Thursday, Sept. 27, 2007

District Heights mayor brings youth, drive

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Bryan Haynes⁄The Gazette
District Heights Mayor James Walls in his office at the District Heights Municipal Center on Monday.
After moving from Forestville to District Heights in the late 1980s and learning the city had a mayor, 10-year-old James L. Walls Jr., knew what his future profession would be.

‘‘I told my mother then ‘Hey, I want to be the mayor of District Heights,’” Walls said. ‘‘She just kind of laughed.”

But Walls was determined to be more than just a resident and now, at 30, he is the youngest mayor to serve District Heights.

Even at Berkshire Elementary in Forestville, Walls said he understood the three branches of government and how each operated better than most of his classmates. He participated in student government throughout elementary, middle and high school. After graduating Gwynn Park High School in Brandywine in 1995 he enrolled at Bowie State University, where he was president of the university’s NAACP chapter and member of the student government association.

But after graduating Bowie State in 1999 with a bachelor’s degree in history, Walls went in a completely different direction. Following in the footsteps of his father, James L. Walls Sr., he decided to become a minister.

‘‘Church has always played a big role in my life,” Walls said. ‘‘It was something I felt I needed to do.”

After earning a master’s in theology in 2001 from Richmond Virginia Seminary in Richmond, Va., Walls became an assistant pastor for the Greater Light Missionary Baptist church in Capitol Heights. He earned a doctorate in ministry and pastoral counseling in 2003.

But Walls still enjoyed politics, and decided to run for a seat in the Maryland House of Delegates in 2002. Though he lost the election, what really marked the experience was learning how strongly politicians felt about mixing politics with religion.

‘‘Either people like it and want people more spiritual who can bring a different humbleness to the office,” Walls said. ‘‘Then there’s the other spectrum that thinks you shouldn’t be dibbling and dabbling.”

Lena Walls, a Suitland resident and Walls’ older sister, said he is very well rounded and a ‘‘people person” but is also established in the word of the Bible, something she says most politicians do not have which extends his caring nature.

‘‘He has a very good heart and wants to do the right thing and get issues solved,” Lena Walls said.

Walls decided he could make more of a difference in the city he grew up in and ran for a Ward 2 seat in District Heights. After winning the seat in 2003 at 25 he went to task immediately, securing county and state funding for the city’s youth services bureau to provide free therapy sessions for troubled neighborhood children.

Walls also worked with the commission and then-mayor Carol Johnson to revitalize the business district along Marlboro Pike, place a police substation on the same road and hire additional police officers to patrol the city.

Realizing he wanted to devote more time to politics but stay connected with the church, Walls left Greater Light Missionary Baptist in 2005 and became an associate minister at Ark of Safety Christian Church in Upper Marlboro with Sen. Dr. C. Anthony Muse (D-Dist. 26) of Fort Washington as senior pastor.

Walls kept moving up the chain, elected as city’s youngest vice mayor in May 2004 and winning the mayoral election in May 2006. Walls had not yet turned 29.

Walls also helped found the Maryland Black Caucus in 2005 and was elected treasurer of the National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials the same year. The NBC-LEO is made up of black government officials from across the country, including Capitol Heights Mayor Darrell Miller.

‘‘I believe being a public servant is my calling,” Walls said. ‘‘It’s one of the things I was sent here to do. You have to have a calling to do it because you don’t make a lot of money. But overall it’s rewarding because I can see people’s lives enhanced because of things I was able to put in place.”

Walls knows he is rather young compared to municipal leaders throughout the county who have served on councils for a decade or more but is not an inexperienced politician. Walls lobbies hard for state and county money to fund programs in District Heights and brings his political connections to the table, such as his connection with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). Hoyer, a former District Heights resident, nominated Walls to the American Council of Young Political Leaders, a state department funded group which sends politicians overseas to learn what plagues governments in Hungary and Romania.

But Walls said after serving a number of years, he can only bring so much to the table and pass the torch, and local officials should have an internal time limit letting him or her realize when their time is through.

‘‘I know government operates slowly and it does take time,” Walls said. ‘‘But after you serve eight years staying in one position what are you really bringing to the community? Give someone else an opportunity.”

Commissioner Lee Collins has worked alongside Walls for one-and-a-half years. Collins said Walls is a straightforward person who enjoys helping people pursue their interests and seeing District Heights reach its full potential.

‘‘He is truly interested in working with residents and he has a sincere commitment to the city,” Collins said. ‘‘He’s a good listener and that’s rare in politics. He actually takes time to listen to the issues.”

Walls said he enjoys the fact his fellow residents elected him to represent the city as its ‘‘chief ambassador.”

‘‘To have that trust put in you to make decisions for them, that’s the greatest thing,” Walls said.