Over the last several years, the Muslim community in Prince George’s County, Maryland has been experiencing growing pains.
With overflowing prayer halls, double parked cars, and county zoning laws that seem like concrete walls boxing them in, masjid leaders needed to have a serious face to face with people who could help.
On Saturday, July 31, about 150 PG County Muslims sat down, face to face, with nine people who all said they were all ears.
The first candidate forum jointly organized by the Prince George’s County Muslim Council (PGCMC), Al-Huda School, and the Islamic Community Center of Laurel (ICCL) featured five candidates for the District 1 position on the PG County Council, and four candidates for State’s Attorney. The hall was packed.
The PG County Council is the 9-member legislative assembly which makes laws – including zoning laws – governing the county; each district is represented by one elected official. Both Al-Huda School and ICCL fall under District 1, currently represented by Tom Dernoga.
Dernoga must vacate his seat on the County Council due to term limits; he is now campaigning to be the next States’s Attorney for PG County, the top lawyer representing the County and managing the County office that conducts prosecutions, investigations, and litigation on behalf of PG County.
Because of Dernoga’s influential role on the PG County Council during the last few years at a time when ICCL and Al-Huda School struggled to deal with zoning and permitting issues, many Muslims were eager to hear what he had to say.
Held at Al-Huda School in College Park, Maryland, the two-hour forum was moderated by attorney Anu Kemet from the PGCMC. After the recitation of Qur’an by College Park sixth grader Tahmid Hossain, Kemet invited representatives from the two masajid in District 1 to welcome the candidates.
Board members from both masajid said they were happy the candidates responded to their invitation to participate in the forum, and emphasized the deep roots their respective congregations have in PG County. “We are looking forward to working with you towards our community goals,” said ICCL President Hayder Qaadri.
Candidates took three minutes each to introduce themselves; a front row volunteer kept time, flashing a yellow card when two minutes elapsed, and a red card signaling candidates to stop speaking.
The candidates present included Prince George’s County Council hopefuls Valerie Cunningham, Sam Epps, Mary Lehman, Fred Smalls, and Crystal Thomson, and State’s Attorney contenders Angela Alsobrooks, Tom Dernoga, Mark Spencer, Joseph Wright.
Some PG Muslims held a small fundraising dinner for State’s Attorney candidate Mark Spencer the night before the forum; the Washington Post and PG Gazette newspapers recently endorsed Alsobrooks for that position.
All the State’s Attorney candidates promoted themselves as being tough on crime, dedicated to making the county a safe place to live, and dispensing “equal justice”. All of them greeted the Muslim crowd with “assalamu’alykum” except Dernoga. Some County Council candidates also greeted the audience with “assalamu’alykum”.
Most County Council candidates promoted their dedication to service and their experience on city councils and commissions in the county. One Council candidate – retired federal prosecutor Valerie Cunningham from Laurel, used her lack of legislative experience as a plus, saying she is not part of the “political machine”.
“I was troubled seeing how many of our children transition from homes to schools to prisons .. I believe there is something we need to different in our society … our foundation needs to be reinforced,” said Cunningham, implying the foundation is a moral one aided by religious institutions.
“There is a perception that we are less than ethical in our dealing on the Prince Georges County Council .. that is something that I’ll work diligently to ensure that there is not an appearance of impropriety … we will deal ethically and honestly with those who attempt to do business in PG County,” said Cunningham, who is a member of the Ethics Commission of Laurel.
The question and answer period was the main segment of the forum, and using index cards to send in their questions, audience members quickly let candidates know their top concern.
“I have one mass of zoning questions,” Kemet said, choosing only two of the zoning related questions to ask. The first question dealt with candidates’ views on zoning restrictions on growing Muslim communities.
“I think [expansion] is great … the key is planning,” said candidate Crystal Thomson, adding everyone needs to sit down, define their needs, and then work together.
Sam Epps said no one should be left out of the discussion, and that the county must “streamline the process” for occupancy permits and site plan approvals.
Mary Lehman – endorsed by Tom Dernoga – stressed any expansion must meet standards and codes. However, she acknowledged the community’s fear of unfair treatment by zoning authorities.
“I was disturbed today when I heard from one of your members that there is a perception that [Al-Huda School] was treated differently when it came to getting your use and occupancy permit and wanting to use this space for Friday prayers … that can’t be tolerated, whether its true or not, everyone needs to be treated with respect and dignity,” said Lehman, a strong advocate for environmental causes.
Many audience members were surprised to see a bit of mudslinging at the forum. State’s Attorney Alsobrooks highlighted an embarrassing rebuff Tom Dernoga received when a Laurel church sued the County due to Dernoga’s attempts to change laws so the church couldn’t proceed with an expansion. “I think you should know [that] there was a case recently where the county was held liable for $3.7 M for religious discrimination and Mr. Dernoga was named in that case involving a church [in the county],” said Alsobooks.
When asked about their views on a law passed during the Clinton administration restoring “the general rule that state or local officials may not substantially burden religious exercise” through things like local zoning ordinances, all of the council candidates admitted they were unaware of the law. Cunningham said in general she “would support exceptions or exemptions [for worship centers]” and look at their cases “objectively”, while Mary Lehman said centers of worship shouldn’t receive preferential treatment.
“Generally, their should not be a higher standard or threshold for environmental studies, traffic impact studies … but there shouldn’t be a lower threshold either,” said Lehman.
After closing remarks, the forum wrapped up and the candidates mingled with audience members.
In small groups of threes and fours, attendees lingering in hall and the parking lot asked one another: which candidate was most favorable to growth? The only fact that was clear is – four years from now before the next election – the Muslim community will be even larger.
Another candidate forum featuring the County Executive candidates was schedule for Friday, August 6 at 6pm at the Prince George’s Muslim Association in Lanham.