Prince George's County Executive Jack Johnson Returns from Africa

Esq | 1/6/2009, 12:59 p.m.

Prince George€s County is by all accounts the wealthiest African American county in the U.S. The recent economic downturn has, however, created challenges for this affluent suburb of the nation€s capital. To confront the financial difficulty facing Prince George€s County, the County€s Executive and other leaders in the County are working together, and putting politics aside, at least for the moment.
Prince George€s County Executive Jack Johnson recently returned from a trade mission to West Africa where he and his top aides and business leaders visited Cameroon and Senegal, two African nations with stable economies and a historic connection to the majority African American population of Prince George€s County.

Prince George€s County€s Africa Trade Office organized the trade mission. Funded by a federal grant that Johnson secured with the assistance of Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the Africa Trade Office seeks to facilitate business to business relationships between companies in Prince George€s County and those in Africa. It€s been reported that the Africa Trade Office has helped Prince George€s County based businesses acquire a number of lucrative contracts with African nations and firms.

Similarly, Johnson€s recent trade mission is also expected to reap rewards. According to Johnson spokeswoman Denise Roberts, €It€s expected that 10 business deals may result from the two-week African trade mission.€

Despite the opportunities being aggressively pursued by the County Executive, some criticize Johnson for the trade mission. Critics point to the trip€s price tag, estimated at $30,000, as an unnecessary expense, particularly in light of the County€s economic crisis.

Terry L. Speigner, Chairman of the Prince George's County Democratic Central Committee disagrees. €The County Executive is absolutely correct in not waiting for opportunities to come after you,€ Speigner said. With regard to the trade mission€s expense, Speigner said that €if you have to spend tens of thousands to generate even a million dollars in business for companies paying taxes in Prince George€s County then it€s worth the investment.€

Camille Exum, District 7 Prince George€s County Council Member also concurs with the logic behind the County Executive€s Africa trade mission. €It€s a tough time, and you have to be sensitive. But you can€t stop doing the business of government,€ Exum comments. As an example, Exum references the recent trip by CEO€s of the big automotive companies who traveled to Washington, spending much more than $30,000 flying in corporate planes, in search of money. €If there are opportunities, you have to pursue them,€ Exum said.

With regard to the criticism about the budget deficit of Prince George€s county, Speigner suggests that critics need only make a comparison with the budget shortfalls of neighboring jurisdictions such as Fairfax County or even the State of Maryland.

According to Speigner, the Maryland state government €is looking at a $2 billion shortfall with very little resources.€ Speigner adds, €In the County, which heavily depends on tax assessment on property, at a time when property not selling, and home foreclosures are at a record high, it is actually to the County and the County Executive€s credit that the budget deficit is not in excess of $100 million.€

Prince George€s County€s good economic position, relative to that of neighboring jurisdictions, is no accident according to Exum. €We have worked very hard to stay on top of the budget deficit.€ Exum notes that the County was the first in the region, back in July, to realize it was facing a projected deficit and thereafter the Council and County Executive worked in collaboration to make the tough decisions to rectify the deficit.

County Executive Johnson is also collaborating with the County€s delegation in the Maryland General Assembly. According to Delegate Aisha Braveboy, who represents Central Prince George€s County, she and her colleagues joined with the County Executive to press Maryland Governor Martin O€Malley (D) for funds for road projects.

The County Executive and the County€s representatives in Annapolis are also teaming to identify €shovel ready€ road and infrastructure projects for inclusion in the federal stimulus package now being developed by President-elect Barack Obama. All in all, €He [Johnson] is laying the foundation for development that will have its real impact on Prince George€s County in the future, in the next 10-20 years€ predicts Braveboy.

In celebration of the County€s future and its historic role in electing the first African American President, Johnson and other County leaders are hosting an inaugural ball on Jan. 20. Billed as €The Ancestors Dream Inaugural Ball€ is set to take place at the Gaylord National Resort along the National Harbor. Tickets for the event are $200 and can be obtained by visiting www.pgcpic.org.

Upwards of 3000 people from across Prince George€s County are expected to participate. Exum, who serves on the organizing committee, believes that this event is another example of the County€s political leadership working together to stimulate the economy and keep the county€s wealth circulating within its borders.

Talib I. Karim is an attorney focusing on health care, energy, and other public policy matters. He€s available by email at tkarim@teclawgroup.com.