Josh Kurtz: Baker’s Crucible

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On JFK’s 98th birthday last Friday, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker (D) took to Facebook to quote from the late president’s iconic book, “Profiles in Courage.”

“The true democracy, living and growing and inspiring, puts its faith in the people – faith that the people will not simply elect men who will represent their views ably and faithfully, but will also elect men who will exercise their conscientious judgment – faith that the people will not condemn those whose devotion to principle leads them to unpopular courses, but will reward courage, respect honor, and ultimately recognize right,” was the “Profiles in Courage” passage Baker quoted.

“Courage” is a word that has been attached a lot to Baker lately, as he pressed the County Council to bust through Prince George’s decades-old property tax cap to provide millions of dollars more for the public schools. The council, for the first time ever, did vote last week to exceed the tax limit, but at a rate far lower than Baker was seeking – in fact, at a level that Baker, before the vote, indicated would be unacceptable.

Now the question is whether he will veto the budget the council cobbled together or declare victory, taking comfort in the knowledge that at least he made some progress on a policy question that seemed immovable just a few months ago.

But in the end, the episode proved to be vintage Baker, for better and worse. Here is a good man, a man of integrity and vision and, yes, courage, who nevertheless seems incapable of muscling some of his top policy and political priorities through. At a minimum, it has become increasingly apparent that Baker needs better political instincts – and advice, and follow-through.

Baker’s political acumen becomes an ongoing question not just because he still has 3 ½ more years at the helm of one of Maryland’s most important – and challenging – jurisdictions, but because Baker is one of the top Democrats mentioned as possible candidates for governor in 2018. In fact, given his own abilities, the demographics of the statewide Democratic electorate and the fact that he leads the jurisdiction with the most Democrats in the state, by many standards Baker ought to be considered the early Democratic frontrunner, even in a field that could include such top-flight politicians as Congressman John Delaney, U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez and Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz.

But can Rushern Baker ever fulfill that potential?

Baker’s push for more education spending followed a pattern: identify a pressing problem in the county; advance a bold solution, often with little notice and not much time before other politicians have to make a decision; win the enthusiastic support of The Washington Post editorial board – which amounts to nothing in Prince George’s County – and then scramble to achieve the goal, usually with very mixed results.

Remember a couple of years back, when Baker wanted to fully take over the Prince George’s school system and dropped the idea on the county’s legislative delegation three weeks before the end of the General Assembly session? Baker was able to convince lawmakers to give him partial control – but not everything he wanted.

Or how about the frantic push in Annapolis in 2012 to secure a ballot question to expand gambling in the county? That legislative fight went into overtime – though no fault of Baker’s – and in the process Baker uncharacteristically insulted a regular ally, House Speaker Mike Busch (D). The measure made it to the ballot largely through the long-standing fanatical support of Senate President Mike Miller (D) for expanded gambling in the state.

Baker first hatched the plan to pump more money into the school system just a few months ago, arguing that language in the takeover legislation enables county officials to end-run the tax cap that voters enacted in 1978 and affirmed in 1996.

But according to friends and foes alike, Baker just didn’t do enough to sell the idea – not to community groups or business leaders, and certainly not to County Council members or the taxpayers themselves. Everyone in Prince George’s County gives lip service to wanting to improve education; just about everyone agrees that more money would help the public schools.

But many residents feel overtaxed already. They’d like to see county services improved and the county government go on a diet.

The fact that the Post was so enthusiastic for Baker’s plan did the cause no good whatsoever. The editorial board has no credibility in Prince George’s County; the page may as well be called “The View from Bethesda.” So council members ultimately concluded that they’d face a taxpayer revolt if they went along with Baker.

Want further evidence that Baker’s political operation needs improving? Most of his preferred candidates in last year’s county Democratic primaries – including his son, who sought a seat in the House of Delegates – were wiped out.

And what about Baker’s penchant for picking white Democrats in statewide primaries over African-American Prince Georgians?

In 2012, he endorsed U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D) for re-election over state Sen. Anthony Muse (D). In 2014, he endorsed Brian Frosh for attorney general over Aisha Braveboy.

Last year he also remained neutral in the gubernatorial primary even though the Democratic frontrunner, Anthony Brown, was from Prince George’s. And recently he endorsed Rep. Chris Van Hollen over Rep. Donna Edwards in the race to replace U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D).

The Cardin and Frosh endorsements were justifiable on the merits; both were vastly more experienced and qualified than their opponents. Not endorsing Brown was explainable because a close personal friend of Baker’s, Jolene Ivey, was on another gubernatorial ticket.

Baker’s Van Hollen endorsement, while certainly defensible given Van Hollen’s abilities, and accompanied as it was by nice words for Edwards, nevertheless seemed premature at the very least.

Baker is, of course, entitled to support anyone he wants. But his pattern of endorsements has not gone unnoticed by African-American voters.

Could the endorsements have been more strategic, or handled with more finesse? Undoubtedly. And could there be politically consequences for Baker should he seek higher office? Possibly.

Which brings us full circle. Rushern Baker is a good man – and incidentally, one of the nicest guys in Maryland politics. When his term ends in 2018 he’ll be able to say he transformed Prince George’s County from a hive of corruption into something better, that he’s put the county on the road to being what most residents aspire for it to be. If Baker decides to seek higher office, that will be an important and legitimate part of his campaign narrative.

But you can’t help thinking that with a little more political savvy, Baker would be accomplishing a whole lot more – and that his political misfires could become a handicap as the 2018 election comes into view.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at . Follow him on Twitter -- @joshkurtznews

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.