Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) leaves office on Monday, after eight years on the job. This week he spoke with Maryland Matters reporter Bruce DePuyt.
In Part II of a two-part interview, Baker discusses why he pushed to take control of the county school system and offered support for casino-style gambling, two proposals he opposed as a candidate.
He also discussed how he balanced work with the increasing needs of his wife, Christa Beverly, who started exhibiting Alzheimers-related symptoms shortly after he took office.
Maryland Matters: You had a number of issues to confront, personal and political, as soon as you took office, including the threatened loss of the county’s AAA bond rating. The three bond rating agencies summoned you to Wall Street almost immediately, because of concerns surrounding your predecessor. You dodged a bullet when all three decided to keep you at AAA.
Rushern Baker: The Wall Street bond rating agencies said, ‘We don’t necessarily buy your rosy outlook for the county.’ They liked the $50 million [economic development incentive fund that I had proposed]. They liked the idea that we were being bold, that we were doing something proactively rather than just wait for the economy to turn around. But they didn’t necessarily buy that we could diversify the economy.
They said, ‘we’re going to have a wait-and-see attitude for you.’ Because I had picked some really smart people to be part of it, some people they respected.
MM: You succeeded a man whose scandals landed him in prison and whose lack of integrity damaged the county’s reputation. Voters chose you in part, I think, because of how different you and Jack Johnson were. Is restoring apparent honesty to county government a big part of your legacy?
Baker: [The Johnson scandals reinforced] all the negative stereotypes that people have about African-Americans being able to run a government. The thing I benefited from coming in is that people knew about my work in the legislature. So people like [former County Executive] Wayne Curry were willing to vouch for me.
[Montgomery County Executive] Ike Leggett (D) — it just so happened that the guy who taught me in law school — was the county executive of the largest county in the state, next door. And he made it a point that ‘I’m going to help you because it’s important to the state and the nation to see that we can run a government.’
In the legislature I had a reputation of being honest and forthright. And to solidify that, the first thing we did was pass ethics reform. I said I want to reform Prince George’s County, and institute an ethics executive director, with a five-year appointment, with the power to investigate. And then I put a bill in to restrict the ability of developers to give money to the county executive and county council if they had projects pending.
That set the tone. People might not have believed the economic development stuff or that we could reduce crime, but they did believe that I was going to be honest.
MM: There were two things that you were against as a candidate that you actively pursued once you got into office — gambling and taking over the school system. Was that intentional?
Baker: What I said in all three races for county executive, explicitly, was that I had no intention of taking over the school system. That was part of the rhetoric of the campaign.
And I had consistently voted against gaming in the General Assembly. I was against gambling happening. And that was my record.
During the campaign, just like in every campaign, you say a lot of things. And then when you get into the office, you realize a lot of the things you said aren’t necessarily the things that need to be done. So in both of those instances it was an honest answer.
I had no intention of taking over the school system. I thought the bully pulpit of the county executive’s office would be enough to change the direction. I learned from [the late Del.] Pete Rawlings (D-Baltimore City), who was the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, that if you controlled the purse strings, you control policy.
So when I got in and said to folks in the school system, ‘here’s where we need to go,’ I thought that they would come along because they were getting 62 percent of my budget. And I became county executive and they said, ‘we’ll consider what you want.’ And they totally ignored everything.
They just wanted me to give them money and then they would do what they wanted.
Those days are over. Now, the county executive is intimately involved in the education system, whether they want to be or not. Same with the county council. For good or bad, when it goes down, it’s us. And that’s the way it should be. No more being bystanders. And you pay a price for it, but you’re involved.
Gaming was the other thing.
The state had said they were going to expand gaming and go into table games. They were looking at Prince George’s County. And people said, ‘You said you didn’t support gaming; in fact, we’ve got you on record saying it.’ And I said, ‘You’re absolutely correct.’
But a couple things had changed. One — the state already passed that. There’s gaming already here.
Two — Anne Arundel County was getting $32 million additional revenues but 90 percent of the people going there were from Prince George’s County. “Live!” was making their money off people from Prince George’s County. We were doing the gambling.
So here’s my predicament, as I said to the pastors. All the problems and issues that people brought up, I have the problems, but none of the money.
So I said to the legislature, I don’t really want a slots barn. What I want is a destination resort. I want entertainment to be part of the diversity of our economy. I didn’t know MGM, but what I did know was if I put a site at National Harbor, which really was struggling, if I could somehow make that a place where people go for entertainment, people will spend on restaurants, they’ll spend on shows, they’ll come sightsee, and go to events.
So I said I’m not in favor of gaming except at National Harbor. And I said the person building the site had to spend a billion dollars, a figure I just came up with out of the air. Because I figured that if you spend a billion dollars, you’re not going to build a slots barn.
And the third thing was, I wanted somebody with a reputation for making money outside of gaming. I didn’t tell them who. It could have been Disney for all I cared. It had to be entertainment. And then MGM stepped in, which was the perfect partner.
The thing about me, when I do change my mind, I give voters a chance to tell me I’m wrong. I don’t do it and hide away. So I did town hall meetings in every part of the county and told them why I thought this was the thing.
And on each of those, I did not get Council support. [Laughs]
MM: Former D.C. mayor Tony Williams once said the point of political capital is not just to have it, it’s to use it.
Baker: It is to freaking use it. When I found out my popularity was in the 70s, I was like, ‘Shoot, we’re taking this baby out for a ride.’ That’s when we did education. That’s when we did gaming.
And at the end of the day on both of those things, I never dipped below 68 percent. At the time we were going through it, I dipped. I took a sharp dip. [Laughs] People were mad. But then they start to see [results].
I went to South County and said we’re going to open a District 7 [police] station. We’ve been trying to open it for 20 years. We’re going to open it. We’re going to put Fire & Rescue in the area. And it squeaks by. But if you go to people, they don’t remember the protests, they now remember there’s not a traffic jam and it’s the safest part of Prince George’s County. They certainly know how much impact money we get to spend. Nobody remembers they didn’t want it. They like the restaurants and they go there.
On the schools, the polling on [superintendent] Dr. [Kevin] Maxwell, at the height of when everybody was mad at him, he was polling at 60 percent. He was never unliked. Even the school system, with all the warts, is in the best position it’s been in in 35 years. In every single category. Graduation rates. Scholarships. Even if you take all the graduations that people say shouldn’t have graduated, it’s still the highest. Dr. Maxwell was never unpopular. It was a ruse.
I believe citizens have the right to yell at you. That’s what you sign up for. I signed up to be yelled at by people who forcefully can disagree. It’s fine.
MM: How is your wife doing? And how did you cope with the time and emotional energy of helping her, while dealing with such a demanding job?
Baker: She’s doing good. She’s doing well. The first month of being in office was hard. She had been diagnosed in February of 2010 [with Alzheimers], and started needing more help. I could leave her at home by herself, but I needed to do a lot in the morning, my daughter would take over in the afternoon and I would do stuff at night.
But then she couldn’t sleep at night. So I would have to drive her around so she could fall asleep. It was harder and harder to leave her by herself.
So I’m learning the job; I’m dealing with the disease with no help, which was my own fault. There were places I could have gotten help but I was stubborn. I tried to do it on my own, which was a mistake, just like I tried to a lot of stuff in the office on my own, which was a mistake. So I made it hard on me.
Once I got used to the routine at home, the home part was not as bad. I knew what to expect. And I knew that eventually we would end up where we are now, where she doesn’t have the ability to walk or speak. But I didn’t have the time to think about that, I just had to react. I had to react at work and I had to react at home.
We have 6,000 employees. Every last one of them has a personal problem that they have to deal with. So, it’s not fair of me to say, ‘I can’t come in to work this morning because my wife couldn’t sleep and I’m driving around Prince George’s County.’
So my thing was: the moment that I couldn’t do both jobs, I would leave the job as county executive, because nobody voted for me to be a part-time county executive.
MM: But then you added your gubernatorial bid.
Baker: Then I added the governor thing to it. Which — it’s funny. Dealing with my wife and the governor’s race was a lot less stressful than dealing with the governor’s race and being county executive. I’m sure [the late Baltimore County Executive] Kevin Kamenetz would say the same thing, the pressures on you when you’re in office, are different from those who don’t have office.
You worry about homicides, fires, public safety, storms, floods, employees, but you also have outside pressures. And that is the very people you need to help you get the next job, are the same people who are going to come in and ask you for stuff. Contract negotiations. The business community. Everybody is asking you for something.
Kevin and I used to talk about this — if I say yes [to a request], that would be great for my gubernatorial campaign, but it would be bad for the county. And there were a number of times when my son would say, ‘Do we have to make everybody mad? Can’t somebody be our friend?’ [Laughs] And I said, no, I have to make the best decision on behalf of the county.
Everyone said, ‘Fire Dr. Maxwell. A year before the election.’ Politically, that would have been a simple answer. You go in there and say, ‘You’re getting too much negative media attention, you need to go.’ For Rushern Baker’s governor campaign, that would have been great! For Prince George’s County, it would have been awful.
I can’t listen to the noise. I have to look at the nuts and bolts. And parents. Parents always said, ‘He needs more help, give him more resources.’
MM: So what do you do next professionally? And what’s your role in terms of the county, helping to attract business and being an overall cheerleader for Prince George’s?
Baker: I’m excited about the incoming administration. I think that County Executive [Angela] Alsobrooks is going to be phenomenal. My role is the same role that Wayne Curry did for me — supportive of the administration, supportive of the county.
I want to be a cheerleader.
It was pretty hard for Wayne to put his ego aside and treat me as the leader of the county. People would come to me later and say, ‘Wayne still thinks he’s running the county.’
What people didn’t realize is that he would help me think through difficult decisions. He would never tell me what to do. And he was always deferential. Once you call the play, the play is called. He didn’t think I should be out front on gaming. But once I made my decision, he saluted and went out there and championed it.
And that’s what I will do for the next administration. I will be as helpful as she wants. As I’ve said to her, 24 hours a day I’m available to talk. Just like Wayne was there. [Former County Executive and Gov.] Parris [Glendening] was there. Ike was — God — Ike was really there. I leaned on Ike and Wayne so much it was ridiculous. I would just call Ike and vent. I would call Wayne and say, ‘come back here, I want to choke somebody.’
One of his days when Wayne happened to wander in here, I looked like I hadn’t slept, because I hadn’t. And he said, if you don’t do something [about your weight and health], you’re going to flatline. You’ve got a wife at home that needs you. And he said, ‘I don’t care what you do, Baker, but you need to start taking time for yourself.’
He said, ‘what do you like to do?’ And I said I used to run and read. And he said, ‘get a book; put it in your car. You’re driving around all day.’ [Laughs]
And you know, now I run and I always have a book.
MM: What are you going to do next?
Baker: The one thing I do know is I’m certainly doing to spend more time with my wife and raising awareness and money for Alzheimers. I want to spend more time on the national level raising awareness. And now that we’ve started the Christa Beverly Foundation, I’m going to be working with that. That’s the only thing I know for certain. And then on the rest, I’ll make a decision in the future.