After big wins, a chance for real change in Prince George's

Prince George's county voters headed to the polls to decide who will replace county executive Jack Johnson.
By Robert McCartney
Sunday, September 19, 2010

Big election victories by reform-minded candidates in Prince George's County in Tuesday's Democratic primary have encouraged a wave of optimism that the county can get back on a track toward economic and social progress that has eluded it in recent years.

Although the mayoral election in the District has attracted more attention, the triumph of former state delegate Rushern L. Baker III in his third attempt to win the job of county executive could potentially have a more profound long-term impact in the Washington region.

Put simply, Prince George's now has a chance to build a responsible, effective, accountable government that is widely seen as having deteriorated in the eight-year administration of outgoing executive Jack Johnson.

The county needs to shed its reputation as a place where mismanagement reigns -- the housing department had to give back millions of dollars in federal money because of mishandled paperwork -- and only the politically connected can get deals approved.

It's a big challenge. Even his backers worry that Baker, with little administrative experience, might succumb to the temptation to give key government jobs to political friends rather than experienced professionals. It'll be difficult to improve schools and create jobs when the slow economy is straining budgets.

However, if Baker and the allies elected with him can transform the county's leadership as they promise, it would encourage commercial development and other advances needed to narrow the imbalance in the region between the relatively affluent western suburbs and less prosperous eastern ones.

"We want to see the same economic opportunities around Metro stations here as in Montgomery and Fairfax," said Del. Joanne C. Benson, a Baker supporter who also was a big victor Tuesday.

She wrested the Democratic nomination for state senator from controversial incumbent Sen. Nathaniel Exum. He is a Johnson ally who drew criticism for blocking a state funding package for Prince George's Hospital and his ties to an auto repair shop.

Benson, 69, has served 20 years in the House of Delegates after making her name as a no-nonsense elementary school principal who battled drug dealers in Capitol Heights. Local thugs called her "the pit bull in high heels," according to a front-page Washington Post profile in 1990.

"People are thirsty for change. They are not content with a county [government] that is doing business as usual, that has caused us to be in a rut," Benson told me Friday in an interview at her Largo campaign headquarters.

She and others are hailing what they see as a restoration of positive leadership seen under Wayne Curry, Johnson's predecessor as county executive and the first African American to lead the county.

During Curry's administration from 1994 to 2002, Prince George's attracted national attention as a showcase for success for upper middle class and professional blacks. The county is one of the nation's largest, richest jurisdictions with an African American majority.

"This was a well-respected jurisdiction in the region [under Curry] because we had strong leadership and we had a capable, competent government. We lost that. I think the feeling is that we're going to get that back," said Gregory K. Wells, a politically active trial lawyer who supported Baker but did not hold a post in his campaign.

Baker, the focus of all this attention, is a mild-mannered politician who lost to Johnson in the county executive's primary in 2002 and 2006. This time, he crushed his closest rival -- Sheriff Michael Jackson, who was backed by Johnson -- by 11 percentage points in a five-person field. (Victory in the primary is tantamount to winning the office in the heavily Democratic county.)

Baker's immediate priority will be to professionalize the county's administrative apparatus, which is widely described as dysfunctional. During the campaign, he called for reforming a culture where he said payoffs were often necessary to get projects approved.

However, some of Baker's closest supporters -- including former county executive Curry -- are concerned that in cleaning house, he won't be ruthless enough about finding the most qualified people for top jobs.

"It's politics, so there's some patronage, but it's got to begin with capable people. He's got to be willing to demonstrate some toughness on that," Curry told me in a phone interview Thursday.

Curry said it was important for Baker to learn to act like an executive.

"He really does have to build a coalition that he leads rather than he responds to. He's been a legislator. He's a herd animal. He's now applied for and gotten a job that requires him to be the heavyweight. When the bell rings, there's only one guy in that ring," Curry said.

A lot of people in the county and the region will be cheering him on.

Keep Rhee?

In his column in Saturday's Washington Post, Colbert I. King respectfully disagreed with my call on District presumptive mayor-elect Vince Gray to keep Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. King singled out my point in an online column Wednesday that Gray should do so partly because it would reach out to voters who opposed him. He said Rhee should go because of her polarizing behavior.

For the record -- and for readers who only see the print edition -- my column also said that Rhee should stay for other reasons. In particular, she would provide stability needed to make permanent some of the positive changes she has achieved.

The discussion seems moot, though, given that Rhee has signaled that she plans to go. How else to interpret her denunciation of the election results as "devastating" for D.C. schoolchildren? Gray will probably need to find someone else to implement his vision of school reform that manages to be inclusive as well as aggressive.

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