In Prince George's, Baker has big plans to improve schools, make government accountable

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 26, 2010; 10:23 PM

Rushern Baker III, who won the Democratic nomination for Prince George's County executive, watched as his friend Adrian M. Fenty made bold and sometimes controversial changes as D.C. mayor, especially school reform, which Baker, too, has promised.

Then, on Sept. 14, as Baker won in Prince George's, he saw Fenty, criticized for having lost touch with even his closest supporters, get booted out of office.

But Baker, who has no Republican opponent on the Nov. 2 ballot and is soon to take the reins in Prince George's, is optimistic that his pledges to remake his county's political and fiscal culture and improve its lagging public schools can be accomplished without alienating his reform-minded political base.

"I want to make sure that the citizens feel connected to the government," he said in his Greenbelt law office, in his first lengthy interview since the primary.

Although the lawyer and former delegate to the General Assembly, who ran twice before for the Democratic nomination for county executive, has not been elected, he is forming his government-in-waiting and plans a series of public forums to discuss the county's schools and its other pressing problems - a weak tax base, high crime rate, the financially ailing county hospital - and is meeting with a range of people to try to figure out how to tackle the issues.

"The centerpiece of the transition will be how we focus on teacher development and teacher retention," he said. "The number-one issue facing us in Prince George's County is retaining quality teachers and having effective teaching throughout the county. We cannot have teachers lose confidence in Prince George's County with the furloughs."

Four years ago, Baker, 51, came within a few thousand votes of toppling incumbent Jack B. Johnson (D), but it wasn't until Sept. 14 that he took what is probably the final step in achieving his goal of occupying the executive suite in Upper Marlboro, the county seat. He defeated four opponents, including popular Sheriff Michael A. Jackson, in the low-turnout Democratic primary, emerging with about 44 percent of the vote.

After a few days off, which included a family vacation to Chicago and a visit to the Abraham Lincoln museum in Springfield, Ill., Baker has begun a busy schedule that includes dozens of meetings with public officials, private residents and business leaders as he begins to sketch out what his administration will look like.

Its hallmarks, he said, will be openness, accessibility and accountability, echoing promises he made throughout his campaign.

One of his first acts, he said, will be to establish an inspector general's office in the county to root out waste, fraud and abuse, either by getting approval from the County Council or creating the post within his administration.

Then he hopes to delve into the substantive issues that have given the county the reputation of a place where businesses have needed to "pay to play" and county contracts are handed out to a favored few.

"I want to make sure people know for certain there is nothing like that going on in Prince George's County," he said, outlining plans to establish high ethical standards throughout his administration.

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