The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Baker’s campaign hurt by weak funding, enemies he made as county executive

Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III concedes to Ben Jealous on June 26, 2018, after the Democratic gubernatorial primary in Maryland. At left is Baker’s running mate, Elizabeth Embry, and at right is his son, Rushern Baker IV.
Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III concedes to Ben Jealous on June 26, 2018, after the Democratic gubernatorial primary in Maryland. At left is Baker’s running mate, Elizabeth Embry, and at right is his son, Rushern Baker IV. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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Rushern L. Baker III tried to convince Marylanders that his economic turnaround of the state’s second-largest jurisdiction and success cutting crime and instituting ethical changes made him the best Democrat to challenge popular Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.

The 59-year-old political veteran had the support of almost every major elected official in the state. But he failed to capture attention and generate excitement from voters, finding himself attacked by unions and political enemies and lacking the money to effectively communicate his message.

In the end, he lost to first-time candidate Ben Jealous by 10 points, according to unofficial returns. He trailed Jealous even in Montgomery County, which borders Prince George’s, and won only his home county and Calvert County, just to the south.

See full results for the Maryland primary

In his concession speech, Baker said he entered public service more than two decades ago because he “wanted to change people’s lives” in the same way his own was impacted by teachers and mentors who pushed him through school, including his difficult early years.

He said he was not contemplating another run for office.

Baker laid the groundwork for his run two years ago traveling to Philadelphia for the 2016 Democratic National Convention and taking regular swipes at Hogan during legislative sessions in Annapolis.

But while Jealous and other Democratic hopefuls launched a full schedule of campaign events starting late last year, Baker spent much of his time governing. He presided over ribbon cuttings and made speeches to business and civic groups but seemed to spend less time interacting with potential voters.

“[Jealous] has more energy,” said Montgomery County voter Ann Vermillion, who voted for Jealous after extensively considering both candidates. “He has a fresher outlook.”

Party insiders say they urged Baker to be more visible and make the rounds more often, but he did not listen.

Ben Jealous wins Maryland primary, vows to topple Hogan

Baker kept his circle of advisers small and comfortable. Andrew Mallinoff, the former campaign manager for U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), who represents parts of central Maryland in Congress, oversaw daily operations. Longtime friend David Byrd, a Los Angeles-based strategist who has run every one of Baker’s campaigns, flew in from the West Coast regularly and served as chief strategist.

The campaign was slow to react to national news from the White House — on immigration, health care, the environment — while Jealous and other Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls jumped on those developments immediately.

Baker also did not aggressively tout his wins or pursue labor endorsements: Two different teachers’ unions said Jealous and other major candidates appealed directly to them for their endorsement, while Baker either failed to show up or sent a surrogate. Both unions ended up backing Jealous.

Campaign efforts often appeared disorganized. When former governor and presidential candidate Martin O’Malley decided to endorse Baker, the campaign buried the news inside a press advisory about the candidate’s education plan. Few reporters attended the announcement, and the campaign did not issue its own account of the event until the following day.

“People are not excited,” state Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden (D-Baltimore), who lost his own race to a progressive challenger Tuesday night, said last week. He said the state party could have done more to help establishment candidates by thinning out the primary field.

“It’s like fighting a battle, you can’t have the guns shooting out in nine different directions,” McFadden said. “You need more of a torpedo. You’ve got to focus.”

Angela Alsobrooks set to become first female Prince George’s executive

Baker reported more than $1 million in campaign contributions at the beginning of the year, but he burned through it quickly, and donations were tepid through the spring. By May, his campaign account had less than $200,000.

His fundraising was hampered in part by Prince George’s ethics laws his administration helped draft, which prohibit real estate developers doing business in the county from contributing directly to his campaign.

While Jealous was backed by outside groups that raised well over $1 million to spend on television ads, mailers and get out the vote efforts, a PAC supporting Baker brought in an unremarkable $16,500, according to campaign finance reports.

The campaign received a jolt of energy when former Montgomery County Council member Valerie Ervin dropped out of the governor’s race and endorsed Baker, launching rapid-fire attacks on Jealous at campaign events and in media appearances.

It was not enough.

Baker’s record in Prince George’s included battles with unions and activists that came back to haunt him.

Pat Lippold, political director of SEIU 1199, said labor leaders felt betrayed by Baker when they were excluded from conversations about a regional hospital project after having pumped huge resources into his 2010 campaign for executive. The decision by the county’s hospital operator, Dimensions Healthcare Systems, to downsize Laurel Hospital meant the loss of dozens of union jobs. Baker also stood by his embattled schools superintendent, Kevin Maxwell, for more than a year, despite intense public outcry and calls for his ouster.

Tuesday night, Baker said it is amazing to think “that a child who repeated the first and second grade, who no one thought would get out of high school, let alone graduate from college, would get an opportunity to be the county executive of one of the most amazing places in the world and actually be a part of the transformation of that county.”

“I have nothing to be sad about,” Baker said. “I am going to walk out of here very pleased with the career that I’ve had.”