County Executive Rushern L. Baker trades on capital connections to help Prince George’s

The official schedule said Rushern L. Baker was supposed to drop in on a couple of receptions. But the Prince George’s county executive was looking for a different type of socializing this blustery March day.

It was less than two weeks before the annual legislative session in Annapolis would close, but the well-known consensus-builder who eight years ago led the Prince George’s House delegation was battling to win back millions of dollars the county had lost to Gov. Martin O’Malley’s budget cuts.

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Baker, his BlackBerry handy and his chief lobbyist at his side, spent the day as he has spent many since taking office in December: patrolling the State House’s corridors, with a long to-do list, hunting for political allies and hoping to make some new friends.

He sought a few minutes with Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery) to talk over a tax policy that favors Montgomery County and harms Prince George’s. He later walked across the street to the House office building, looking for Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s) for help on other issues. He grabbed a quick lunch with lawmakers and county officials in a closed session at the Maryland Association of Counties, where O’Malley (D) asked for help on his wind power bill.

For Baker (D), the General Assembly this year has been a place of comfort — and challenge. He slid into the role of chief county lobbyist and de facto state legislator quickly after his swearing-in and parlayed his contacts in Annapolis into support for new county ethics rules and money for schools and county services. But with state finances tight and other delegations complaining that some of Prince George’s County’s fiscal problems are self-inflicted because of a property tax cap, it has not been easy. And he is unlikely to get all that he wants.

His final scorecard won’t be completed until midnight Monday, when the legislature adjourns for the session. But Baker appears to have succeeded in getting additional state funding, mending county and state relations and helping the county regain its political footing after the arrests of his predecessor, Jack B. Johnson (D), and his wife, County Council member Leslie Johnson (D-Mitchellville).

“There is a degree of confidence in his ability to put things back together in Prince George’s after a rough year,” said Madaleno, who chairs Montgomery’s Senate delegation and has been tangling with Baker over a tax issue.

Madaleno said Baker’s knowledge and experience have paid off. He points to Baker’s network of political contacts, his years as a well-respected state lawmaker and his firsthand observations of other county executives, such as Doug Duncan in Montgomery and Wayne Curry in Prince George’s, as factors that have helped him understand how to press for his county’s agenda.

Since opening day Jan. 12, Baker has logged 62 meetings in Annapolis and held at least 15 meetings in the county to promote his legislative agenda, according to records provided by his staff. That’s about double the number of Annapolis meetings Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) held.

Baker has risked political backlash in Prince George’s for supporting higher taxes on gasoline and alcohol, which the County Council and some of the county’s state legislators did not embrace. Revenue from the alcohol tax is supposed to help school systems in Baltimore and Prince George’s.

“I know you can’t just ask for money without offering a way to raise money,” Baker said.

Baker said that if he can get back $20 million of the $30 million the county lost in state funding cut by O’Malley, “I would consider that a victory.” But he is hoping for even more.

As Baker rounded corner after corner in the State House, he invariably ran into someone he knew. There would be hugs, kisses, backs patted and sometimes a whispered request from Baker for a vote on one of his priorities.

“Is there anyone you don’t know?” Sen. Lisa A. Gladden (D-Baltimore) asked as she tried to reassure Baker his needs would be met — that is, after her constituents were taken care of, she said, laughing.

This winter, Baker enlisted the help of Leggett, a friend and former law school dean, on a tax issue dividing the two counties. Montgomery is rewarded because it has many residents who file tax returns late — mostly because they usually owe money — while in Prince George’s many residents rush to file to get their refunds. Because the tax returns are used to help calculate state aid, the filing time is crucial. For a period each year, the data are used to measure the wealth of each community and calculate state aid. With its filings incomplete, Montgomery looks less affluent and gets more state aid, but Prince George’s looks more affluent and gets less funding. Baker said it is a deceptive calculus that needs to be fixed.

For a few weeks, it looked as if Baker and Leggett had a deal. But it began to unravel when Leggett encountered resistance from his own delegation and County Council because of the potential loss of state funds to Montgomery. Baker had offered to trade support for a school funding issue that would help Montgomery, but it wasn’t enough. “I thought I had worked it out already,” Baker said as Jackson updated him on the travails. “I have enough problems.”

He spotted Madaleno to make one last pitch, but it wasn’t working. “Put yourself in my shoes,” Madaleno said. But he acknowledged problems with the law. “If I were in your shoes,” Madaleno said, “I would be saying this is so . . . unfair.”

Madaleno offered this olive branch: “I want you to succeed,” he said, speaking of Baker’s new administration.

Baker headed across the street to the House office building to find longtime friend Davis to talk over possible late amendments to a county ethics bill. Davis said he would oppose the proposed changes, because they would derail a compromise Baker had worked out with the County Council. But if it meant the measure died and the county ethics rules wouldn’t be strengthened, Davis would back the changes.

“I don’t want to see the bill go down,” Davis said.

“We need to get it through,” Baker said. Businesses are still reeling from problems they say they encountered during the Johnson years. They are complaining that “they can’t get a straight deal in the county,” he said.

Baker went down the hall to a meeting with House and Senate leaders from the county and Council Chairman Ingrid Turner (D-Bowie). Turner and other council members worked against Baker’s original ethics bill, but they also have helped his hunt for more state funds.

The lawmakers are worried about school funding, but there is word of a deal. Still, Del. Melony G. Griffith (D-Prince George’s), the House delegation chairman, wanted Baker to seal it by visiting his friends from other jurisdictions. “Memories get short down here in these last, final days,” she said. “We need you to slather some love all around the state.”

The next stop was to be a reception for the governor of Rio de Janeiro state, in Brazil. But it was too late, and Baker was due at a meeting with local ministers, and then a black-tie radio and television dinner in Washington.

For Baker, midnight Monday will be the final reckoning — at least for this year. By Tuesday, after he holds a news conference recounting wins and losses, he’ll plot the strategy for next year.

“He has been very, very helpful,” said Griffith, who remembers years of squabbling among Johnson, the council and state lawmakers. “It is a marked difference from before.”

 
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