Rushern L. Baker III said massive private sector investment in Prince George’s County offered validation for the policies and vision he pursued in two terms as county executive and is a sure sign that his long-neglected county has arrived as an economic force, both regionally and throughout Maryland. But he acknowledged that gains in the county’s public schools are fragile and will require constant vigilance.Delivering his eighth, and final, State of the County address, Baker (D), a candidate for governor, spoke with pride about how Prince George’s is awash in development. The venue for his address, the glittery, new Hotel at the University of Maryland was, if not Exhibit A, certainly a prime example of how investors have come to place their bets on the county.Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker IIIPick any spot on the map, Baker and various warm-up speakers told a mostly suit-clad audience of more than 500, and we’ll show you a project that will transform life in that community.Among the most frequently cited projects:
The Gaylord Resort and Convention Center in Oxon Hill
The MGM National Harbor Casino, also in Oxon Hill
Kaiser Permanente’s new regional headquarters, being built in New Carrollton
The U.S. Immigration and Citizenship headquarters, going up at the Branch Avenue Metro
The University of Maryland Capital Region Medical Center, under construction in what county leaders call “downtown Largo”
And the Whole Foods Market in University Park
“We are number one in job creation in the state of Maryland five quarters in a row,” Baker said. “My favorite part about that is that we don’t make the numbers up. The state has to give them to me.” The joke, not lost on the room, is that — if he survives the Democratic primary — Baker will face off in November against Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan (R).Baker acknowledged “the challenges” he inherited when he took office in 2010 — “foreclosure rate, sky high; unemployment, high; over-dependency on residential property taxes; high incidence of crime; low property values; [and] limited commercial development.” But he said the twin pillars of his administration — an economic development incentive fund and a push to improve the county’s many aging neighborhoods — paved the way for all the construction cranes dotting the county’s landscape.“I stand here today proud of the work that we have done and the investments that we have made to spur this economy,” he said to sustained applause.Left unsaid: the snub from Amazon, the company whose search for a second national headquarters drew a bid from Prince George’s and more than 200 other communities. The e-commerce giant’s Top 20 includes three locations in the region — Montgomery County, Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia.As is often the case when Prince George’s leaders gather, homage was paid to the late Wayne K. Curry, the county first African-American executive, Baker’s mentor (and most enthusiastic public endorser), and the man whose regular exhortations for Prince Georgians to strut their stuff are now, well, the stuff of legend. No one mentioned the man who served in between, Jack B. Johnson, a two-term county executive whose tenure in Upper Marlboro ended in scandal, though M.H. Jim Estepp came close.Estepp, the CEO of the Greater Prince George’s Business Roundtable, who ran against Baker in 2002, said of his one-time rival, “He took this county when it was at its lowest, and he brought it back, and he did it with grace and dignity.”“When I talk about him, I get emotional, because there aren’t many people you work with in a lifetime … who are so dedicated to a cause. … You know it comes right out of the heart,” Estepp said.Baker pointed to a 2012 article in The Washington Post that spotlighted the enrollment loss of 1,000 students a year, on average, over an eight-year period, the most of any system in the region. That statistic, along with a couple other factors, figured prominently, he said, in his decision to convince the General Assembly to transfer control of the system from the school board to the executive, an issue on which he had not campaigned.
Now, things are looking up, the executive said, pointing to an increase in the number of board-certified teachers, improved instructor salaries, enhanced programmatic offerings and an enrollment increase of 7,000 students. But scandal has dogged the system on a consistent basis, and the county’s test-score and graduation rankings remain among the lowest in the state. The difference is that — with Baker’s successful bid to gain control of the system — when controversy erupts, he and his hand-picked schools CEO, Dr. Kevin Maxwell, are the men who get the scrutiny.“Our education system is our calling card,” Baker told business-owners and political leaders. “It is how people measure whether in fact we’re going to be around for the long haul. If we don’t understand that we have to work together to improve it, we will lose our economic advantage.”“Do we have challenges? Heck yeah. Are we making progress? Absolutely.”Shortly after concluding his remarks, Baker was met in the hotel lobby by a local news crew that wanted to ask about the latest scandal, this one involving the discovery of a hidden surveillance camera in an unidentified school.Baker told the reporter he found the discovery troubling. He expressed confidence in the police chief to figure out who installed the camera and why, and he pledged “transparency” as the investigation moves forward.Baker was asked Tuesday on a trip to Frederick County why not “divorce yourself from that issue.”Baker’s response was that he entered public service “to make sure everybody gets the same opportunities that I got … by right.”“I said, ‘Yes, I am stubborn. And I’ll be stubborn in the next job.’”[email protected]
Bruce DePuyt spent nearly three decades on local television, including 14 years as executive producer and host of News Talk on NewsChannel 8 in the Washington, D.C., area. He has served as reporter, anchor and producer/host of 21 This Week in Montgomery County and as reporter/anchor at NBC affiliate WVIR-TV in Charlottesville, Va. He’s a regular contributor to WTOP (103.5 FM) and frequently moderates community and political events.