Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III touted his record of economic growth Wednesday as he made his case for the governor’s mansion, dismissing criticism of his record on education as politically motivated.
Baker, a leader in the crowded field of Democrats vying to unseat Gov. Larry Hogan (R), said the influx of jobs and businesses and decreased unemployment rates in the county during the past eight years did not happen “by chance.”
Improvements happened because Baker’s administration made a plan to revive the county’s struggling economy and followed through with it, he said during his final State of the County speech.
“We didn’t let any of the challenges or obstacles deter us from making this county great,” said Baker, 59, noting that Prince George’s — long an economic underperformer in Maryland — has led the state in job creation for five quarters.
Baker, who is completing his second term as leader of Maryland’s second-most-populous jurisdiction, credited his signature $50 million economic development fund with creating or retaining 12,000 jobs in the county and leveraging $1 billion in private investment.
Thanks in part to the national economic recovery and in part to commercial development in the county, unemployment in Prince George’s has dipped, and wages have increased.
But the county’s 4.0 percent unemployment rate in 2017 is still above the 3.9 percent national average and neighboring Montgomery County’s 2.8 percent rate, and average weekly wages lag behind those in Montgomery by about $250, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Todd Eberly, a political-science professor at St. Mary’s College, said Baker and Hogan, who have both overseen periods of economic improvement, will pick the best elements of their economic records and focus on them when campaigning.
“The question is how much of that improvement was due to Hogan and how much was due to Baker and how much was because of the national trends,” Eberly said.
As Baker campaigns on his record, he also opens himself to attacks on what he failed to accomplish as county executive. His handling of controversies involving the county’s schools and decision to take control of the school system from the elected school board, in particular, have been sharply criticized by opponents and those competing to succeed him.
The state’s largest teachers union endorsed Democratic gubernatorial rival Ben Jealous on Sunday. The Prince George’s County Educators’ Association, which voted no confidence in the school system’s structure, blames the appointed board for the lack of accountability within the system.
All three of the major Democratic candidates vying to succeed Baker as county executive have called for a return to an elected board.
But during his speech Wednesday, Baker said the decision to move to an appointed school board was not a “power grab” and added that he has always prioritized education, noting he put $144 million toward increasing teachers’ salaries.
“We have to eradicate this culture of using our education system as a billy club in political season,” Baker said. “It is easy for people to criticize.”
He did not directly address allegations of unauthorized pay raises and grade inflation scandals that have roiled the system under his handpicked chief executive, Kevin Maxwell. On Monday, officials announced that a video camera was found hidden in a school administrative office in the county, prompting an investigation about who placed the camera and why.
“Do we have challenges? Heck yeah,” Baker said to a friendly crowd of local business leaders gathered at the Hotel at the University of Maryland. “Are we making improvements? Absolutely.”
Baker said leading a county is like “running a relay race” in which each leader runs as fast as they can until they must pass the baton to the next leader.
“This is a better place than it was a mere seven years ago,” he said. “But there is more to do in this great county.”