Rushern Baker would offer much-needed change in Prince George's

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

IN THE SEPT. 14 primary, Democratic voters in Prince George's County face a stark choice between the two leading candidates for county executive, Rushern L. Baker III and Michael A. Jackson -- men whose experience, priorities and political style suggest they would take the county of 900,000 people in divergent directions. Although they differ in emphasis, each of them accurately reads the problems of Prince George's: too many foreclosures and substandard schools; too few major employers; too little quality investment; and the distinct whiff of public corruption.

The similarities end there. Mr. Baker, a former state delegate and foundation executive, has developed a real-world, actionable program to address those challenges. By contrast, Mr. Jackson, the county sheriff, has stuck mainly to generalizations, vague promises and empty slogans.

The stakes in Prince George's are high because the county's troubles are grave. The current, term-limited county executive, Jack B. Johnson, has had some successes -- bringing to fruition the mixed-use development at National Harbor, beefing up the police force, trimming a crime rate that remains too high and upgrading the county's bond rating to AAA. Unfortunately, Mr. Johnson's eight-year tenure has been marred by cronyism, scandal and a casual disregard for ethics that has damaged the county's reputation.

Many Prince Georgians fervently want a better quality of life, meaning better shops, restaurants and nearby jobs -- amenities that are plentiful just around the Beltway in Fairfax and Montgomery counties. But to attract them, the county will need to overhaul its sleazy, insiderish, pay-to-play political culture. Rushern Baker seems far more likely to do that than Mike Jackson.

Since he has run twice before for county executive, some voters may think of Mr. Baker as a perennial candidate. That would be too bad, for it overlooks his performance as a lawmaker in Annapolis, where he was respected as an impeccably honest, thoughtful and intelligent consensus-builder.

On top of his personal qualities, which alone would represent a salutary break with the status quo, Mr. Baker has sensible ideas for achieving his vision of a modern, thriving county. On the public schools, whose improvement is a prerequisite to progress in the county, Mr. Baker would be an engaged, visible county executive, standing by the current school superintendent and advocating retention bonuses to keep skilled teachers in the toughest schools. He would use innovative financing and tax credits to initiate a long-term campaign to attract high-quality development around Metro stations such as Suitland and New Carrollton, which so far have failed to realize their promise as commercial hubs.

NO CANDIDATE in this race is risk-free. In Mr. Baker's case, there are questions about his management abilities. As head of Community Teachers Institute, a small educational nonprofit that he took over in 2003, he racked up deficits and depleted the organization's endowment, although apparently with the consent of its board of directors and major benefactors. More recently, he briefly concealed the identity of his biggest financial backer, a business executive who owns apartment buildings in the region. In that case, he acknowledged the error frankly and took corrective steps.

Mr. Baker may not be perfect, but his stellar record as a lawmaker outweighs doubts about his administrative experience. We believe he has the right vision and priorities for Prince George's, and, just as important, that he will raise the county government's ethical standards. On those points, Mr. Jackson inspires far less confidence.

Mr. Jackson is a shrewd politician, a tireless campaigner and a personable man. As sheriff for the last eight years, he has executive experience running a county agency. But given his close political ties to Mr. Johnson, his vague, elusive approach to policy and his management style, we doubt he would represent the change that many county residents say they want.

Mr. Jackson speaks of "rebranding" Prince George's, but his proposals are mostly gauzy platitudes about leadership. He pledges to enter office with a five-year strategic plan, but its content remains mysterious. He promises better schools and opportunities for youth, but his ideas seem not to extend much beyond encouraging more internships and vocational programs.

Mr. Jackson has done some good things as sheriff, particularly in the area of domestic violence, where his deputies have supplanted the police in high-crime areas. But his management style -- closed, intolerant of dissent and at times defensive -- has left a sour taste among employees. Although he was endorsed by the Deputy Sheriffs Association, it was by a strikingly close vote.

The rap on Mr. Jackson is that he values loyalty among a closed circle of aides and allies above openness, transparency or a willingness to forthrightly address failings. In fact, his style is reminiscent of Mr. Johnson, the man he would replace as county executive.

That's been evident in a number of instances, not least the mishandled drug raid in which his deputies shot two dogs at the home of the mayor of Berwyn Heights, who turned out to be innocent of any wrongdoing. Not only did Mr. Jackson admit no error by his office, but he also failed to apologize to the mayor for a year. More recently, he promoted a loyal deputy, Wendy Tyler, to the rank of acting captain despite the well-known fact that she was under investigation for stealing more than $20,000 from the Deputy Sheriff's Association. A grand jury indicted Ms. Tyler last month.

The remaining three Democrats running in the Sept. 14 primary for county executive are Del. Gerron S. Levi, a freshman state lawmaker who is bright but inexperienced in local affairs; Samuel H. Dean, a veteran County Council member whose campaign lacks energy and focus; and Henry C. Turner Jr., a Pentagon official with no relevant background in local politics or county government.

Prince George's is overwhelmingly Democratic, so the race boils down to the primary, and to Mr. Baker and Mr. Jackson. Between the two, the choice is clear: Mr. Baker holds the promise of renewal and reform. Mr. Jackson is more likely to perpetuate a status quo that has yielded too many disappointments, for far too long, in Prince George's.

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