Rushern Baker's victory suggests wish for change in Prince George's

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 16, 2010; B01

Prince George's County Democrats appeared to be searching for a new style of leadership Tuesday when they nominated former state delegate Rushern L. Baker III to be the next county executive and turned aside a bid from popular county Sheriff Michael A. Jackson.

Jackson, closely aligned with the incumbent county executive, Jack B. Johnson (D), had won national acclaim for some of his department's work but also had been plagued by allegations of employee misconduct. He conceded the race to Baker about 7 a.m. Wednesday.

A slow vote count by the county's Board of Elections stretched well into the early morning, preventing unofficial results from being tallied until 5 a.m.

"Baker's victory should spell some change for Prince George's County," said Paul Herrnson, director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland and a county resident. Herrnson said the 51-year-old lawyer is likely to avoid the sort of patronage system and machine politics that many in the county have said were Johnson's hallmarks.

"The voters spoke and spoke in favor of decisive and mature leadership," said former county executive Wayne K. Curry, one of three former county executives who backed Baker. Former county executive Parris N. Glendening (D), who was governor of Maryland when Baker was in the General Assembly, recently praised him as able to "get the county back on track."

The county's overwhelming Democratic majority -- 400,000 registered Democrats out of 515,000 registered voters -- makes Tuesday's primary the de facto general election. Very few Republicans are seeking county office this year, and none sought the party's nomination for county executive.

As Baker begins to take the reins of the region's third-largest jurisdiction and one of the most affluent majority-African American communities in the nation, he faces a host of challenges.

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Baker, Curry said, will be to knit together a coalition within the county, where five of the nine members of the County Council will be newcomers and the often-fractious Annapolis delegation has contributed to political divisiveness. The council plays a main role in Prince George's in setting funding for county government and schools.

The county also has a voter-imposed cap on property taxes, which Baker has pledged to leave intact. Residents pay some of the highest taxes in the region, and most of the county's revenue comes from residential property taxes. All the candidates in the county executive's race said that the commercial tax base needs to be expanded by attracting new businesses.

Baker had substantial support from elected officials going into Tuesday's primary, including five state senators, all of whom were renominated, several delegates and some council members.

Although Baker made school reform a centerpiece of his campaign, he will have to find a way to use his bully pulpit because school funding and governance are largely the province of the elected school board and the County Council, which holds the purse strings.

Baker will be able to more directly influence efforts to expand the commercial tax base and promote development at underutilized Metro stations because, traditionally, the executive has been able to play a major role in such matters. And because the police chief is a member of the executive's Cabinet, Baker can try to address the vexing crime rate, which is at a 34-year low but remains one of the region's highest.

But much will depend on Baker's ability to bring together Prince George's Democrats, who on Tuesday threw out two incumbent state senators, picked five new nominees for County Council -- including Leslie Johnson, a lawyer married to Jack Johnson -- and nominated a candidate for sheriff who formerly served as Johnson's police chief. The nominee for state's attorney, Angela Alsobrooks, has ties to both Baker and Johnson.

Baker's record suggests that he has some of the personal tools he will need as he tries to bolster the county and improve its standing in the region.

During Baker's time in Annapolis, when he served as head of the county's House delegation, he received high marks for building coalitions.

One of his most notable accomplishments was helping the county avoid a state takeover of its public schools by engineering an alternative that ushered in an unelected school board, since replaced by an elected board.

On Wednesday, after a news conference to formally declare victory, Baker visited Suitland High School and met with School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., teachers union representative Christian Rhodes and Principal Mark Fossett.

School system unions had backed Jackson. Rhodes said he thought members of his union would be interested in "reconvening and moving forward," to work with Baker on retaining teachers, attracting teachers to low-performing schools and ensuring adequate funding from Annapolis.

At a news conference earlier in the day, Baker said voters had "bestowed upon me a great honor and a great responsibility and one I do not take lightly."

He said that he had been in contact with his four opponents -- Jackson, County Council member Samuel H. Dean, Del. Gerron S. Levi and businessman Henry C. Turner Jr. -- and that he hoped to gain their support.

Jackson issued a concession statement early Wednesday.

"Now that the campaign is over," Jackson said in the statement, "there is a need for unity, a need for finding common ground and for coming together for the good of the county."

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