Josh Kurtz: Can Baker Cook Up Real Change?

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What does it say when the biggest cheers at the inauguration of Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker (D) Monday were for Marion Barry?

That the reform-minded new executive has his work cut out for him, to say the very least.

The lobby of the County Administration Building in Upper Marlboro was a beehive of political buzz just minutes before Baker and the new County Council were to be sworn in. Would Councilmember-elect Leslie Johnson (D), less than a month removed from her arrest, show up to take office? Would Jack Johnson, her husband, the outgoing county executive who was also led away in cuffs by the FBI on the same day, be alongside her?

It didn’t take long for those two questions to be answered: Yes and yes. The Johnsons weren’t quite front and center on the dais of dignitaries; they were in the second row, just to Baker’s right.

But their position was prominent enough to make more than a few people who endured the two-hour, bone-chilling ceremony outside the county building very uncomfortable. It did make for wonderful political theater, though, and you could debate whether their presence diminished Baker’s full-throated commitment to clean up government or whether it served as a powerful reminder of why Baker’s arrival in Upper Marlboro is so welcome to begin with.

When it was over, one Baker intimate expressed relief that Jack Johnson, Baker’s longtime nemesis, wasn’t booed. He had a point: Leslie Johnson is one of nine duly elected members of the County Council, and she and her husband are entitled to their presumption of innocence. Why should the residents of the 6th district go unrepresented on the council? If and when Leslie Johnson is found guilty of a crime or misdemeanor, it will be up to her council colleagues to mete out the appropriate punishment (though if Congress is any guide, Prince Georgians have reason to be worried).

On the other hand, it takes a certain amount of chutzpah to parade across the stage when everyone knows what has transpired and presumes much worse. Leslie Johnson seemed to promise to uphold the laws of the state and county a little more loudly than her eight new colleagues did when they took the oath of office; as he approached the podium to witness his wife’s swearing in, Jack Johnson, looking dapper in a fedora and long coat, sashayed to the side of the stage to acknowledge the cheers of a small knot of supporters.

Of course, the cheers for the Johnsons were nothing compared to the hero’s welcome Barry received when he was introduced along with all the other elected officials. For all his foibles and personal failings, Barry is now like a beloved, eccentric uncle in the D.C. area, a survivor, a living, breathing link to the civil rights era. For years, after all, Prince George’s County has been jokingly referred to as the District’s “9th Ward” – it’s not a comparison to New Orleans’ beleaguered Lower 9th Ward; D.C. has eight council districts – and it’s not a stretch to imagine that many of the people in the audience on Monday had benefited from a D.C. youth program or some other munificence from the Barry era.

Barry’s presence, at least, along with that of D.C. Mayor-elect Vincent Gray (D), helped advance one of Baker’s narratives: that Prince George’s must benefit more from its proximity to the Nation’s Capital, and that Baker is the man who can make it happen.

Throughout the painfully long ceremony, Baker’s high-wattage smile never diminished, and his own speech enthusiastically hit most of the points Prince George’s politicians are required to make. Where Baker’s diverged from others was on the simple but essential question of ethics.

He promised to provide “an open, efficient and transparent government.” He said he wasn’t going to just strive to make Prince George’s first in education, first in public safety, and first in economic opportunity, but “yes, first in integrity” (with this, Jack Johnson’s mouth appeared to twitch a little). He said his administration would not advance projects based on who the developers know, but whether they make sense for the community.

In a brief conversation with reporters after he was sworn in, Baker said he would create a task force later this week to explore the possibility of creating an Inspector General’s office in the county government. He said he would make statistics readily available for citizens to easily assess his administration’s progress.

Asked if he worried that the FBI investigations of the Johnsons and other county officials would cast a pall over his administration, Baker replied, “You’d like them to move quickly. But they’re going to do their job and I’m going to do my job. It’s not going to keep us from going forward.”

Baker’s first official act Monday was to sack the county police chief and fire chief, and name interim directors for about half a dozen county agencies. Anyone thinking they are witnessing déjà vu all over again are correct: many of these officials have close ties to the administration of former County Executive Wayne Curry (D), who is serving as chairman of Baker’s transition team.

In fact, it is the Curry Restoration that is one of the untold stories of the early Baker era. Not that Curry left office in disgrace: he is a gifted politician who, as the county’s first African-American executive, will always be a trailblazer and an important figure. In office, Curry displayed a talent for enriching a whole class of African-American business people while keeping most of the county’s white power brokers and business leaders happy.

Prince George’s reputation for pay-to-play government didn’t start with Jack Johnson: there was a whiff of it connected to Curry, and to his predecessor, Parris Glendening, all the way back to the days when the vaunted O’Malley machine ran the county. Their transgressions, real and imagined, seem like Pablum now compared to what Johnson and his cohorts are accused of.

Baker’s rhetoric is very promising indeed, and so is his Boy Scout’s bearing and persona. But painful as it is to use this cliché, his actions will speak louder than words.

A politically astute friend recently remarked that after Johnson, even if Baker showed up to work in a clown suit, the people would cheer.

If only it were that easy.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Preppies at the Gate

Marylanders (Still) on the National Stage

We Don’t Know Jack: Fallout from Johnson Arrest Could be Far-reaching

After Ehrlich

Tomorrow Never Knows

To Be Frank (Part 2)

The More Things Change....

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

Polls Apart

Van Hollen's Burden

Not Rhee-a-listic

Tomorrow’s Headlines Today!

20th Century Comes to Baltimore County

Primary Colors

Murphy the Smurf

A Gene for Public Service

No Agnew Here

The Full Montgomery

Shock and Tawes

Uly's Gold

Death and Deadlines

Bad News for Democrats From Washington to Washington County

Mr. Smith Goes ... Where?

End of the Line for Vallario?

Mission: Control

Post Plays Favorites

Red Storm Rising

Michael & Me

Wanted: Fresh Blood


Black and Blue?


Take Me Back to Old Virginny

The Political Lives of Peter Franchot

Bob and Weave

How to Make Prince George's County King

Kane is Able

To Be Frank

Gay Rights and Political Wrongs?

The Washington Post Goes to War

Snow Job

Unsolicited Advice for Ehrlich — Wait Till 2014

The Early Bird Gets the Worm?

Wayne's World May Be Another Planet

Miller Time Comes Early

Owings Owes an Explanation
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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.