Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker is running for governor, bringing the most political experience so far to a crowded, wide-open field seeking the Democratic nomination in 2018.
The veteran politician pointed to his record in Prince George's as a turnaround story in which public school graduation rates and median incomes increased and crime decreased. He promised to bring similar change statewide.
"It's time to build a Maryland that leaves no one behind," he said in a campaign video he planned to release Wednesday. "I'm running because we can't be silent or just complain as the cynical try to divide us and take us backwards."
Baker, 58, launches the bid as his wife, Christa Beverly, continues to ail from early-onset Alzheimer's and dementia. Beverly, and Baker's care for her over the past seven years, figure prominently into the video launching his campaign.
Baker has talked publicly about whether to run against popular Republican Gov. Larry Hogan since last year, though he has not aggressively raised money to finance a campaign.
Baker is the third Democrat to officially launch a campaign. Former NAACP chief Ben Jealous and tech entrepreneur Alec Ross have already declared their candidacy, and as many as five others say they're exploring a run: Rep. John Delaney, former Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno and lawyer Jim Shea.
Analysts say Baker's prominence in political circles makes him a strong contender in a Democratic primary field expected to have as many as seven other candidates, but he has to first prove his fundraising prowess. Hogan, meanwhile, has already raised $5 million for a campaign that's expected to cost $10 million to $20 million.
Baker, a two-term county executive and former three-term state delegate with strong name recognition in the vote-rich Washington suburbs, is less well known in the Baltimore region that is likely to emerge as a key battleground.
"He's a highly credible candidate," said Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary's College of Maryland. "He's got that established, electoral base in a critical area for Democrats in the state."
Eberly said Baker's record is compelling, but its delivery could be complicated. The county's statewide reputation lags behind those of its more affluent neighbors, and other local officials were recently ensnared in a bribery and corruption scandal involving the liquor board.
Born in Georgia to a military family, Baker spent his childhood on various military bases and overseas. He settled in Prince George's County after attending Howard University, where he met his wife and earned his undergraduate and law degrees. Baker served in the JAG corps of the U.S. Army Reserves for 14 years.
In an interview Tuesday, Baker pitched himself as a problem-solver and proven leader who restored integrity to a county mired in corruption.
"The thing about being an executive, being a leader, is being prepared to address whatever crisis confronts you," he said.
Baker took office in 2010, weeks after the FBI arrested his predecessor, Jack Johnson, in a wide-ranging corruption case in which Johnson later pleaded guilty. Baker said he had to fire a big chunk of the county staff, something he couldn't have prepared for.
"Under Rushern Baker's watch, he really righted a wrong ship," said Melissa Deckman, chair of the political science department at Washington College. Deckman said Baker can credibly pitch himself as "a good guy, sort of re-establishing integrity" in the county.
And as one of two African-Americans competing to be Maryland's first black governor, Baker has "the potential to harness the African-American vote," she said.
Despite Baker's advantages, Deckman said, Hogan is a formidable campaigner seeking to be first Republican governor in Maryland to win a second term since the 1950s.
"Any Democrat's going to have a tough time because Larry Hogan is pretty popular and the state's finances are in good shape," she said.
Baker promised to revive the $3 billion Red Line light rail project in Baltimore, calling it an economic development project that would encourage job growth. Hogan called the Red Line a "wasteful boondoggle" and canceled it in 2015, drawing ire from Baltimore lawmakers and transit advocates.
Baker said he supports a $15 statewide minimum wage, and, if elected, intends to play a dominant role in rewriting formulas that distribute education aid. He said he supports the state's picking up the tab for expanded Medicaid coverage if Congress scuttles federal aid — an expense state budget analysts put at nearly $2 billion.
He said that the state should invest more in hospitals and clinics, and in school nurses so that more people have access to care — including dentistry and behavioral health.
He called for more state spending on addiction counseling and inpatient services to address the skyrocketing rate of drug and alcohol overdoses, which killed 2,089 people in 2016 — a 66 percent increase over the previous year.
Although Baker pushed through a property tax increase in Prince George's County in order to bolster education spending, he promised not to pursue such measures statewide.
"I disagree with the idea the state can't pay for these things," Baker said. "You pay for your priorities."
He said his years as a member of the House of Delegates' Appropriations Committee — led by Del. Pete Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat and political mentor — taught him how to navigate state finances.
Baker said Baltimore lacks the resources to deal with escalating gun violence, and he promised to give the city more resources as governor both for the crime fight and for addressing underlying socioeconomic problems.
He said the state government, under former Gov. Martin O'Malley, took a similarly collaborative approach when Prince George's County's homicide rate spiked.
"You don't have the resources at the local level, you simply don't. ... Having Baltimore thrive — not just survive — is critical," he said.
Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College said Baker "has the experience, and there's the blessing and the curse of it. You have a record to run on, but you have a record that people can pick apart."
This week, for example, one of the pillars of Baker's turnaround story came under scrutiny, as four members of the county school board asked the state to investigate whether graduation rates were fraudulently inflated. The county's school system denies the charge.
Unlike several other declared candidates, Baker avoided directly attacking Hogan, saying instead the governor needed to make a cogent case to earn a second term. Baker declined to take a vow against negative campaigning — as former Del. Heather Mizeur did in the 2014 Democratic race — but he said he did not have plans to engage in it.
"In my experience, that has never worked, running against the candidate," Baker said. "People want to hear what you want to do and how are you going to do it."
An earlier version of this article misstated how many terms Rushern Baker served in the Maryland House of Delegates. He served two full terms and part of a third.