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Mr. Baker's Promise
For county executive in Prince George's

Sunday, August 20, 2006

JACK B. JOHNSON, the Prince George's county executive, who is running for a second four-year term, is a tireless campaigner and a nimble politician; he is much less interested in governing. That's too bad, because he leads an enormous, diverse county whose vast potential is imperiled by the double-edged threat of poor schools and pervasive crime. Yet despite those challenges, his ambitions and achievements over four years in office have been strikingly modest.

The most to be said about Mr. Johnson is that he has brought to fruition some important projects, including National Harbor, launched by his predecessor, Wayne K. Curry; and that, after months of dithering while Prince George's was swept by a wave of murders, rapes, auto thefts and sluggish response time by law enforcement, he finally moved to beef up the county's badly understaffed police force -- to a level that had been recommended years earlier. With Mr. Johnson having compiled such a ho-hum record, there is no compelling case for reelecting him; four more years of him would likely mean four years of stagnation for Prince George's.

A better bet is Rushern L. Baker III , Mr. Johnson's challenger in the Sept. 12 Democratic Party primary. (There is no Republican running for the job.) As a state lawmaker for eight years, Mr. Baker was a serious, creative, tough advocate for the county. He has a better grasp of the long-term danger posed by the weakness of Prince George's schools, which undercuts the county's efforts to attract major employers and better amenities. And he is determined to use the bully pulpit of the county executive's office to press for improvements in the school system.

What Mr. Baker offers, and Mr. Johnson does not, is the promise of proactive, inclusive, effective leadership. He would work to keep experienced teachers in the county with retention bonuses. He proposes fashioning better remedial programs for youngsters struggling with reading and math. He would strive to lure businesses and stores to areas of the county badly in need of revival, including those inside the Capital Beltway. And he would have the police expend more manpower on late-night weekend patrols to suppress crime at its peak hours.

Mr. Baker, who ran and lost in the five-way race for county executive in 2002, may not quite have Mr. Johnson's common touch. But while Mr. Johnson has been ubiquitous around the county, glad-handing his way through church services, community meetings and ribbon-cuttings, he has neglected the business of governance.

Despite having enjoyed a windfall of tax revenue thanks to a housing boom and a muscular regional economy, Mr. Johnson has offered few bold programs or new ideas. His scheme to channel funds to targeted communities, known as the Livable Communities Initiative, has had salutary results: better code enforcement; more attractive streetscapes; and some money for local groups. But it is a pallid achievement when weighed against the county's daunting problems.

Most disappointing has been Mr. Johnson's closed, clannish leadership style, which favors cronies over competence and insider connections over open government. In the Johnson administration, information is tightly (and needlessly) hoarded, extolling the boss is the highest virtue and whom you know -- especially if you know Mr. Johnson -- counts for more than real expertise. His practice of rewarding his political pals with contracts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars for "reports" and "studies" on topics about which they know next to nothing is a disgraceful waste of the taxpayers' money. His ill-considered appointments to key agencies such as the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, the region's largest utility, suggest not only contempt for good government but also a return to WSSC's bad old days of steering fat contracts to the politically well connected.

To realize its potential and cope with its challenges, Prince George's needs strong and effective leaders. Electing Rushern Baker would be a good start.

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