Ask Rushern Baker III what his best and worst qualities are and you’ll get one answer: “impatience.” It’s a trait that has worked to the county executive’s advantage over the past five years as he has quickly and purposefully guided Prince George’s County, Md., from the grips of economic recession and political corruption to its most promising point in recent memory.
Prince George’s, which borders Washington, D.C., is the wealthiest majority-black county in the nation. But over the past few decades, it fell further and further behind other parts of the region. December 2010, when Baker took office, was a particularly tumultuous time. Just weeks earlier, his predecessor had been arrested on federal corruption and bribery charges. The county was experiencing a crime wave that included 13 homicides in as many days. Officials were fighting over how to fix a $77 million budget deficit. Meanwhile at home, Baker was staying up late with his wife, who had recently been diagnosed with early onset dementia and was having trouble sleeping.
Determined to fix something, he began driving her around the county all hours of the night to help her fall asleep. It ended up being a lightbulb moment. “Those drives were really therapeutic,” he says. “I saw every part of the county. I was thinking about what I was looking at and what I wanted to see. And that impatience set in.”
Equal parts headstrong and charming, Baker has systematically attacked the county’s problems. In five years, he has brought in more than $6 billion in development to a jurisdiction that developers had avoided for years because of shakedowns and pay-to-play politics. Crime has fallen dramatically, thanks largely to a neighborhood initiative the administration launched that focuses on reducing crime in targeted areas. Homicides dropped 40 percent in four years, and violent crime fell 36 percent. Under Baker’s watch, the county has regained the population it lost during the housing crisis, and in the past few years, Prince George’s has drawn more new residents than all but one other jurisdiction in the fast-growing Washington, D.C., area. “He has restored a sense of confidence in government,” says University of Maryland public policy professor David Crocker. “Of all his achievements, that’s the greatest one.”
With three years left before he’s term-limited out of office, Baker wants to make good on his promise to fix county schools. In his first term, he engineered a controversial takeover and installed a nationally recognized superintendent. It’s a promising start, but Prince George’s schools still rank near the bottom of the state. He’s fighting for a property tax increase that would generate millions more in school funding. For Baker, it would be a lasting legacy. “Everything in this county hinges on K-12,” he says. “We can do all the other things, but we’re never going to be the county we should be without a first-rate education system.”
-- By Liz Farmer
Read about the rest of the 2015 Public Officials of the Year and watch his acceptance speech below:
CORRECTION: A previous version of this stated that Prince George's County, Md., was facing a $77 billion budget deficit. It was $77 million.