WASHINGTON -- Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III will endorse Rep. Chris Van Hollen in his bid for the Senate, lending one of Maryland's most prominent African-American voices to a campaign that is moving quickly to shore up support from state political leaders.
Baker's endorsement, which will be formally announced at a community center in Colmar Manor on Wednesday, is likely to strengthen Van Hollen's hand in Democrat-rich Prince George's County -- the geographic base of his only opponent in the race so far, Rep. Donna F. Edwards.
As one of Maryland's best known black politicians, Baker's power extends well beyond the county's borders and so the endorsement will likely have statewide implications as well. Another respected African-American leader -- Montgomery County Executive Isiah "Ike" Leggett -- backed Van Hollen's campaign last month.
Van Hollen, of Montgomery County, and Edwards are both running for the seat that will be left open by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski's retirement in 2017. Several other politicians are considering a run, but Baker said the time was right to support Van Hollen even though the field is not yet clear.
"I've been able to see how effectively he's worked in our community. He's been able to bring back resources to the county," Baker said in an interview. "We've had a long-term, solid relationship that's built on more than just knowing each other politically. We know each other personally."
The venue for the announcement -- the Colmar Manor Community Center -- is intended to reinforce that message. Aides noted Van Hollen secured $670,000 in federal funding in 2008 and 2009 to build the center.
Edwards' campaign released a statement focused on the congresswoman's work for the county.
"The voters of Prince George's County have elected Donna time and again because she gets results for working families," a campaign statement read. "Prince George's County voters back Donna because she is a true progressive fighter for them on issues like expanding Social Security for seniors and future generations.
Baker's decision not to endorse the hometown candidate, Edwards, is no surprise to those who follow state politics. The two have had a sometimes strained relationship. But it may be telling that Baker is endorsing Van Hollen before Baltimore Rep. Elijah E. Cummings had decided whether to pursue the race.
Cummings has said he is seriously considering the contest and recently conducted a poll.
Some Democrats believe Maryland's open seat may be one of the best opportunities in the country next year to elect an African-American to the Senate. Asked about the importance of that, Baker praised Edwards as "extremely talented" and described Cummings as "someone I would consider a mentor," but said he ultimately had to pick a candidate he thought would best represent the state and Prince George's County.
Van Hollen and Baker served together in the General Assembly during the 1990s, and Baker said the two worked closely on several issues, including education spending and tobacco settlement funding.
Under the congressional districts drawn by the legislature in 2002, Van Hollen's 8th District used to include a small slice of Prince George's County along the District of Columbia's northeast border with Maryland. Edward's 4th District used to have a significant chunk of eastern Montgomery County.
But both politicians lost that respective territory during the 2011 redistricting -- an effort that Baker, Leggett and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake supported in Annapolis.
Van Hollen, the first candidate to enter the race to replace Mikulski, has moved quickly to line up support from political leaders in Maryland and Washington. He had already announced endorsements from Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, and the entire Montgomery County Council.
By contrast, Edwards has not announced a single endorsement from an elected leader in Maryland. But Edwards, who has long embraced her political independence, has captured support of several national progressive groups, including Emily's List, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Democracy for America.
"I've known Rushern Baker for over 20 years -- we stood side by side in the Statehouse fighting for better schools and stronger gun laws, and we continue to fight hard for critical investments for Prince George's County," Van Hollen said in a statement.