In governor's race, Democrat Rushern Baker says he turned around Prince George's and will do same for Maryland

Erin Cox
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of profiles of candidates in the Democratic primary for governor.

On a recent Sunday morning, less than 40 days before voters cast the first ballots in Maryland’s race for governor, Democrat Rushern L. Baker III was up before dawn for a grueling task unlikely to earn him many votes.

He was going to drive 60 miles to Frederick to run a half marathon even though he hadn’t trained. The event would cut into precious time to campaign and — most importantly — take care of his wife of three decades.

The race, Baker said, was the right thing to do. It cleared his head, honored a commitment and helped ensure his health doesn’t go off the rails the way it did when his weight ballooned in 2010. That was the year he fulfilled a decades-long dream to become Prince George’s County executive and unexpectedly became the primary caregiver to a wife with early-onset dementia.

At 4:30 a.m. that Sunday, Baker spent an hour in the morning darkness caring for his wife, Christa Beverly, a once-intense civil rights lawyer and savvy political partner who can no longer speak, move or make facial expressions. Then he traveled from Cheverly to Frederick to put 13.1 miles on his legs before starting another consecutive day of campaigning.

“People who have been in politics for a long time don’t understand my kamikaze mentality,” Baker said.

Baker, 59, is trying to sell Maryland’s voters that as governor he could turn around the state the same way he’s turned around Prince George’s — with an unyielding commitment to lofty goals, despite political risks.

He hopes his record of success against long odds will catapult him beyond the other five major Democrats running in the June 26 primary. The winner will take on Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in November.

In eight years as county executive of Maryland’s second biggest jurisdiction, Baker has cut county crime in half. He raised school spending by 25 percent and orchestrated a partial takeover of the county’s troubled school system. And he lured billions in new development to Prince George’s, including a lucrative MGM casino.

Along the way he has largely wiped away the impression that Prince George’s County is a pay-to-play den of corruption. He forbade developers to donate to the political campaigns of county executives — a move which has somewhat hamstrung his ability to raise money to run for governor.

During his 24 years in Maryland politics, Baker’s affable personality has charmed voters, foes and friends.

“People always walk away from a conversation with Rushern feeling good about themselves,” said Timothy Maloney, a longtime fixture in Prince George’s Democratic politics. Baker, he said, “is always motivated by the right thing.”

But Baker has also pushed for policies in ways that baffle even supporters. He proposed a 15.6 percent property tax increase in 2015 to fund schools without first securing political support. The council passed a 4.1 percent increase instead. The political cost was high: Baker got only a fraction of the revenue he wanted and gave opponents ammunition to charge that he favors enormous tax hikes.

Baker also insisted on taking responsibility for the county’s long-troubled schools and persuaded state lawmakers to give him that authority. He then stood by his once-lauded schools CEO, Kevin Maxwell, as the superintendent became mired in several scandals and stepped down.

The county teachers’ union is furious with Baker and lobbied for the influential state union to endorse one of his competitors.

Baker says such blowback is the result of taking on problems no one else wants to attempt to solve. His friends say that fearlessness is one of Baker’s greatest strengths.

“He’s not scared to take heat,” said Bradford Seamon, a fraternity brother and close friend since Baker’s days at Howard University. Baker talked Seamon into leaving his federal contracting company to become his chief administrative officer in Prince George’s and help run the administration.

“When he gets a thought in his mind and he gets locked in on it, it’s very hard to dissuade him,” Seamon said. “It’s almost like he won’t take no for an answer.”

Baker was born on a Georgia army base, one of four children in a military family that bounced around the world during his childhood. His father was in the U.S. Army Special Forces and injured during the Vietnam War; his mother was a nurse’s aide.

Baker attended Howard University for both his undergraduate and law degrees, experiences that forged most of the inner circle he relies on decades later. He married his college sweetheart and settled in Prince George’s County, working as a lawyer in Washington for nonprofits and spending 14 years as a judge advocate in the U.S. Army Reserves. The couple has three children, Aja, Quinci and Rushern IV.

He became a member of the Maryland House of Delegates in 1994 and quickly rose through the leadership ranks during three terms. In 2002, he decided to run for county executive and lost to Jack Johnson. He challenged Johnson again in 2006, and lost again.

On his third try, in 2010, he won the race to succeed Johnson — days before FBI agents arrested Johnson on federal corruption charges.

Baker came into office promising to turn around the county’s image and blunt the foreclosure crisis caused in part by lending practices that hit the majority-African-American jurisdiction particularly hard.

Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett, former dean of the Howard law school, says he met Baker decades ago when Baker was a student trying to drop a class after the deadline. Leggett turned him down, much to Baker’s fury at the time. But Leggett soon became a mentor and continued to support Baker throughout his political career — even when he questioned Baker’s embrace of politically dicey issues.

“He’s not shied away from really tough problems,” Leggett said.

When Baker decided in 2012 that bringing table games and a casino to National Harbor was the best way to raise funding for county schools and spur economic investment, he asked Leggett to help convince Montgomery County residents — who widely objected to a gaming expansion — to vote for the referendum.

Leggett repeatedly said no, until Baker eventually convinced him that Montgomery County’s economic fortunes would be depressed if Prince George’s weren’t improved.

“He told me, ‘If you don’t help me turn this around, the referendum is going to fail. … If we are not successful, it’s going to be a drag on the entire region,’ ” Leggett recalled.

But the casino effort helped earn Baker enemies, too.

“When he was first elected county executive, he promised us that if we supported the casino legislation that he would do everything he could to put our educators on parity with surrounding jurisdictions,” said Theresa Mitchell Dudley, president of the Prince George’s County Educators Association. “He didn’t do what he promised us he would.”

A few hours after Baker finished his half-marathon in Frederick, he was back on the campaign trail, joining hundreds of activists and public officials at a Democratic Party brunch in Montgomery County

He worked the banquet hall as if it was full of old pals. Many offered condolences that Baker’s hand-picked schools superintendent, Maxwell, had resigned under pressure earlier that week.

“I don’t want to read about you in the papers, but it’s so good to see you,” said one well-wisher.

Baker smiled and kept working the room, getting stopped to pose for selfies every few steps.

“I want them to see me,” Baker said. “I want them to see that I’m working for it, that I’m not taking anything for granted.”

Rushern L. Baker III

Age: 59

Job: Prince George's County executive since 2010

Home: Cheverly, Prince George's County

Family: Married, three children

Running mate: Elizabeth Embry

Education: B.A., law degrees, Howard University

Other experience: After law school, worked as a community organizer in Washington; served for over 15 years as a JAG officer in U.S. Army; member Maryland House of Delegates,1994-2003.

ecox@baltsun.com

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