Baker de­liv­ers a changed Pr. Ge­orge’s

EX­EC­U­TIVE HELPED TRANS­FORM COUNTY Divisions re­main as he leaves of­fice af­ter 8 years

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY ARELIS R. HERNÁN­DEZ

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, 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.”

‘At a very dif­fi­cult time’

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.

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?”

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 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.

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.”


Rush­ern L. Baker III took over as Prince Ge­orge’s county ex­ec­u­tive in 2010, just as the county’s rep­u­ta­tion was suf­fer­ing from scan­dal.

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