on county services, including those for veterans and seniors,” Levi said.

Her other priorities include improving education, transit-oriented economic development, and good, quality jobs.  

For Melvin Johnson, a nearly 50-year resident of Prince George's County, this campaign is all about ensuring his grandchildren have opportunities in the county. “The county has been growing leaps and bounds, but I worry about, if something happens to me, how long it is going to take an ambulance to get to me,” Johnson said.

The primary election is on June 26. Early voting begins June 14 and ends June 21.

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