Rushern Baker eager to take reins as Prince George's county executive

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 2, 2010; 11:00 PM

Democrat Rushern L. Baker III capped his eight-year quest to lead Prince George's County with a victory Tuesday and said he plans to get working quickly on his campaign promise "to make a good county great."

"I am very happy to be the county executive-elect," said the 51-year-old lawyer and former state delegate. Baker spent the day crisscrossing the county, stumping for the O'Malley-Brown ticket and hoping to boost voter turnout for Maryland Democrats at a time when the party faced tough races nationwide.

"I want everybody to know that Prince George's County did everything it could to help the Democrats, and I will be there to collect on that," said Baker, who helped deliver the county's much-needed African American vote for Martin O'Malley's bid for reelection as governor.

Baker takes charge of the $2.6 billion county government after losing to Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) in 2002 and 2006. With term limits ending Johnson's administration, Baker beat four rivals in the September primary for the Democratic nomination. He had no Republican opponent in the general election.

Baker said Tuesday that he looked forward to sorting out the "good, the bad, the challenges and the opportunities," and he planned to meet Wednesday with his transition staff. "We are ready to rock-and-roll," he said.

Baker's first task will be to assemble a team to run the government. He took the first step last week when he named a transition committee headed by his political mentor, former county executive Wayne K. Curry (D). Kenneth Johnson, a lawyer and close friend of Baker's, will hold the reins on the transition's day-to-day operations at a time when budget trouble may be looming.

"The challenges are formidable," said former County Council chairman M.H. "Jim" Estepp (D), now head of a business organization in Prince George's and a Baker supporter. "The revenue situation is something that needs immediate attention, and he must also decide how to keep the quality of government high."

Among the transition team's priorities are sifting through the county's finances and vetting candidates to head government departments. The team also is identifying government redundancies to cut costs, and Baker said he is eager to tap people in the private sector "who actually had to deal with the downturn, who had to hire and lay off folks. We are looking at every aspect of it."

The transition team has only a month to get things organized. County officeholders are sworn in Dec. 6 and will soon begin governing a county of 900,000 residents - some of them among the region's poorest and some among its wealthiest.

The challenges include rebuilding a school system that has endured frequent leadership changes and funding shortages; creating a stronger tax base in a recession-scarred county with a tax cap that only voters can increase; and lowering a crime rate that has declined but remains among the worst in the Washington area.

"I hope they make the crime rate lower and the education system better," said Kamran Sarwar, 25, a student at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and a registered Democrat who was voting at High Point High School in Beltsville.

As Baker was winning the race for county executive, term limits also helped usher in a new crop of County Council members: Five of nine were elected for the first time. The county will also have a new state's attorney and a new sheriff. All have pledged to help Baker.

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