Embracing Pragmatism in an Ideological Age
Rushern Baker, Prince George's County Executive and former Democratic member of the Maryland House of Delegates, speaks about navigating political currents under the tutelage of an experienced mentor and how he has overcome both disappointments and unworkable idealism to become an effective, pragmatic leader in his community.
Prince George's county executive Rushern Baker waxes eloquent on political mentorship, ethics, and development #theta360 - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA
RUSHERN BAKER is the Prince George's County (Maryland) Executive. County Executive Baker is a former delegate representing District 22 in Prince George's County. He's a former five-time delegate to the Democratic National Party convention. Baker is the former Executive Director of Community Teachers Institute, a former Senior Partner at Baker Perry, and a former captain in the United States Army Reserve Judge Advocate General Corps.
Baker: I'm currently the county executive of Prince George's County, the second largest jurisdiction [by population] in the State of Maryland. And I hope that I'm always advancing the public interest. But I have to say it didn't start with being elected. You know my wife used to tell me, “Sweetheart, you don’t need to be elected to change the world.”
Cooper: Your path to the office of County Executive assisted by the help of a prominent mentor, former Prince George's County Executive Wayne Curry. How is it that you came to meet him and follow in his footsteps?
Baker: Curry was running for county executive at the same time that I was having my first run for the House of Delegates. My wife and I met Mr. Curry soon after we moved up to Prince George's County as young lawyers since he was very active in the Bar Association. He was a leader in the community but it was really my wife's idea that he could become a mentor to me. When I got elected my wife said, “You need somebody to help mold you to do the things that you want to do in the State of Maryland and I think Wayne Curry would be a good person.”
Cooper: But you don't just walk up to the County Executive and say, “Hey, let's get a beer buddy,” do you?
Baker: You know Jordan, I was young like you and so that's exactly what I did. I walked up to the new county executive and pretty much asked him if he’d like to get a beer and mentor me. Now of course I didn't know that meant that he was going to haze me, but that was the game.
I was very lucky in my political life to have some really great people who helped shape me. Wayne Curry was the most significant of these. [Another significant mentor to me was] Senator Paul Pinsky [who] embraced me and put me on his ticket when I ran for delegate in District 20. He also was somebody whose belief [structure] never changed. He was extremely progressive, which was a virtue. [Though being too strictly ideologically driven can inhibit your ability to] get things done, [and thus there was a temptation in the legislature to become more pragmatic and moderate in my policy stances], Pinsky helped me make sure that I never went too far astray from my core beliefs.
Cooper: Perhaps you would agree that it may sometimes be necessary to adapt your principles to certain political and cultural changes that emerge in the legislative process? Indeed, you were once against gambling as a delegate in the 1990s but after the state moved to a different direction and you saw that gambling was going to become legalized in Maryland, as County Executive did you not change your stance on that front, embrace gambling, and lobby to create a premier gambling destination in Prince George’s with the National Waterfront?
Baker: Well I certainly did [change my position on gambling] and [sometimes that’s necessary to get] things done. Wayne Curry and Pete Rawlings (who was the Chair of the Appropriations Committee) were important role models [to me precisely because of their advice that it’s alright if] you evolve [in order to] help the people that you that you serve.
Cooper: How might Curry or Rawlings have reacted to that revelation about how you have changed your position on an issue that you once felt so strongly about?
Baker: If Rawlings would have seen that I'd changed my position he would have said, “Rushern, you’re finally listening to me.” He was an advocate for getting things done [and was a master at getting] legislation [passed] through the General Assembly, [which he accomplished through compromise].
[Rawlings was instrumental in shaping my pragmatic approach to politics]. I wanted to change the school system in Prince George's County, which was wealthy and well-educated, but which had a school system that lagged [behind that of neighboring jurisdictions]. As a legislator I wanted to [improve the performance of our schools] but I could never get anything passed because I was very dogmatic. Rawlings [taught me how] to bring people to my side, [build coalitions], and how to understand the process of getting legislation through both chambers.
Cooper: Though as a freshman delegate in your first term you didn’t have much political capital to use get legislation through the bill to law process anyways, correct?
Baker: Yeah… [when] you don't have much political capital and no one [is] really listening to you, you can say whatever the heck you want; you're throwing bombs. What [Rawlings] taught me was that [being ineffective] had nothing to do with being a freshman [and instead] had everything to do with understanding where you had to go to get the help you would need. Pete offered me [invaluable wisdom] and the reason I ended up getting to know Pete was because Wayne was my mentor; Wayne came down to the legislature as the County Executive and told me, “Baker, I want you to go to Appropriations and [Pete Rawlings] is the guy you need to know.”
Cooper: Why did Curry take such a liking to you; did he have other mentees?
Baker: He did [have other mentees, but] not too many. It was really a small farm system [and to be honest] I don't know why [he took me under his wing]. I think he saw a lot of himself and his personality [in me]. I think what he saw is a younger probably less polished version of himself who was a lot [less] diplomatic than he. He always reminded me of Theodore Roosevelt, because they look alike [but because they were both] a force of nature.
Cooper: You have been incredibly successful as county executive. Under your leadership as county executive you've seen the crime rate decrease by 55 percent, property values have increased by 61 percent, graduation rates increased by 10 percent, you have avoided any scandals as a successor administration to one that saw the incarceration of former County Executive Jack Johnson, and $12 billion has been invested in development projects in Prince George’s County including the creation of National Harbor. To what do you attribute these successes?
Baker: I was able to accomplish those [feats] because I had a mentor like Curry who basically spent the first six months of my administration [counseling me] in my office [at his own expense]. At least three times a week and he would sit [with me] and he would go over everything that he had learned and [all of the] mistakes that he had made as county executive. He gave me a tutorial of the things [I would] have to do to be successful.
I'll give you a quick example: The first bill I put in as county executive was an ethics bill to completely change the way [business was done] in the county. I went [directly] to the State, [bypassing] the County Council. [I asked my former] colleagues in the Maryland General Assembly and I said I want you to pass legislation that regulates how [candidates] can fundraise [such that violators can be prosecuted].
But it was Wayne who convinced me that [I had made a mistake and that] I couldn't [pass ethics reform] on my own. Wayne told me that there were nine members of a legislative body that vote on my budget and that I was going to make them mad [both by bypassing them and by adversely] impacting their ability to raise money. [He told me that I] needed to bring [the County Councilmembers] along with me. That was an important lesson [for me] because I didn't understand at the time how important it was going to be for me to have a good working relationship [with the Council, which would be necessary to] pass some of the very controversial legislation that we would need [to pass] to turn the economy around.
Cooper: So we're sitting in 2010 and you're under the tutelage of a former county executive and you're forced to acknowledge that you cannot take unilateral executive action and yet you must reconcile that fact with your ambitious agenda. How did you proceed?
Baker: I was enthusiastic and I had all of these ideas. So what [Curry] told me was that I had to get [people] to buy into my ideas [instead of] presenting [my ideas as the only solution and inviting others to] go ahead and follow. I needed a coalition. So the first thing [I did was] set up small, intimate dinners [with councilmembers where we would] talk about how we would move Prince George's County forward. We felt like we were Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton.
Cooper: They [consequently felt as though they] had more agency [in helping to] shape legislation, which I imagine was helpful in reconciling them to you after your ethics reform initiative that they didn't like. And for our listeners who aren't familiar with Maryland politics, there is a significant history of ethical violations in Maryland in the 1970s with former Governor Spiro Agnew being forced to vacate the Vice Presidency due to an ethics scandal and, separately, with his successor, Governor Marvin Mandel, being convicted for mail fraud and racketeering during his tenure as governor, a conviction for which Mandel served time in prison. And then in 2010 Maryland was again embroiled in ethical scandals with your predecessor.
Baker: You’re right. And so in order to move forward I had to send a signal to everybody that I [took the job] seriously and [that I was] going to do everything [in my power to prevent another scandal from erupting]. As I said to the county council, it wasn't enough for us to all say that we're new and we haven't done anything wrong. [The ethics scandal reflected] on the county as a whole.
These dinners [helped me bring] the county along [with my plans for an] economic development center. We were in a recession at the time and Prince George's County had a $77 million budget deficit. I was suggesting to the nine members of the council that we take $50 million out of our rainy day fund to incentivize businesses to [invest in our county]. That was difficult for [the council]. They were like, “We have this budget deficit and you're talking to us about taking money and using it to incentivize business growth? How do we know but it's going to work?” And I said to them “I know it's going to work if we do this” and look where we are now. Businesses simply weren't coming [before we provided incentives].
Cooper: So on the topic of business development, clearly the county council and the county executive have jurisdiction over zoning regulations, which greatly impacts real-estate developers. Has there ever been such a thing as pay to play, whereby developers would need to make campaign contributions to council members in order to get receive the sort of zoning regulations that they wanted from the council?
Baker: That is exactly what has happened in the past and that's why ethics reform was so important and why many council members didn't like it. [Developers] were basically where council members and county executives [went to to] raise their [campaign funds] and it [was] not [limited to] just Prince George's County but throughout the state of Maryland elected officials raise their money from developers. My legislation took away the ability for Prince George’s County Councilmembers or Executives to go to developers and raise campaign contributions if you were voting on projects that they had.
Cooper: Does that mean you'd have to recuse yourself from such a vote or that you just wouldn't be able to accept the cash?
Baker: That means that you would not be able to accept any donations from anybody that had a project going on in Prince George's County. I probably raised about a million dollars for that for the last race for county executive [and this ethics legislation] meant that I couldn't go back to those people to fundraise. So that's why the ethics bill was so controversial; it took away that.
Cooper: Once the ethics bill was passed did you see any change in voting patterns or did developers find it more difficult to pass the zoning regulations that they sought or had councilmembers been voting in the public interest all along?
Baker: I think for the most part everybody had been voting in the public interest but [councilmembers and the county executive] did go to jail for corruption. [Passing ethics reform legislation] became [increasingly] important because [of a spreading] perception that businesses could not get a fair deal in Prince George's County.
Cooper: So they wouldn't do business here and what you did was try to level the playing field to bring in more development. And subsequent to the passage of that legislation $12 million in development funds was invested in Prince George’s County, it seems, because people felt like they were was more of a safe place to invest in?
Baker: Yes. When I was campaigning I heard: “I'm not doing business through this county because you can't get a fair deal unless you're willing to pay somebody.”
Cooper: Clearly you were able to bring about necessary change once you were elected but let's not forget that you won your campaign for county executive on your third try.
I’d like to walk listeners through what might have been your thought process over the past few decades with regards to your career. You were a delegate in the 1990s. Then you took a break from elected office to lead the Community Teachers Initiative, which is another form of public service. Then you decide to use your law degree and work in a private firm, and finally you decide to take a swing at elected office again. You decide to take a crack at a campaign for county executive and that doesn’t work out.
So you regroup and say to yourself, alright let's try it again. And then you lose a second time. How do you return to your wife and your supporters and say, “you know what, it's the third time that it's going to work.” What was her reaction? How did you even find the fight within you to throw your hat in the ring for a third time?
Baker: I love your question. So when I left the legislature to run for county executive, which was a big uphill battle [at the time], I knew my wife was concerned because my wife knew that the only thing I had ever wanted to do since I was 17 years old was to go into public service. I wanted to be an elected official. And she knew that [the pursuit of elected office] shaped my whole being, [from] where I went and what I did to what I studied in school. And I get there, [I’m in the House of Delegates], and I'm actually good at it.
And for her, [when I told her about my desire to run for county executive], she said “you know, I'm not sure you should take this chance because there are better known candidates out there.” But I felt deeply that I wanted to go into elective office so I could change people's lives [for the] better. And to me the place where I could have the greatest impact was at the county level. So I run, I lose, and my wife is worried that I'm going to go insane. So she makes me get a job. We had three children [to support]. And she said, “you know this is your chance to go out there and explore [public service outside of elected office]. You know what it is you want to do. You talked about education. [Go do that.]” [So that's how I found myself] with the Community Teachers, which allowed me to go around the nation and look at different educational systems around there and what we could do differently in Prince George's County. So I come back [to Prince George’s County] and I said “you know Jack Johnson is the is the county executive and I don't like the direction the county is going in.” I felt strongly about the things that we needed to change. My wife said, “okay we'll show strong leadership; run.”
I ran. I lost in a race in which everybody predicted I would get blown away. We lost really in the last minutes of the election by four percentage points. It was devastating. And you know to make matters worse a senate seat had opened up and they had asked me to run for it and not follow in my wife's advice. She said, “well if you had wanted to be a state senator you could have had that eight years ago. Why would you take it now?” I [ended up trying to] get an appointment for a state senate seat [anyways even though] I didn't really want to be a state senator but [because] people were pushing me. Jack Johnson [whom I had just lost to in the county executive race] blocked [my appointment to the senate] so I didn't get it.
So not only was I a two time loser [running for] county executive, [but] I had just lost an appointment to a state senate seat, [so] I figured that there was no better time than the present to run for a third time. [But] I had been seriously hurt.
[In considering whether to run for a third time for county executive, I had to consider what I would], say to my family, especially my daughters; I didn't think I could put my family through it again. But it was my wife who once again said to me, “you came very close. [Being county executive is] what you want to do.” I repeated this [to myself] a lot during the campaign. She said to me, “I'm not going to go through life with you wondering what would have happened if you had run.”
Cooper: Prince George's County must be grateful that you ran a third time. So as we approach the end of this podcast I want to wrap it up with a final question. Could you speak to the people of Maryland about why it is that public service has been so important to you and what you hope your legacy will be at the end of the day regardless of whether you ever become Maryland's next governor or not?
Baker: I think [that public service is the basis of] my life story. I grew up in the military, moving around every two years. I was not a very good student. I failed the first and second grade because I had difficulty reading. [I was] behind in [school from] the [very] beginning.
I got into a lot of trouble fighting [in school]. But my story is not that I got into trouble or that I struggled with reading; the story really was that my parents, and especially my father, never doubted that I would go to college and that I would achieve [great things]. He started saving very early [for my college education] even though neither of my parents had a college education. They knew that their children would have a better life and they prepared us for it. And for 17 years of my life I just took that for granted. It wasn't until we came back to the United States that a teacher held me responsible for actually getting my assignments done and made me read a book that [would have a lasting impact on my life].
I read “Black Boy” by Richard Wright and it changed my perception of what reality really was for other people. That book made me realize that I was blessed to be born to the parents I was born with. My life could have been completely different had I had different parents and [reading that book] made me feel ashamed [of how I had taken my privilege for granted]. [I was inspired] to do something to give other people the same opportunities that I received. As Tony Blair likes to say, I sought to give the other people by right what I got by good fortune and that's what drove me to run for elected office. It wasn't that I wanted to be a politician. I wanted to change people's lives for the better. That's what being a county executive is [all about] and that's why, if I run for governor, [my campaign will be] about making people's lives better.
Cooper: That has been Rushern Baker, who speaks about recognizing that to whom much is given much is expected. He advises Marylanders to follow their dreams and provides his life as inspiration to others. He has demonstrated that you can fail first grade, have difficulty reading, get into fights in school, and if others have faith in you and if you have faith in yourself, then it may just be possible for you to grow up, go to college, win elected office, and make the world a better place for others.