The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In speeches, Rushern Baker makes his case for the governor’s mansion

Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III arrives at the Gaylord Hotel at the National Harbor in Prince George’s County on Friday to deliver a keynote speech at the National Association of Real Estate Brokers' 70th Mid-Winter Regional Conference. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

The Prince George’s of 2010 was nothing like the county it is today, County Executive Rushern L. Baker III likes to tell people.

When the Democrat came to Upper Marlboro, his predecessor had been arrested, thousands of residents were losing their jobs and property values had plummeted, the result of a recession that had hit Prince George’s especially hard.

School performance was among the worst in the state. And there was a homicide reported every day of Baker’s first two weeks in office.

“So I take over and I start thinking, and my son says, ‘I don’t know if you should ask for a recount or not,’ ” Baker, 58, quipped to the National Association of Real Estate Brokers on Friday, one of a series of speeches he is making as he contemplates a run to challenge Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.

But he plunged in, and now he’s touting his record to anyone who will listen in the run-up to what could be a crowded Democratic primary.

Today in Prince George’s, Baker tells his audiences, there’s a glamorous new casino, crime is at its lowest level in decades, businesses are investing billions in projects and housing prices are nearing pre-recession levels. Graduation rates are up, some government operations have been streamlined and Baker’s ethics reforms have kept his branch of government, at least, scandal-free.

His tale of a county rising from the ashes is mostly accurate, economists say, though the county is still far from being on par with its regional neighbors.

And it remains to be seen whether Baker's story will propel him past other likely Democratic candidates — including Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (Montgomery) and former NAACP president Benjamin Jealous — or fuel a serious challenge to Hogan, who has vastly more name recognition and campaign funds.

“It depends on who he runs against. He has a message that resonates,” said Don Norris, a professor and director of the University of Maryland Baltimore County’s School of Public Policy.

In the primary, given the demographics of the state’s Democratic electorate, Norris said, “the math is strongly in his favor if he is one of two African American candidates among multiple white candidates.”

Recovery, in context

The county’s striking economic turnaround — 15,000 new jobs since 2013 and $9 billion in private investment — is due in part to Baker’s efforts to build a pro-growth, business-friendly government, economists say.

But the rebound is also powered by the region’s overall recovery from the 2008 recession, said Anirban Basu, chief economist of the Baltimore-based Sage Policy Group. “It is not all about Baker,” Basu said.

The development boom that hit the Washington suburbs in the 1980s and 1990s was muted in Prince George’s. Then the recession and a racially tinged home-lending crisis wiped out wealth in what was the nation’s most affluent majority-black jurisdiction.

Since Baker took office, the county has been playing catch-up.

The median home sale price rose from about $200,000 in 2011, Baker’s first year in office, to $288,000, according to the most recent data — but is still far below the median in the District or Montgomery County.

The number of jobs increased to a high of 313,192 in 2016. Wages grew steadily, following a national trend. And the unemployment rate dipped below the regional average at 3.9 percent.

But the average weekly wage is still about $300 more in Montgomery, and $500 more in Fairfax County, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And the total number of jobs in those jurisdictions is 471,000 and 588,000, respectively, far more than Prince George’s.

“Rushern Baker inherited a mess,” said David Iannucci, an economic development adviser to the county executive. “We took a series of actions to create the toolbox that would lead us to this turnaround. This recovery is not happening by accident.”

Those tools included an improved permitting system, a $50 million incentive fund, resources targeting specific communities, and a renewed focus on federal projects and assets such as the University of Maryland and the Suitland Federal Center.

Signs of growth are everywhere, Baker likes to say, starting with the launch of the MGM National Harbor casino resort in December. The county’s first Whole Foods will open Wednesday in Riverdale Park, developers are building near the Branch Avenue and College Park Metro stations, and venture capitalists have plans to rehabilitate Iverson Mall in Marlow Heights. Kaiser Permanente announced last week that it will open a new administrative office, bringing 850 jobs to New Carrollton next year.

The Washington Post analyzed third-quarter job growth between 2011, the first year of Baker’s term, and 2016, and found that the greatest share came from low-wage jobs in the service sector, particularly the hospitality and trade industries.

But the county also made notable gains in business and professional service jobs, which Terry Clower, an economist with the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University, said are more valuable to the economy.

“I firmly believe that the approach that we took is why our economy is getting stronger, why our opportunities are greater and why our stature around the region and the state has risen,” Baker said in a March speech unveiling the county budget. “We are optimistic about what lies ahead.”

A long way to go

There are still persistent problems. The foreclosure rate has been cut in half since 2013 but still ranked among the highest in the nation in 2016, at 17 percent, said Daren Blomquist, senior vice president of ATOM Data Solutions.

The county leads the region in the number of homeowners who owe more than their house is worth.

Several major projects have either taken longer than expected or stalled completely. The Purple Line light-rail project is stuck in court and could be doomed by proposed cuts to the federal budget. The decision about where to locate the future FBI headquarters has been delayed.

A long-awaited regional medical center finally won state approval last year. But Baker and Hogan continue to fight over operating funds for the project, and changes in federal health-care policy or Medicaid enrollment could eviscerate the hospital’s financial base.

“It’s still a wait-and-see game,” said Leonard Gore, a member of a local community development organization in Suitland, where the county government has set aside millions for a town center project. “We still have a community that feels underserved.”

Baker was not directly impacted by bribery allegations earlier this year against two former state lawmakers from Prince George’s and members of the Prince George’s liquor board, a state-appointed panel.

But the scandal did nothing to help Baker's attempts to improve the county's reputation. A recent Washington Post-
University of Maryland poll
showed that nearly 4 in 10 Prince George's residents see corruption as a big problem in local government.

If he runs for governor, Baker’s Achilles’ heel could be the county’s public schools, where his hand-picked chief executive has pushed up graduation rates and some test scores but also has been stung by several misconduct cases involving school personnel and a litany of academic and other problems.

A decision looms

Baker has said he will announce whether he is running after the 2017 legislative session in Annapolis, which ends Monday.

The Post-U-Md. poll shows Democrats are eager to take back the governor's mansion, but polling from last year indicated that few residents in the state had strong opinions about any of the potential contenders, including Baker.

“There is no apparent leader,” said Melissa Deckman, professor of political science at Washington College. She said Baker has as good a shot as anyone in “trying to beat Hogan at his own game,” namely avoiding contentious social issues and appealing to voters with a centrist, pro-growth message.

“If Democrats want to reclaim that seat, they need to take it to [Hogan] on his turf,” said Todd Eberly, a political-science professor at St. Mary’s College. “If you can offer that you have also created jobs, it’s a strong message. A General Assembly member can’t point to a record like that.”

The problem for Baker, experts said, is that if he boasts about Prince George’s County’s economic success, he opens the door for Hogan — or his primary rivals — to point to everything else the county executive has yet to fix.

Although the comeback story of Prince George’s is incomplete, Baker says his successor will have the luxury of presiding over the groundbreakings, ribbon-cuttings and tax revenue his administration made possible.

“So, I leave office in 2018. There’s going to be a new person here who is going to be county executive,” he said to a group of Clinton residents Thursday night. “They gonna have money, so can y’all please remember how I started this?”