When FBI agents arrested then-County Executive Jack Johnson in a corruption inquiry in Prince George's in November, his newly elected successor, Rushern Baker, was loath to talk about the case. Baker didn't want lurid controversy over an alleged crooked government to distract attention from jobs, schools and other pressing issues.
It's different today. Six weeks after taking office Dec. 6, Baker talks openly about the need to battle the county's "pay to play" culture.
"We've got to deal with the elephant in the room," Baker (D) said in an interview Thursday. "The perception is you can't get a fair shake in Prince George's County. Whether that's real or imaginary, we've got to deal with it. And the only way to do that is to assure people that here are the extra steps that we're going through to say that is not acceptable in Prince George's County."
I'm relieved that Baker has not succumbed to the temptation to duck the issue permanently just because Prince George's hates to see its problems aired in public. As I've written before, the whole Washington area has a stake in encouraging commercial development in Prince George's, and ending the sleaze would be a big help.
To that end, Baker acknowledged frankly that the Johnson scandal led him to move more quickly than planned to replace some of his predecessor's top officials. Although it would have been preferable "to do it judiciously and take your time," Baker said, "I felt that the public needed to see visibly that we were going in a different direction and with different people in there."
Baker also has arranged for a task force and a university investigative team to report back to him on how to end corruption and save money in housing, zoning and other land-use practices. He's pressing state and county lawmakers to support ethics reform legislation, which is already encountering resistance.
"We're not going to move beyond what people think about us unless we take some concrete, demonstrative steps, and that's what this legislation says," Baker said.
Obviously, fighting corruption is good in itself. In addition, the region would benefit because attracting more business to Prince George's would help narrow the area's east-west imbalance in jobs. The lopsided distribution currently adds to traffic because too many residents commute between homes in the east and jobs in the west.
Moreover, Prince George's needs the extra commercial tax revenue to help improve its school system - which ranks near the bottom in Maryland - and battle unemployment and other social ills in poorer neighborhoods inside the Beltway.
Of course, corruption isn't the only challenge that Baker faces as he tries to promote business in Prince George's. In the wide-ranging talk at his office in Upper Marlboro, he also stressed the importance of "changing the mind-set" in the County Council and state legislative delegation. He wants lawmakers to think more of helping the county as a whole rather than just their individual districts.
Baker said that's necessary right now so the county can target scarce resources to spur development around Metro stations inside the Beltway, especially at the New Carrollton and Branch Avenue stations.
Those sites might not enthuse legislators representing districts many miles away, such as those in the southern or central parts of the county outside the Beltway, Baker said. But he said those projects offer the best chance of attracting state and federal support, and of being completed in the course of his four-year term.
"The tendency is always to look where your legislative or council district [is] and say, 'I want to bring something back,' " Baker said. "What I'm trying to get folks to see is that we're all going to benefit greatly if the county is viewed as a place that's growing and attractive."
Baker is also going to need lawmakers to set aside parochial interests to pass the ethics bills that he's proposed. Their fate in the state legislature will be an important early test of whether his efforts to clean up county government are succeeding.
One measure, in particular, faces opposition. It would make it harder for County Council members to inject their views in pending development proposals, unless a developer or resident asked for council intervention.
Council members don't get to vote on the bill, but some have already criticized it in interviews with the Gazette. It seems they just don't want to give up any authority over development requests, even though such engagement can be an invitation to illicit favors.
One of Baker's allies in the General Assembly, Del. Justin Ross (D-Prince George's), predicted ethics reform would pass anyway, although possibly after being revised.
"If we don't deal with this, every other endeavor that we take on will be harder," Ross said. "This is what the rest of the region and the world is thinking, and we need to be honest about it."
It's only a start, but at least Baker and his supporters are conspicuously pushing in the right direction.