Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III kicked off his 2014 reelection campaign Thursday evening, telling about 500 supporters at a private fundraiser that his record of reform has begun to lift the county out of bureaucratic stagnation and political corruption. But he said he needed a second term to complete ambitious plans to streamline government, revamp the school system and transform the county into an economic engine.
“We have done a lot, but we have a lot more to do,” Baker said after being introduced by several politicians and his three grown children.
“We are going to change this county. We are going to make this the place where people want to go,” he said, his voice rising until he was nearly shouting.
Baker’s first three years in office have been marked by a succession of triumphs and challenges.
He won a skeptical County Council’s approval of a $50 million economic development fund, which is just beginning to show results. He launched a neighborhood transformation program to provide wide-ranging assistance to six high-poverty communities.
He helped end a long political stalemate to obtain public funding for a new hospital, and he has begun to establish a regulatory system intended to be more welcoming to businesses and residents.
During Baker’s tenure, the crime rate has dropped, mirroring a national trend. Last year, despite his longtime opposition to gambling, he helped orchestrate a successful political campaign that could bring a resort casino to National Harbor.
In April, Baker succeeded in his bid to overhaul the struggling county school system and ultimately won the right to pick the next school superintendent. But he could not persuade state lawmakers to give him full power over the struggling 123,000-student public schools. Instead, he now finds himself having to deal with a school board that had tried to rally opposition to his takeover attempt, complaining that it was shortsighted and undemocratic.
Baker, 54, a lawyer and former two-term state delegate, took office just a few weeks after his predecessor, Jack B. Johnson (D), and Johnson’s wife, incoming council member Leslie Johnson (D-Mitchellville), were arrested on corruption charges. Baker, who had promised to clean up corruption, has expanded the county’s ethics office, though he abandoned a plan for an independent inspector general.
Alluding to the Johnson scandals, Baker said in prepared remarks released earlier in the day that “we were hopeful, prayerful even, that we could heal just some of what ailed us. Our pride was tested by headlines questioning the character of our county and its leadership.” But when he went to the podium, he did not mention what had preceded him.
Baker, who is running unopposed, instead used the time to emphasize his desire to fix the schools, make the county government more responsive and create new jobs.
He said that an array of new projects that have gotten underway since he took office in 2010 would soon result in $4 billion in new construction going up at the same time. And he said he was optimistic that a new hospital and a casino resort that he hopes will be built in the next five years would help boost county revenue.
Many of those in attendance at the county-owned Newton White Mansion near Mitchellville had paid up to $1,000 to hear the speech and participate in a private, meet-and-greet session with Baker before he addressed the crowd.
Baker paid homage to his wife, Christa Beverly, a longtime civil rights lawyer who has Alzheimer’s disease. She sat off to the side and did not speak.
“Any day she is able to be here with us, it’s a good day,” said Baker, who last year spoke publicly about his wife’s illness.
Using a fundraiser at an elegant mansion to kick off the campaign marked a contrast from Baker’s approach in 2010, when he launched his campaign at Iverson Mall near several struggling communities in the southern part of the county.
“The problem is that he ran the first time on ethics reform and getting the public back in,” said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland. “He set up the expectation that he would be running a people’s campaign.”
Baker held the private session with high-dollar donors and then opened the gates to people who paid $30 a ticket. A more public campaign kickoff is planned later in the summer or early fall.
Baker’s most recent campaign finance report, filed early this year, showed that his campaign treasury had about $262,000 in cash on hand and owed about $800,000, much of it to a company that is an arm of Southern Management, an apartment management company whose chief executive is a longtime Baker supporter.