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Baker paused his bid, rivals sought his endorsement. Why hasn’t it come?

It’s unclear whether Baker, who received public financing, would have to repay the money or if he is allowed to endorse another candidate

Maryland gubernatorial candidate Rushern L. Baker III speaks about “squeegee boys” during a news conference in Baltimore on May 19. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)
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Former Prince George’s county executive Rushern L. Baker III said earlier this month that he was pausing his bid to become Maryland’s next governor and would take a week to decide if he should officially drop out and endorse a rival.

That was nearly three weeks ago. His next steps are unclear as a primary date looms with his name still on the ballot, and as his campaign continues to file for tax dollars from the state through Maryland’s public campaign financing system, records show.

Baker, the only gubernatorial candidate participating in public financing, decided to suspend his campaign after reporting a little more than $11,000 in his coffers this month, facing the reality of having to ask staffers to go unpaid and accumulating additional campaign debt.

He has yet to say whether he will officially end his campaign in the tight race to fill the seat being vacated by Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who is term-limited. If he decides to bow out of the race, the choice would set up the state’s first legal test of whether a candidate who has received taxpayer money to run can endorse another candidate.

Jared DeMarinis, the state board of election’s director of campaign finance, said: “The legislation that was passed and enacted did not contemplate this type of situation. I believe the next General Assembly will probably address that scenario.”

Joanne Antoine, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said Baker also faces another dilemma: If he withdraws, he would be required to return the matching funds he received. So far, he has received nearly $1 million from the state.

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“That may be why he chose to suspend without shutting it down, because he would need to return that money,” said Antoine, whose group is a proponent of the state’s public financing program and has worked on legislation to strengthen it. Antoine said Baker ending his campaign and possibly endorsing another could be seen as a candidate being “given money and indirectly using their visibility and support to help someone who is not in the program. … I do think it’s unclear as it relates to endorsements and we urge against it.”

An endorsement from Baker, who has strong name recognition and was making his second bid for the office, was sought by all the Democratic candidates, particularly Comptroller Peter Franchot, best-selling author and former nonprofit chief Wes Moore and former U.S. labor secretary Tom Perez, who are locked in a statistical three-way tie for the Democratic nomination, according to fresh polling from Goucher College.

DeMarinis said public financing has been available in Maryland for decades but, in practice, it is in its infancy. Maryland is one of 14 states that have some form of public financing. Baker was limited to donations of $250 to receive state funds. Only three other statewide candidates in recent years (then-businessman Hogan and former delegate Heather Mizuer in 2014 and former senator Richard Madaleno in 2018) have used it. None suspended their campaigns or dropped out of their races.

DeMarinis raised concerns about the integrity of the system, which puts most candidates at a financial disadvantage over those with deep-pocketed donors but is also seen as a way to get the process away from large donors and special interests.

“The integrity of the system is paramount with the idea that public funds are used for legitimate electorate purposes and not potential gamesmanship,” he said. “We have to make sure the integrity of the program and its viability for future elections will remain.”

According to the state Board of Elections, Baker is still in the race.

A spokesman for Baker did not return calls for comment.

DeMarinis said he contacted the campaign shortly after Baker’s announcement earlier this month and was told that the campaign was still active and seeking viability. “My understanding from the campaign is that they are still trying to win the nomination,” DeMarinis said. “He didn’t drop out.”

Baker filed a request last week seeking state funds and a $21,000 check from the state public financing system was recently processed to the campaign, DeMarinis said.