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A local economic development event with statewide political overtones

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A local economic development event with statewide political overtones

Jun 13, 2024 | 6:12 pm ET
By Josh Kurtz
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A local economic development event with statewide political overtones
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Prince George's County Executive Angela Alsobrooks, second from left, greets Maryland Hospital Association President Melony Griffith,left, and others at an event Thursday at National Harbor on the county's economic future. Photo by Josh Kurtz.

The Prince George’s County executive’s annual “State of the Economy” address has for decades been one of the biggest events on county leaders’ calendars, and Thursday morning’s was no different, drawing more than 400 people to the big ballroom at the MGM casino at National Harbor.

But when the county executive is also the Democratic nominee in a competitive U.S. Senate election that’s drawing nationwide attention, implications and expectations are different.

County Executive Angela Alsobrooks (D) herself made no mention of the ongoing Senate campaign Thursday, but she was the rare exception. The event even drew a “prebuttal” of sorts from her Republican opponent, former Gov. Larry Hogan, who suggested that Alsobrooks’ priorities would lead to higher taxes and a more sluggish economy.

But Alsobrooks’ supporters said the gathering was an opportunity for the county executive, on a big stage, to spotlight her record, tout her accomplishments and put it all in the context of her statewide pitch to voters. The glossy program for the event featured a large photo of the smiling county executive on the cover.

“This is one of the places where she can highlight some of the successes she’s had as county executive,” County Council President Jolene Ivey (D) said in an interview. “This is the place to be for anyone who cares about economic development.”

Ivey in her own speech at the breakfast referred to Alsobrooks as “our future senator” — a statement that drew whoops of approval from the crowd — and took a few partisan jabs at Hogan. She noted that Hogan as governor insisted that the county reduce the number of beds slated for the new University of Maryland Capital Region Medical Center in Largo. Hogan, “who despite growing up in this county thought it was appropriate to cut the number of beds in this county — thanks, Larry.”

Ivey also praised the work of the man Alsobrooks and Hogan are hoping to replace next year — departing U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D), who once was Ivey’s boss. “He has built a reliable infrastructure for Team Maryland to build on — as long as we keep Team Maryland blue,” she said.

There were other, more neutral references to Alsobrooks’ Senate candidacy from the stage Thursday.

M.H. “Jim” Estepp, the president of the Greater Prince George’s County Business Roundtable, warmed up the audience by saying, “We’re here to hear from our county executive, who’s been a little bit busy lately, I understand, traversing the state.” He later observed that “her future is our future.” And David Iannucci, the president and CEO of the Prince George’s County Economic Development Corp., said, “now we celebrate County Executive Angela Alsobrooks, who is on the path to even greater things.”

But Alsobrooks did not want to talk about herself. In a speech that lasted more than 20 minutes, the county executive showered praise on local elected officials, business executives and community leaders — she called them “Team Prince George’s” — and focused on the county’s future instead of her own.

“Prince George’s County is the single best place to live and work, the best place to raise a family, and the best place to start a business in the national capital region,” she said. “And I do know that it’s our time.”

Alsobrooks ticked off an array of policy initiatives and funding victories, from better health care services to more transit-oriented development, from more county help for mom-and-pop entrepreneurs to a number of new school buildings under construction.

A local economic development event with statewide political overtones
The program featuring Prince George’s County Executive’s Angela Alsobrooks’ image.

But clearly she and other Prince George’s leaders see the federal government’s decision to move the FBI headquarters from downtown Washington, D.C., to Greenbelt as the catalyst for the most optimism — and biggest potential economic opportunity — in the county. Alsobrooks compared it to the federal government’s decision to build the Pentagon in Northern Virginia and the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda during the 1940s.

“That’s why Bethesda flourishes,” she said. “NIH drives an entire economic ecosystem” that includes government contractors and corporate headquarters for Marriott and Clark Construction.

Alsobrooks asserted that the looming federal investments in the county are overdue and that they represent “a transformative opportunity” for the county.

“The FBI headquarters will reshape our community for centuries,” she said. “As the FBI grows, so will a network of startups and contractors.”

The years-long effort to lure the FBI to Maryland involved an array of elected officials at the federal, state and local levels — including Hogan, when he was governor. But Iannucci suggested Alsobrooks’ contention that putting the headquarters in Prince George’s was a question of equity was the most compelling and persuasive argument.

“This is the most expansive economic development project in the history of the United States of America,” he said. “It will literally change the economy of Prince George’s County. And the equity issue was the game changer. County Executive Alsobrooks showed everyone the difference between diversity and equity.”

The only obliquely partisan reference Alsobrooks may have made during her speech came when she praised Hogan’s successor, Democratic Gov. Wes Moore, for jump-starting the stalled Purple Line light rail project that connects Bethesda to New Carrollton, though it was plagued by massive cost overruns. And in a roomful of political insiders who are already obsessing over who will replace Alsobrooks whenever she leaves office — whether she’s elected to the Senate in November or when her term ends in 2026 — Alsobrooks did give a nod to the notion that she won’t be county executive forever.

“I’m calling on leaders in government, the private sector and the community to keep moving forward,” she said. “Together, we have a century of growth to plan for.”

Former Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker (D), Alsobrooks’ immediate predecessor, said the county executive struck just the right balance in her presentation.

“I thought it was a really good county executive speech and an even better U.S. Senate speech,” Baker said in an interview. “I love the way she intertwined all of that and made it about the county, so nobody left here with the impression that she’s focused on anything else, because that’s really important.”

Baker knows a thing or two about delivering a “state of the economy” address while running for statewide office. His last economic development speech came as he was competing in the 2018 Democratic primary for governor to take on Hogan in the general election. Baker acknowledged that preparing the speech is a different exercise under those circumstances.

“I was very conscious about projecting for the county but also about promoting this county’s role in the state,” he said, adding that he was careful not to mention Hogan during that 2018 speech, “even though we were impacted by his policies.”

Hogan: Prince George’s ‘faces a skyrocketing deficit’

Hogan himself, in a Facebook post Wednesday night ahead of Alsobrooks’ speech, wrote: “Under the leadership of County Executive Alsobrooks, Prince George’s County faces a skyrocketing deficit that is projected to grow to $387 million. As a result, the county’s financial outlook was recently downgraded, and she is openly discussing raising taxes on her constituents. The last thing they need right now is higher taxes.”

Hogan also called on Alsobrooks to pledge not to raise federal taxes “as she seeks a promotion” to the Senate.

Hogan has already signaled that whatever narrative Alsobrooks plans to advance about her record in Prince George’s, he sees the county’s crime rate and up-and-down school system as fertile areas of attack for his campaign.

Earlier this week, Hogan expressed regret on social media that the Prince George’s County Fair was being canceled this year due to a lack of volunteers. While the fair is operated by a private nonprofit that is not controlled by county government, Hogan’s lamentation could be seen as an indirect attack on local leaders like Alsobrooks.

But Thursday also came with reminders that all politics is not local in a U.S. Senate election.

Politico reported that a conservative group called Americans for Public Trust had filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, maintaining that Alsobrooks improperly used funds from her state campaign account to launch her Senate bid; the Alsobrooks campaign denied the accusation.

The U.S. Supreme Court decision Thursday to reject attempts to limit access to the abortion pill mifepristone prompted a speedy response from Alsobrooks, who has made preserving abortion rights a major part of her campaign message. Hogan, who recently labeled himself “a pro-choice candidate” on abortion, also released a statement supportive of the ruling through a spokesperson.

And when a Fox News reporter on Capitol Hill tweeted Thursday that former President Donald Trump supports Hogan’s Senate bid, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee promptly responded with a one sentence statement: “Donald Trump wants Republican Larry Hogan in the Senate.”