Four years after its agents bugged the phone of the top politician in Prince George’s County, the FBI today is seriously considering moving its headquarters there.
It’s a telling example, and there are others, of how much the county’s image has improved under County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), who easily won reelection to his second and final term Tuesday.
After struggling for years to attract commercial investment, Prince George’s has pulled in more than $4 billion since Baker took office. Crime dropped, and Baker engineered a controversial, partial school takeover that has already yielded benefits. It helped him lure Kevin M. Maxwell, a nationally recognized superintendent, from Anne Arundel County to head the Prince George’s system.
The county still has a long way to go to match the prosperity of its neighboring suburbs in the Washington region. Some communities in Prince George’s along the border with the District have high poverty and related social ailments.
Baker also might face difficulties in his second term if the incoming governor, Larry Hogan (R), blocks projects such as the Purple Line light-rail link between Prince George’s and Montgomery County.
But there is no doubt that Prince George’s as a whole is now on the right track. Looking back, it is hard to believe that the voters twice rejected Baker in favor of his predecessor, Jack Johnson, now serving a seven-year federal sentence for corruption.
Johnson, you will recall, achieved international notoriety after a wiretap caught him urging his wife to hide tens of thousands of dollars of ill-gotten cash in her underwear when FBI agents arrived at their home.
Much of Baker’s success has resulted from clearing out incompetent and, in some cases, shady officials put in place by Johnson, according to business and political leaders in the county.
They said that Baker has lived up to his promises to pick people for key jobs based on ability rather than mere political loyalty.
“It’s so different now than it had been in the past eight years that I have to keep pinching myself,” said Jim Estepp, president of the nonprofit Greater Prince George’s Business Roundtable.
“There was an underlying current that you had to give something to do business with the county government,” Estepp said. “That is certainly not the case today.”
In an interview Thursday, Baker said he was most satisfied with the county’s improved reputation during his tenure.
“We would not be in the running for the FBI if there was a sense that this place was one where you couldn’t get a fair deal, and people were going to shake you down,” Baker said.
Prince George’s appears to have an edge in the contest for the FBI’s 11,000 jobs: It has two sites — Greenbelt and Landover — among the three finalists. The competition is Springfield in Fairfax County, and a decision is expected by 2016.
Baker took some political heat for his hires, but the county desperately needed an infusion of capable administrators.
“There was no question that they had experience and were not political hacks,” Baker said. “It didn’t make me very popular with the people who worked on the campaign who thought they were going to have these jobs.”
One of his gutsier choices was Mark A. Magaw as police chief: It raised some eyebrows to see a white man in such a sensitive position in the majority African American county.
“We didn’t pick the police chief based on color,” Baker, who is African American, said. “We picked the best seasoned person.”
Apart from a drop in crime, which coincides with a national trend, the most visible sign of Baker’s success has been luring or keeping businesses in the county.
His biggest victory was winning support for the $900 million MGM resort and casino at National Harbor. Another big project, worth $600 million, is the Westphalia development in Upper Marlboro. In a sign that the county is finally attracting quality retailers, its first Whole Foods grocery store is scheduled to open next year in Riverdale Park.
Baker said he was among the many who were stunned by Hogan’s victory and hoped that the governor-elect would not block the Purple Line and other initiatives that Baker said Prince George’s needs to spur further development. Hogan said during the campaign he did not think Maryland could afford the Purple Line.
“Any smart businessman knows you have to make investments,” Baker said. “Once the governor-elect becomes governor, I think he’ll look at these projects a little differently.”
For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.