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Debbie Brown Tries to Get into Her Town's Exclusive Club—the Voting Booth—and Wears Out Her Welcome

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George Washington slept here—twice. The Revolutionary War was fought in these parts and the Civil War, too. Now another war is raging in quaint, colonial Upper Marlboro, Md. But the weapons this time are ballots, not bullets. And if blood is spilled, it’s likely to be blue.

The battle here is as profound as the Constitution and as petty as Peyton Place. Debbie Brown says the town commission president, 72-year-old Helen Wilson, is stopping her from voting, violating her civil rights. Wilson says newcomer Brown—who lives three doors down on Rectory Lane—is just being a nosy troublemaker. The fight has found its way into court.

As in every war, this one began with a first shot. It came after Debbie, husband Dan and their three children moved onto the battlefield—a sylvan, somnolent, half-mile-square town of 338 souls, just 20 miles from the U.S. Capitol. Debbie, 29, took a $5-a-week job writing a column—a chronicle of crab tests and church events—for the weekly Enquirer-Gazette. She also covered the three-member town commission, ruled for eight years by Mrs. Wilson, a proper Southern woman proud of her husband’s heritage (Wilson ancestors helped found Upper Marlboro). At one meeting, the commission decided to ban a street vendor, and then Wilson decreed: “This vote is not to be put in print.”

“My mouth dropped,” Brown recalls. “I couldn’t believe it.” She asked the town attorney whether Wilson could do that. He said no. So Brown put it in her column. But then, she says, her editor killed it without explanation.

Brown returned fire. “I started going to every single town meeting. I wondered what else she didn’t want in print.” Brown asked to see the town budget (Wilson had not even shown the record books to the town treasurer, whom she had appointed). Wilson wasn’t sure Brown had a right to see it because “she’s not a registered voter.”

There’s the rub. Twice Brown tried to register. But registration is held for only four hours, once every two years, and she missed it both times. Wilson says she calls constituents to remind them to register. Brown says that she got one call an hour before registration closed; she couldn’t leave her kids and Dan was miles away at work managing an equipment rental shop. She failed to sign up a second time because the family was sick. Now, she moans, “You can’t get information because you’re not a registered voter, and you can’t get registered to vote because there’s no election this year.” Catch-22.

The Browns and a daughter of one maverick commissioner, Jess Joseph Smith, are suing Wilson for $150,000, charging violation of their civil rights. The suit also charges Wilson and the other commission member, Ruth Buck, with hiring themselves as town clerks and giving themselves unauthorized raises.

But this is no revolution. Nobody’s complaining about the life in Upper Marlboro country. “Hell,” says Dan, “I love this town just the way it is.”

Debbie just doesn’t understand why the town meetings are “so secretive. You’d think they were trying to bring in something like nuclear power.”

For her part, Wilson can’t quite understand why “those disturbers” are so disturbed with her. “We never had problems at these meetings,” she glowers, “until the newcomers came along.” Not that the town has anything against newcomers. When the Browns arrived five years ago, they were met with handshakes and home-baked cookies. “We’re always welcoming someone in,” Wilson says, sweet with Southern hospitality. “But when they come in and find fault, then you wonder, well, why in the world did you move to Marlboro?”

But Debbie says she wasn’t trying to find fault with town officials. “To get them against you,” she laments, “you don’t even have to disagree with them. Just ask them a question, or show up for a meeting—that’s enough to do it.”

A town once overseen by a lord high sheriff is now overseen by tape recorders, with both factions taking down every word at the ever-hotter town meetings. At one session, a Wilson ally fumed that Upper Marlboro “has been dragged down in the dirt for no good reason. I think I’ll move out.” To which came the reply: “That wouldn’t be a bad idea.” At another meeting, a Wilson supporter challenged Dan: “Why are you asking all these questions? You’ve elected these people; let them be.” There’s that rub again: You can’t question someone you elected but you can’t elect someone if you can’t register, and you can’t register, it seems, if you question someone and that’s the way it is for the Browns in Upper Marlboro. Catch-22½.

“We don’t want to change the town,” Dan hastens to say. Even he gives grudging admiration to the way Wilson has run the place. “She’s keeping Upper Marlboro in control,” he says, “and I like that. As a matter of fact, if I was ever allowed to register, I’d vote for her.”