County ex­ec­u­tives had long, fruit­ful friend­ship

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - ARELIS R. HERNÁN­DEZ arelis.her­nan­[email protected]­post.com

It is their fa­vorite pic­ture to­gether.

The law pro­fes­sor and his stu­dent are grin­ning, clad in stylish black shades and sit­ting side by side, laugh­ing as if shar­ing a joke only the two of them un­der­stood. The cap­tion reads, “Friends for Life.”

The inside joke is this: One of the two men never ex­pected to be there.

By his own telling, Rush­ern L. Baker III, the out­go­ing Prince Ge­orge’s County ex­ec­u­tive, was not the great­est stu­dent at Howard Univer­sity School of Law in the mid-1980s. Isiah Leggett — who will step down as Mont­gomery County ex­ec­u­tive on Mon­day, the same day Baker leaves of­fice — was the in­tim­i­dat­ing dean who didn’t let him give up.

More than three decades later, the two Democrats are leav­ing the top po­lit­i­cal job in neigh­bor­ing Mary­land coun­ties hav­ing evolved into part­ners in pub­lic ser­vice. They have leaned on one an­other for ad­vice and of­fered sup­port for each other’s most am­bi­tious ini­tia­tives.

The two couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent in style and per­son­al­ity. But their bond car­ried them through tough bud­get ne­go­ti­a­tions and other gov­ern­ing chal­lenges in Mary­land’s two largest ju­ris­dic­tions, as well as tragedies.

“He was the per­son I al­ways ran to when I was in trou­ble,” Baker, 60, said of Leggett, 74. “I never had to ex­plain any­thing. He just un­der­stood.”

The photo of the smil­ing pair is the open­ing image of an al­bum Leggett put to­gether for Baker to mark to end of their par­al­lel jour­neys. It was taken at the ground­break­ing for the Pur­ple Line — a light rail project that will some­day con­nect their two coun­ties and that both men worked hard to push through.

Leggett, a Viet­nam vet­eran, is not a demon­stra­tive guy. But he was emo­tional as he pre­sented the gift at a farewell cel­e­bra­tion for Baker on Nov. 19. Inside are blown-up pho­tos of the two of them at events at Howard Univer­sity, of Baker giv­ing Leggett a tour of his county ad­min­is­tra­tive of­fices and of each en­dors­ing the other at po­lit­i­cal events.

As part of his pre­sen­ta­tion, Leggett read a lengthy procla­ma­tion that de­tailed Baker’s en­tire pro­fes­sional bi­og­ra­phy and listed his ac­com­plish­ments in Prince Ge­orge’s one by one.

“I hereby make Rush­ern Baker an hon­orary res­i­dent of Mont­gomery County,” he said at the end, prompt­ing laugh­ter from the au­di­ence and a shriek from Baker, who quickly re­sponded, “Now I know what I’m do­ing next.”

Inside the al­bum, Leggett left Baker a hand­writ­ten note.

“I wanted him to know how proud I am of him and his achieve­ments,” Leggett said later.

Baker said he felt 25 again when Leggett paid trib­ute to him, as if he were back in law school, scared of flunk­ing and in awe of the man who, for him, epit­o­mizes black achieve­ment.

“He is some­body who was put in my life that helped me start a ca­reer,” Baker said. “Now to be go­ing out with him, it’s emo­tional.”

Leggett was there for him, Baker ex­plained, af­ter the deaths of Baker’s fa­ther and of his long­time po­lit­i­cal men­tor, for­mer Prince Ge­orge’s County ex­ec­u­tive Wayne K. Curry. He was there when Baker could no longer con­sult with his wife, Christa Bev­erly, who suf­fers from ear­lyon­set Alzheimer’s dis­ease.

Through­out the years, Leggett tried to em­pha­size to Baker that their re­la­tion­ship had changed, and he was no longer the sub­or­di­nate. They had be­come equals.

But Baker never bought that: “He will al­ways be the dean to me.”

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