Newspapers die; Jack B. Johnson survives

(This is the second of a four-part memoir of journalist Timothy W. Maier’s career covering Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson and then working for the county as a media contractor.)

When the Baltimore Examiner newspaper closed its doors, it impacted as many 100 employees and hundreds of freelance stringers.  Many struggled for months – some for years to get jobs that paid liveable wages.  We were once a lifeline for new talent as well as seasoned journalists including Michael Olesker who got a second chance with us.

Jobs were not easy to come by for  journalists. Dead newspaper websites popped up and new online ventures were launched.  Many of those online sites died or laid dormant like a newspaper. Some of us got together weekly to share our daily existence at Café Hon. Conversation drifted from doing household chores to discussing obituaries on the latest sports hero of our generation. And Olesker could tell plenty of stories that drifted from Howard Cosell calling Baltimore the worst sports town in America or stories of our beloved Colts or stories of Brooks and Frank and those magnificent O’s under the  Weaver regime.

Bitterness still was there.  At what point should a company tell you, it’s over, or they are looking for a buyer? It’s always too late. Companies expect employees to give them notices or long-term notices of missing work for an extended period of time, but  in the corporate world it’s not a reciprocal agreement.

When companies lay off, they don’t do a lot to try to help ex-employees find work, but they spend a lot a time fighting you on severance packages. Few  corporate executives realize that when you  lay off someone – you aren’t just laying off that person – you really are laying off families and impacting kids. At the Examiner some of the employees had children who were being treated for cancer and now their insurance was gone.

No one was stepping forward in the Great Recession like they did when 9-11 happened.  When the terrorists attacked, we all wanted to help.  Even Dan Rather said on Sept. 17, 2001 just ‘tell me where to line up,” in his patriotic speech. We raised flags, pledged money, held prayer vigils and gave blood. We had a country of saviors.

But when the Great Recession happened we went to into a mass depression.

Back to Work

Let me first say, I am no savoir. But I decided maybe I could help in a small way – maybe a way to mask my own private depression. I started a “Back to Work” group,  and worked hard to help people find work.

I held seminars at Bethany Church in Laurel, and started doing free resumes at Starbucks. I was convinced everyone at Starbucks had to be unemployed but still managed to fork over three or four bucks for a specialty coffee. Some habits are hard to break. It got a little crazy at times, especially when one particular 60-year-old gentleman who attended my seminars said he never had a job except for one weekend where he tried some construction gig. Asked what he does now, he responded:

“I’m a professional pan-handler. I like the hours and I like working outside and I can work when I want.”

Besides, he said, he plans on collecting Social Security in a few years and retire. He never filled out 1040s, and when I told him there could be some problems with getting that check, he stopped talking and had a look on his face that suggested he threw away decades of his life.

The Back to Work Group was a time-consuming effort.  Problem was – I wasn’t making any money. Everything I did was free. I was spending my own money, my own time to help others get work. I couldn’t charge people for doing resumes. I know several companies that do that, how can you charge people to do resumes when they are in jeopardy of losing their house? I just wanted to “Put People First.”

It was that “Put People First” slogan that I carried with me when I decided to talk to Jim Keary, Jack Johnson’s top spokesman about working for the county executive as a freelance media consultant.

That slogan would become Jack Johnson’s calling card when I wrote speeches, and biographies, and promoted the county executive during my year in his administration as a contractual media specialist. Johnson prided himself on doing an image makeover for the county, and my responsibility was going to be in very subtle ways to do an image make0ver of Johnson.

Johnson welcomed me and told me he should have hired me years ago. In fact, prior to becoming county executive, he had asked me to come to work for him as his spokesman. But I never followed up on it at the time, and Jim Keary beat me to it.

I knew Keary for years as a journalist when we were stuffed inside cubicles in Upper Marboro – separated by cheap walls in the mid 1990s.  Our offices were adjacent to each other – and not much bigger than an elevator. Keary was a reporter for the Washington Times while I worked as an investigative reporter for the Prince George’s Journal. He left the Times when the metro section was faltering and joined Johnson when he became county executive.

Keary  put a tentative offer on the table, but couldn’t push it through until he got some proper approvals – including making sure Johnson approved of the hire. I wouldn’t technically be working under Johnson but in another department and I would be doing social media campaigns, newsletters, writing speeches, drafting social media policies for legal, and writing biographies and reviewing press releases as well as sitting in on press calls. I answered to Keary. In  his office, he’d have a task order list of things he wanted me to accomplish stuffed in metal trays attached to a wall in his office.

Often it was things he wanted promoted in a newsletter, or policies drafted, or a speech written. And the major project was Johnson’s legacy. This was going to be a glossy-covered  book mailed out to 200,000  residents that would tout his accomplishments and probably get voters supporting Johnson’s next campaign.

They moved me around from desk to desk so often that I felt like that guy in the movie Office Space. Eventually, I figured it was best to telecommute several days than wonder where I would be sitting. I simply got more done.

And there were certain rules Keary  laid down:  I could never could use Jack’s name,  saying, “Mr. Johnson wants this.” No one had that authority.

And then there were other unwritten rules, such as when writing a speech, avoid using certain sentence structures that could highlight his lisp. Make it simple. Make the sentence short. I learned the speech aspect quickly when I wrote his first, “Put People First” speech for a taped business event at Bowie State and was quietly taken aside by one of his staff who kindly said avoid using the letter ‘S.’

Next to the over-worked and under-staffed media team, Keary was the biggest advocate for me. He supported and praised my work. The press really didn’t know Keary and outsiders always thought he was spending too much time protecting his boss, but that was his job. He had a hatred for The Washington Post and generally most of the media, because the stories were often negative.  He wanted me to write Op-ed pieces to the Post, slamming the coverage, but eventually he calmed down after I expressed it was a mistake to take on the media when  they always have the last word.

Keary was kept in the dark on some things. Johnson had an inner circle and he had a circle inside that circle. Jim never got to the other circle. Some suggested Keary didn’t tell the truth to the press. I was there. I  knew him. During my short tenure I never caught him in a lie. In fact, of  all the people I met in Johnson’s administration, Keary was the most cautious.

Case in point: Keary  had plenty of opportunities to trade his old white beat-up Trailblazer with too many miles on it  and too many years into the county and get a brand new vehicle. He refused. Just put another set of tires on the car and he would roll. Why spend the money? That’s what he would say.

He wasn’t interested in charging taxpayers for a brand new car when his beater worked just fine. Others changed their cars like they changed oil, but not Keary. Truth is it also saved him a bundle on taxes to keep an old SUV.

But even more strikingly was the way Keary quietly advised me about the  job. He said there would be times when I would work and other times when I would be volunteering on possible election or campaigns. When that happened, he said, I wasn’t on the clock. It was my time. Two campaigns, Johnson’s inner circle was keeping a close eye 0n – Sheriff Michael Jackson against Rusher Baker for county executive. They didn’t want Baker. They hated Baker.

The other campaign was Johnson’s, except he was trying to figure out what campaign that would be. We heard he was going to work the Baltimore churches so we thought perhaps it was going to be a state office. We were all in the dark but that would change.

Keary made it perfectly clear: “You don’t have to volunteer,” he said.

I could just not be part of that. That was  up to me. I thought about it – but not too much.  I was only interested in Jack’s next step – not Jackson’s or Baker’s.  I learned not to underestimate Jack.  He was never supposed to be elected State’s Attorney. And he was never supposed to be a County Executive.

What’s Jack got going? I wanted to know.  I was in as a bystander, observer, not necessarily as a supporter, but I kept that to myself.

Besides, how often do you get an inside peek of the most powerful man in the county? I couldn’t resist to work in an office that I would find out later was bugged by the FBI.

 (Read Part 3 of the memoir.)

(To read the first part of the series click here.)