It was December 2010.
Rushern L. Baker III, having just become Prince George’s County executive on his third try, was overwhelmed and not sleeping. And for good reason.
The Wall Street bond rating agencies were breathing down his neck because of his predecessor’s recent arrest on bribery charges. Thirteen people had been murdered in a 13-day period. Prince George’s was leading the nation in foreclosures. A “100-year” flood left the county administration building under two feet of water. And there was an earthquake.
Then, on what was supposed to be a rare day off, a series of seven fires — the worst coincidental set of blazes in nearly 50 years — broke out across his sprawling county.
“Man, you look bad,” Baker’s friend and mentor, former county executive Wayne K. Curry, told him. “If you don’t do something, you’re going to flat-line.”
Baker (D), a former state legislator whose only executive experience to that point was running a small non-profit, was in danger of losing his grip on a position he had spent a decade chasing.
“Here I was, going from [being a] legislator who didn’t have these responsibilities, and taking on these responsibilities with no one to turn to,” Baker told an audience at the University of Maryland on Tuesday.
But Baker also had Curry, a charismatic, hard-charging ally who was determined that his protege not fail, so he survived his early trial by fire, flood and fiscal crisis.
That experience made a deep impression. For his entire eight years in office, he pondered the potentially perilous transition from candidate to leader.
While new members of Congress have the Harvard Kennedy School of Government waiting to tutor them on the ins and outs of federal legislative power, what about newly-elected local executives and their top staff? Baker sensed a void.
“What happens to folks who don’t have someone who is mentoring them? Where do they go?” he asked. “There is no School for New County Executives. It’s on-the-job training.”
On Tuesday, Baker and the University of Maryland School of Public Policy announced that their newly-created Elected Executive Leadership Program, first revealed by Maryland Matters earlier this year, will accept its initial batch of trainees this December.
Former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu (D) will be the keynote speaker for the inaugural class.
University President Wallace D. Loh said the school is excited to have Baker leading the effort.
“To take all of [his] practical knowledge and combine it with the theoretical knowledge and analysis of the faculty of the School of Public Policy, this will be a program second to none in the country,” Loh said.
Newly-elected local leaders will come to the Washington, D.C., area each year for an intensive training in College Park, with additional session being held at the National Association of Counties and National Conference of Mayors offices in D.C.
There will also be follow-up sessions in the leaders’ home communities provided by Baker’s newly-formed consulting firm, Baker Strategy Group, at no additional charge, he said.
The program expects to train 15 newly-elected local executives at a time, with additional opportunities for career personnel as well.
“This university could train the next level of management, the people who stay there when the executive leaves,” Baker said.
While Harvard relishes its position as the go-to training ground for new members of Congress, University of Maryland officials hope their local leadership program will serve as a template for public policy colleges across the country.
“Our purpose in being here is to serve the public good,” Robert C. Orr, dean of the School of Public Policy. “Through this training, we think we can help executives serve their people across not just Maryland but across the entire United States.”