An outside group supporting gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous is pumping money into attack ads that focus on the education record of his chief rival, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III.
The mailers and Facebook videos by a super PAC called Maryland Together We Rise have injected a negative tone into Democratic primary campaign that the candidates have largely kept positive.
Print ads appearing in Maryland mailboxes ahead of next Tuesday’s primary accuse Baker — in bold red type — of “failing our children” during his nearly two terms leading Prince George’s, the second-most-populous jurisdiction in the state. The fliers attempt to link Baker to recent problems in the school system, namely grade-fixing, giving large raises to school administrators and the loss of a federal grant for Head Start.
Baker sought to improve the long-struggling school system, winning permission from the state legislature to appoint the superintendent and several members of the board of education. He hired schools chief Kevin Maxwell and supported him as he pushed through changes that expanded academic offerings, boosted enrollment and resulted in some improvements in test scores.
But Maxwell also was stung by a series of scandals. The school system lost a $6.4 million Head Start contract after federal officials found that staff members were involved in incidents of corporal punishment and humiliating students and that the district did not take sufficient corrective action.
A state audit last year found nearly 5,500 instances in which grades were changed days before high school graduation, although the report did not find evidence that those changes were directed or ordered by the school system’s top leadership. More recently, Maxwell faced a public outcry over large pay raises to his executive staff and an audit that cited improper raises to other employees.
“We know education matters to the families of Maryland,” Marvin Randolph, the super PAC campaign manager, said in an statement. “Voters need to know that under Rushern Baker’s tenure, despite good teachers, schools were plagued with grade inflation, administrators received unauthorized raises, and loss of Head Start funding.”
He declined to say how much the PAC, which has raised at least $900,000 from unions and big-money donors, was spending on the anti-Baker advertisements.
The PAC is also circulating videos on Facebook that make similar allegations and show interviews with a Prince George’s resident who says Baker did not help her address problems with mold in her children’s school.
Baker’s campaign strategist, David Byrd, said the ads attempt to deceive voters by cherry-picking facts, leaving out context and playing up fears. Going negative, he said, usually backfires: “It says more about the campaign than it does about the candidate they are attacking.”
Part of the context the attack ads leave out, Byrd said, is the fact that Prince George’s public schools have been troubled for more than 40 years.
Baker had the “courage to push progress and challenge the bureaucracy,” Byrd said. “He took on the fight to fund of a failing school system . . . I don’t know if Jealous has that same kind of courage.”
Baker and Jealous are the front-runners in a six-person race for the nomination to challenge Gov. Larry Hogan (R) in November.
The super PAC cannot legally coordinate with the Jealous campaign, and the advertisements were not authorized by the candidate, a former NAACP president who has been endorsed by the Maryland State Education Association and several municipal teachers unions.
But Jealous spokesman Kevin Harris did not dispute the message, answering a question about the ad campaign by noting that Baker would probably face similar criticism should he become the nominee.
“If Baker can’t defend his record now, then he has no chance against Hogan, which is why Ben is the candidate endorsed by Maryland’s teachers to lead on public education,” Harris said in a statement.
Donna St. George contributed to this report.