The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rushern Baker’s stubborn focus helped transform Prince George’s County

Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III concedes to fellow Democrat Ben Jealous after the June 26 gubernatorial primary. At right is his running mate, Elizabeth Embry, and at left is his son Rushern Baker IV. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
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They call him the closer.

Eight years after Rushern L. Baker III declared he would renew and reform Prince George’s County, the outgoing executive has done so.

A shimmering glass hotel and casino brands the horizon along the Potomac River in National Harbor, where deciduous trees once grew. In Largo, bulldozers rumble over dirt, preparing to lay the foundation of a regional research hospital. And throughout the 500-square-mile county, which sits just outside Washington, thousands of residents have jobs in offices, shops and businesses that, several years ago, did not exist.

Baker (D), 60, will step down Monday as Prince George’s county executive. He leaves the county of nearly 1 million people with a more responsive and transparent government, an expanded commercial tax base and a revitalized, if still struggling, school system.

But he couldn’t smooth all the divisions in Prince George’s, which still has some of the lowest standardized test scores and highest crime rates in the state.

And he departs without specific plans for the future, after losing the Democratic nomination for governor, the biggest political venture of his career. Still, Baker says he has no regrets.

“My goal was never to be governor or county executive specifically. It was to be in a position to change people’s lives,” he said in an interview Thursday inside his now-barren office. “When I walk outside, and I see people’s lives are different, I’m happy. Anything but happy would be ungrateful.”

Economic transformation

Baker took office one month after FBI agents arrested his predecessor on corruption charges. Crime was spiking, and the government was facing a deficit and the possible downgrading of its credit rating.

What was left of its reputation was essentially flushed down the toilet, along with former county executive Jack B. Johnson’s bribery checks.

“He took the reins here in Prince George’s County at a very difficult time,” U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D), who served as a state lawmaker with Baker in Annapolis years earlier, said at a farewell celebration for Baker before Thanksgiving. “He immediately went to work.”

Baker pushed the County Council to pass tougher ethics laws and limit campaign donations from developers. He cut jobs and pay increases for county employees and froze spending in some parts of the budget.

At times, the stress got to him. As he moved to present his first budget proposal in a 2011 news conference, Baker froze up in front of the television cameras.

“I just thought, ‘Can I get one crisis at a time?’ ” he later said.

In addition to his public challenges, Baker was managing a private crisis. His wife and closest political adviser, Christa Beverly, was succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease.

As Baker governs, his wife’s memory fades

He was gaining weight quickly and was warned by his doctor that his health was at risk. That’s when he started running.

“Running is what I do to clear my mind,” Baker said. “Some of my best ideas start there.”

Over the next few years, he persuaded the council to take money out of reserves and create a $50 million economic incentive fund to lure and retain businesses.

His administration simplified the permitting process, offered incentives for businesses to build near Metro stations, and revived the years-old push for a new hospital and light-rail Purple Line.

Soon, Prince George’s, long one of the nation’s most affluent majority African American jurisdictions, was leading the state in job growth and experiencing its first budget surplus in years. Major projects broke ground at the Largo, New Carrollton, Suitland and Branch Avenue Metro stations, as well as the Purple Line. The county secured state funding and approval for the regional medical center.

“He is the finisher,” said David Harrington, president of the Prince George’s Chamber of Commerce. “People are enthusiastic about the opportunities emerging.”

Baker partnered with the University of Maryland to draw higher-end retail, such as Whole Foods, making the county attractive to young, upwardly mobile singles and families who were being priced out of the District.

He dropped his opposition to gaming, campaigning hard to win the license that led to the MGM casino deal.

“I can’t tell you the number of hipsters who have moved out to Hyattsville,” said state Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s). “We are going to have three microbreweries, a distillery and a mead factory just in one area . . . Ten years ago, we didn’t have that.”

Baker’s pursuit of big-ticket projects and close ties to developers prompted some critics to say he was promoting upscale living at the expense of low-income communities inside the Beltway.

“It’s nice to have a brand new casino and have big things happen, but are the jobs offering living wages?” said Larry Stafford Jr., who leads Progressive Maryland. “Are there real gains for working-class communities?”

In Prince George’s, tension between progressive, establishment Democrats

But Baker also focused attention on six historically underserved neighborhoods. His cabinet members met regularly with residents to solve problems. The county bulldozed blighted buildings, erected streetlights in dark spots and facilitated relationships with local police and fire officials.

School scuffles

Perhaps his most contentious battle was his quest to rehabilitate the county’s struggling school system. His first move was to ask state lawmakers in 2013 to restructure the Board of Education and give him more power to appoint its leadership.

“We all advised him not to do it. But he would not let us not do it,” said Glenda R. Wilson, Baker’s chief of staff. “We were preaching caution. It was not too far from the election.”

The legislation passed amid public outcry.

Baker easily won a second term, with crime plummeting and the economy rebounding. But the battle over schools left him with political enemies.

He gave fodder to those critics by backing an unpopular ballot initiative that would have extended term limits from two to three for himself and county lawmakers. Voters rejected the measure.

Baker next proposed raising property taxes by double digits to generate new revenue for education. The Prince George’s County Council — aware that residents already were paying the highest rates in the state — said no. Instead of a 15 percent tax hike, Baker got 4 percent.

Schools remained a political minefield as Baker openly mulled a run for governor. Rising test scores and improving graduation rates were marred by allegations of grade-fixing.

Even as parents welcomed new academic programs, some — joined by a dissident bloc on the school board — called for the ouster of Baker’s handpicked schools chief, Kevin M. Maxwell. They were incensed by the discovery that a school aide had been molesting children and by the loss of a major federal Head Start grant.

Baker stood by Maxwell, even as the gubernatorial race heated up and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and Baker’s Democratic rivals said he should leave.

“He said to hold him accountable, but he didn’t act when things went wrong,” said David Murray, a school board member who was critical of Maxwell. “He didn’t step up, and, ultimately, it caught up with him when he ran for governor.”

Baker’s public schools takeover: Achievement or Achilles’ heel?

Baker’s son, Rushern Baker IV, says stubborn adherence to unpopular convictions is a family virtue. “Bakers are just prone to frustrating people,” he explained.

Once a front-runner in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, Baker finished a distant second, 10 points behind former NAACP chief Ben Jealous, who lost to Hogan in the general election.

Fond farewells

But there was no talk of failure at the Camelot Ballroom in Upper Marlboro, when dozens of friends and supporters gathered for Baker’s farewell celebration.

Bathed in purple and gold light, the career politician bantered with admiring colleagues and listened to effusive praise from Maryland’s political elite.

“At a dark time in the history of our county, he brought integrity, vision, honesty and a deep love for Prince George’s County and its people,” said U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.). Turning to Baker, he said: “God has blessed this county with you.”

A county executive, his ailing wife and a new tattoo

Baker had been reluctant to take this final turn in the spotlight. The only way he’d do it, he told his staff, was if the shindig doubled as a fundraiser for the foundation Baker has established in honor of his wife, who no longer appears in public.

Normally verbose, he approached the lectern that night with a disarmingly brief speech that focused on Beverly.

“The reason that I knew that you all could rest assured that I’d do the best I could is because I had to go home and justify the sacrifices she’s made over these 32 years for me,” Baker told the crowd. “I never wanted to go home and look her in the face knowing that I did not do the best I could.”