Rushern L. Baker III beamed as he heralded the opening of yet another new business in Maryland’s second-most populous county, a vascular surgery center in Laurel that brought with it 75 jobs.
“This is beautiful,” said Baker, who has reveled in dozens such ceremonies in nearly eight years as county executive of Prince George’s County. “This is just an example of the types of things we are going to do all over the great state of Maryland with great businesses.”
It was the end of a difficult week for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate. His handpicked schools chief had announced he would step down after more than a year of scandals, exposing cracks in the facade of a signature education overhaul effort. Baker’s leading rival in the June 26 primary, former NAACP chief Ben Jealous, was about to unveil his education policy in front of a supportive audience of Prince George’s teachers, a reminder that despite a raft of endorsements from Maryland’s political elite, Baker had failed to win key union support in his own back yard.
But here, amid the balloons and music, the 59-year-old politician could focus on his notable economic development record, which includes the glitz and glamour of the MGM National Harbor casino, the county’s first Whole Foods Market and a soon-to-be-built regional hospital center.
Baker loves to rattle off the numbers: 20,000 new jobs; $8 billion to $10 billion in new projects; No. 1 in the state in year-over-year job growth for five quarters. On Thursday, he celebrated what his administration says is $1 billion in private investment generated by grants from Baker’s flagship Economic Development Investment Fund.
He is itching to take on popular incumbent Gov. Larry Hogan (R), convinced that voters in the mostly Democratic state will respond to his pledges to find $2 billion more for education, invest in mass transit, expand recycling and composting throughout the state and eliminate gender pay gaps for state employees.
But Baker’s campaign has struggled to take off. A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll released this week found 16 percent of likely Democratic voters saying they support him, narrowly trailing first-time candidate Ben Jealous — with nearly 4 in 10 voters undecided.
“Baker has tremendous credentials. He’s touched all the right bases, but he’s not inspiring,” said Donald F. Norris, professor emeritus of public policy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. “He needs to show some fire in the belly.”
Baker grew up an Army brat, moving from base to base, and explains his desire to boost public education by recalling his own learning struggles. His father was a strict disciplinarian who made it clear that he expected more from his son in the classroom.
After Baker earned a bachelor’s and a law degree at Howard University, his father told him to stop complaining about politics unless he thought he could do a better job. Baker married his college sweetheart, civil rights attorney Christa Beverly, and moved to Prince George’s, where he was elected to the General Assembly in 1994 and quickly rose through the ranks.
Instead of running for a safe seat in the state Senate carved out for him by party leaders, Baker gambled in 2002 and sought the job he really desired: county executive. He lost. He tried again four years later. And failed again.
When he finally won the office in 2010, Prince George’s was reeling from a corruption scandal involving outgoing county executive Jack B. Johnson (D).
Baker campaigned for new ethics laws and reached out to business leaders and developers. He eased permitting, dropped the opposition to slots he had held as a state lawmaker and convinced former colleagues in Annapolis to pass legislation that paved the way for the MGM casino — perhaps the largest of his economic development victories.
“We have a ton to offer in Prince George’s, but we were lacking the appetite from the public,” said Boyd Campbell, president of the Maryland Realtors Association. “I’ve watched the peaks and valleys, and no one has taken the county forward like Rushern.”
Baker next asked the General Assembly for permission to overhaul the school system. He won a partial victory, gaining the power to appoint the schools chief and some school board members. But he failed to build public consensus for the change, said Theresa Mitchell Dudley, president of the Prince George’s County teachers union — a misstep that would haunt him.
“If you don’t have buy-in from the community, you get resentment and hostility,” Dudley said. “He did not listen to the people, he just told them what he wanted.”
Five years later, school enrollment has grown, academic offerings are much improved and test scores have inched up. But allegations of misconduct and questions over pay raises generated a torrent of criticism, culminating in schools chief Kevin Maxwell’s decision to leave.
Baker suffered other bruising losses, most notably the County Council’s dramatic shrinking of his proposed 15-cent increase in the property tax rate and voters’ refusal to heed his calls to extend the time county politicians can stay in office from two terms to three. He acknowledges he could have done more to explain those initiatives. But Baker has always been driven by the conviction that he was right, even if his unilateral approach was polarizing.
“Public education is the most important thing that faces us . . . that’s what you fund first,” he said about the tax increase. “I regret that we didn’t get the full amount.”
Baker and Beverly, who suffers from advanced early-onset Alzheimer’s, raised three children in their home in Cheverly and now live in a condo in National Harbor.
He lacks the kind of passionate following that could turn out droves of voters in Prince George’s, the largest source of Democratic votes in the state. But he boasts strong ties to party leaders, netting endorsements from Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) and many more.
As governor, he says he would push to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, ban foam cups and plastic bags, and prohibit campaign contributions from political action committees.
But Baker is a pragmatist before he is a progressive. He says Maryland is not yet ready to legalize marijuana, and he wants to increase funding for community colleges, not make them free for everyone.
His sporadic political tone-deafness was apparent at a Baltimore Teacher Network forum last month when he trumpeted his 2015 tax-increase proposal as proof that he would battle for more school dollars.
“It was the biggest fight I ever had,” Baker said. “It’s a fight I’m willing to fight as governor.”
It sounded like a pledge to raise taxes — potential political suicide in a general-election campaign against Hogan, the ultimate anti-tax warrior.
Baker explained later that he has no plans to raise taxes. He said he was simply trying to convey how as governor he would prioritize education above all else.
But those at the forum had no way of knowing that.
Next: Richard S. Madaleno Jr.