Rushern Baker wins Prince George's executive race

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 15, 2010; 3:33 PM

Rushern Baker III, who defeated Sheriff Michael A. Jackson and three others in the Prince George's County race for the Democratic nomination for county executive, said Wednesday that he was reaching out to his opponents to try to build a coalition that could help propel the majority-African American county to regional prominence as it vies with Fairfax and Montgomery counties and the District for more jobs and economic development and attempts to repair its struggling school system.

Speaking at a news conference at his campaign's Largo headquarters, Baker said the county's voters had "bestowed upon me a great honor and a great responsibility, and one that I do not take lightly." He said he hoped to get to work quickly, well before the general election Nov. 2 that is expected to reprise Tuesday's results, and begin the task of trying to "make a good county great."

His said he had contacted his opponents to try to begin the work of unifying the Democratic Party in the county.

Jackson conceded defeat to Baker early Wednesday morning and also called for unity.

"I spoke to Rushern and offered our congratulations," he told supporters at a union hall in Suitland. "We had a good conversation, and now that the campaign is over, there is a need for unity, for finding common ground, and for coming together for the good of our county.

"You have no idea how grateful I am and how generous you have been," he told supporters. "I'm just overwhelmed with gratitude for your affection, your love, your confidence in me, and for this opportunity to run to serve this county."

With 97 percent of precincts reporting Wednesday morning, Baker, 51, had captured 44 percent of the vote, compared with 32 percent for Jackson.

Baker had run for county executive twice before, losing both times to Jack B. Johnson, a former prosecutor who according to Baker failed during eight years in office to improve the commercial tax base, promote more economic development and fix the public school system.

Baker himself once led an effort to overhaul the county school board to boost the lagging schools.

Speaking to supporters at a party at Six Flags in Largo late Tuesday, Baker said the message from voters was "loud and clear."

"I think the people have spoken. . . . Prince George's, it is time to make a good county great. This is not the finish. This is the beginning line. Our goal is greatness. We celebrate tonight, but tomorrow we rise with the same energy, dedication and passion that we claim as the victory in this campaign, to make a good county great."

The crowd echoed his cheer, chanting: "Good county great. Good county great."

No one sought the Republican nomination. But because of the overwhelming Democratic registration in Prince George's, the winner of Tuesday's primary would be heavily favored to win the general election Nov. 2 even if a Republican were on the ballot.

Daneen Banks, deputy administrator of elections in Prince George's, said that the vote count was slower than expected because of technical difficulties encountered by elections judges. Judges were supposed to use modems to send in results electronically from each precinct, but many apparently were unable to do so. Instead, they drove the data cards to the elections board in Upper Marlboro, where the results were being uploaded. By 1 a.m., only about 50 percent of the vote had been tallied.

By morning, with almost all the votes tallied, Jackson trailed Baker by an insurmountable 12 percentage points. A third candidate, Samuel H. Dean, received 12 percent of the votes, while two other candidates polled in single digits.

Prince George's voters also selected nominees for County Council and dozens of other offices.

The incumbent county executive, Johnson, was barred by term limits from running for a third term. The race to replace him sparked a heated debate about the direction of the county, as its leaders seek to become more competitive with neighboring communities, improve the lagging public school system, and tamp down a crime rate that remains one of the highest in the region, even if it is at a 34-year low.

The potential for enormous political change comes at a time of challenge for the county, where the recession has hit hard and education and economic development continue to top voters' lists of concerns. New jobs are scarce, unemployment is high and many residents still leave the county to work and shop.

The Democrats who vied to succeed Johnson expressed a wide range of views about the county's future. Baker said he wants to end a culture of "cronyism" that he believes Johnson has fostered, push forward on school system improvements and make county government more responsive. Former county executives Wayne K. Curry, Parris N. Glendening and Winfield Kelly endorsed Baker.

Jackson, 46, who was endorsed by Johnson and had the backing of Johnson's extensive political operation, hesitated to criticize Johnson's eight years, but said he, too, would fix the school system and would spur job creation through publicly financed programs and public works projects. The three other candidates - County Council member Dean, 74, who cannot run for reelection because of term limits; Del. Gerron S. Levi, 42, an experienced Capitol Hill staffer and labor lobbyist; and businessman Henry C. Turner Jr., 52, backed by a grass-roots group calling itself People for Change - all ran highly visible campaigns.

At polling precincts early Tuesday, many voters said it had come down to a choice between Baker and Jackson. But mostly, the issues drove them to the polls.

Ricardo Summers, a Prince George's firefighter and lifelong county resident, has paid to put his three sons through private school. It's not convenient and it's not cheap, but in his eyes it's the only option. "I'd rather have them in public schools, but the public schools are just not up to par," Summers said. "I hope we'll get somebody in there who will make the school system the number one priority. Somebody who will stop taking cuts from the schools funds."

The five Democratic candidates spoke bluntly about the challenges the county faces. They all agreed that change is needed, but they differed on the problems and the solutions. Baker was adamantly against furloughs for public safety employees and teachers; Dean said the furloughs were an inevitable, if painful, move needed to balance the $2.6 billion county budget. Turner called for a full audit of county spending. Levi proposed turning to a data-driven CountyStat system - similar to operations in Montgomery County and Baltimore - to look for savings. Jackson said he would turn to the business community to do more to help bring new revenue, and would have the government offer tax credits, loans and public works projects.

Whoever takes office later this year will face a host of challenges compounded by the recession. The county has the region's highest foreclosure rate, faced a tough budget year and has a public school system that, though improving, is still stuck near the bottom on standardized testing. But there are some bright spots, including the expansion of Andrews Air Force Base that will bring several thousand new jobs to the county.

The county's taxes are among the region's highest, even though they are capped by law. Campaigning for the end of the tax cap has proved to be a political morass; none of the candidates raised the issue this season, except to say they hoped to expand the tax base by attracting more businesses.

Candidates' polls showed thousands of undecided voters in the month remaining before Tuesday's contest. But 15,000 voters participated in early voting, the highest number in the state. Early voting ended Thursday.

Many voters said they waited until the last minute to decide. Leslie Hamilton, 44, of Mitchellville, had read the campaign literature over the past several months. She has listened to the candidates. But she still didn't know who she was going to vote for until Tuesday morning, just before she cast her ballot. Hamilton liked Levi, and she thought the state delegate might make a good county executive. The problem was she didn't know how many other people agreed with her, and she didn't want to waste her vote.

"I didn't think she had a chance to win," Hamilton said. "So out of those who had a chance, I decided to go with Rushern Baker." What finally persuaded her? A commercial that aired Tuesday about Baker's stance on education. "My son is 11 years old, and I'm just concerned about the schools," she said. "We pay too many taxes not to have a good educational system."

Michael Washington Sr., who was casting his vote in Landover close to closing time, voted for Jackson. His reason was simple: He likes "people going door-to-door and talking to you eye to eye."

James Bartley, 71, of Upper Marlboro was surprised at the speed with which he entered and exited the polls at Perrywood Elementary School about lunchtime.

"There should have been a couple of people in front of me," he said.

Stan Fetter had the same experience at Accokeek Library in the morning.

"I got in and out so fast it made my head spin," he said.

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