It was just after he took office a year ago that Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III began to have trouble sleeping.
The late hours would slip by as he lay awake after his family had already gone to bed. He would run through a mental checklist of problems: a succession of daily homicides, perpetual government incompetence, troubled public schools, an unexpected $77 million budget gap.
His insomnia deepened as he struggled to form his team and finesse a blueprint to attract new businesses to the county shortly after his predecessor, Jack B. Johnson, and Johnson’s wife, Leslie, newly elected to the council, were arrested. Both were charged in a federal corruption probe that suggested the county government was up for sale.
For the first time, Baker questioned why he wanted the job, which he had sought twice before, losing both times to Johnson. The Johnsons are expected to be sentenced this week.
“Things really looked bad, especially the way the year started,” Baker said in an interview, recalling his first year in office. “The first three months of the job were really hard. I could not sleep. It looked to other people that we had put ourselves in the position that we are in.”
Baker (D) had run — against then-Sheriff Michael Jackson, backed by Johnson — on a platform promising more government accountability, safe neighborhoods and economic development, and he thought he had finally connected with voters. A well-regarded former state legislator, he planned to tap his connections in Annapolis and Washington to help the county gain more clout. But the Johnsons’ arrests generated a political firestorm, leaving Baker the task of trying to persuade Wall Street bond raters as well as state and federal officials that despite the unfortunate publicity, the county was truly entering a new era.
“When I first took office, I thought I would come in every day and run the government,” Baker recently told a West Laurel audience. “I do that. But about 90 percent of my job is selling Prince George’s County.”
Despite the challenges of his first year in office, Baker has made some headway.
He won passage of an ethics bill in Annapolis despite opposition from some council members; persuaded the council to approve a $50 million fund to lure and retain businesses; worked with Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) on a new $600 million hospital and wrested additional funds from the state for county public schools.
“It showed that we got it,” he said, “that this administration would be serious about reforming Prince George’s County.”
Del. Melony G. Griffith (D-Prince George’s), chairman of the county’s House delegation in Annapolis, gives Baker high marks for his work on health care. “I have been incredibly impressed with the way he has taken the issue of health care and elevated it to the level of importance that I believe is unprecedented in that office,” she said.
In his second year, Baker plans to focus more on the county’s public schools. He is moving ahead with plans to set up an education liaison in his office — something the elected school board is anxious about.
“Everybody’s reputation is based on your public education system,” Baker told the West Laurel community group, explaining that the schools’ reputation is tied to the county’s ability to attract new businesses. “So we have to change that.”
As someone who with his wife, Christa Beverly, a lawyer, chose to move to the county and send their three children to public schools, Baker has a deep stake in its success.
“I want people to think about us differently,” he told the West Laurel group. As a military brat, he moved around a lot as a child. He said he doesn’t want to think that he needs to live somewhere else to have a better life: “I ain’t moving no more.”
He has developed a governing style that is dependent on consensus, an extension from his days in the General Assembly where negotiation is the norm. He dislikes public controversy and often mounts a charm offensive when aggressive methods fail to secure support for his initiatives. He personally lobbied skeptical council members on his $50 million economic development fund, inviting them for coffee or a meal.
Because the county cannot increase its property taxes without voter approval — an unlikely scenario even in good economic times — Baker has promoted the fund as a way to increase development and expand the commercial tax base while creating jobs. About 60 percent of workers commute to places out of the county.
Council members, however, had worried that the plan would give Baker and other county executives too much freedom to make deals without council input or public scrutiny. Baker recast his proposal to give council members a larger role in economic development issues. The council eventually approved the revised measure, which still gave Baker substantial control over the fund.
There have been other glitches, though. A proposal to limit the authority of volunteer firefighters caused a predictable storm over a long-standing dispute among career and volunteer firefighters. Baker backed off and is trying to find a middle ground.
Some attribute the stumbles to his lack of administrative experience, something Howard County Executive Ken Ulman (D) said can be challenging for legislators who find themselves the boss of a sprawling government.
Ulman, who talks frequently with Baker, said he has advised him to try to delegate as much as possible.
“There is only so much you can do as one person,” Ulman said he’s told him. “What you can do is be a cheerleader for the county, promote and talk up the real positives that are going on in Prince George’s County.”
Baker, a lawyer, said he has begun to figure out how to make the transition.
“I have learned in this job that if someone isn’t mad at me, I am not doing my job,” he said.
How Baker’s political philosophy — a search for consensus wherever possible — will affect two pending thorny disputes with the council is unclear. Although Baker has won council approval of nearly all his appointees, two important high-profile ones are unresolved: county attorney and health officer.
The nomination of Andree Green as county attorney has irked council members, who are also her clients in a land-use case involving the proposed Reaching Hearts church in Laurel. Council members think Green was urging them to accede to the church’s position — and allow it to build — to avoid paying a second multimillion-dollar award, even though they thought they were on firm legal ground in rejecting the church’s application.
Council members worried that she wasn’t balancing their interests with the executive’s and was too inclined to favor his legal position over theirs.
Also, several council members have privately raised questions about the appointment of Pamela Creekmur as health officer, saying she lacks experience in the county’s health-care system.
M.H. Jim Estepp, who heads the Greater Prince George’s Business Roundtable and is a former county fire chief and council member, said some of the stumbles are predictable and relatively harmless.
“There have been the kind of growing pains you would face any time you go into a new environment,” said Estepp, who backed Baker in last year’s election but has been critical at times.
“If I talk to the executive about something and he concurs that it is a problem that needs addressing, it gets addressed. . . . I have not been able to say that for quite a while,” Estepp said.