Rushern L. Baker III is determined that his current gubernatorial campaign not be a replica of his 2018 run.
Not just the losing part — but the way he lost.
The former Prince George’s county executive looks back at his unsuccessful run four years ago and sees a campaign that was too scripted, too focused on “not offending anybody.”
“I made a mistake,” he said in an interview. “I made a mistake by not being authentic in 2018, and worrying about whether I’d offend the Senate president or the speaker of the House, or anyone else — rather than just telling the truth.”
“This time around, you know, we’re telling the truth.”
Four years ago, Baker followed the traditional playbook, choosing a running mate from Baltimore who offered gender, racial and geographical balance, courting a retinue of party leaders, and securing numerous prized endorsements.
The plan failed. Baker attracted just 29% of the vote in the 2018 Democratic primary, coming in second, 10 points behind eventual nominee Ben Jealous. Fully half of the electorate in Prince George’s County, voters at the core of his electoral road map, voted for someone else.
“In 2018, I was making the calculations like every politician,” Baker said. “You want [a running mate] who brings regional balance. You want to get some experts in and they’re gonna write you some [policy] papers. It’s almost as if I hadn’t governed for eight years. It just went out the window.”
This go-round, he’s running true to his values and instincts. “This time, I was like, enough of that,” Baker said. “If I’m going to leave my house, it’s got to be meaningful.”
Baker’s newfound candor was on full display in early April, when he held a press conference outside a large shopping mall in Hyattsville that had been the scene of a chaotic shooting just days earlier. Standing before a bank of TV cameras, he declared that that county is losing ground in the fight against crime.
“We had 130 homicides last year,” Baker said. “You have to go back 15 years when that [last] happened.” The decision to hold the press conference in Prince George’s — and not Baltimore, as he initially intended — was widely perceived as a swipe at his successor, Angela D. Alsobrooks (D), who had recently come out in support of Wes Moore’s bid for governor.
Baker launched his campaign 14 months ago with a pledge to focus on how the pandemic has reordered people’s day-to-day lives. He said he hoped to use his experience as a county leader and state delegate to address disparities in education and health care. He also talks about efforts he undertook to bring stability to the county’s sprawling school system, bolster the economy, drive down crime and boost community pride through his Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative.
“I believe that public service is a way of not accepting the status quo and making change for everybody,” he said. “I’m wired in my DNA to run toward a problem and stay there until we make things better.”
Although it might have been expedient to again look toward Baltimore for a running mate, Baker’s gut told him to choose Montgomery County Councilmember Nancy Navarro, someone he has worked with for two decades on a range of regional issues, including economic development in under-served communities, immigrant issues, and encouraging people of color to enter teaching.
Since leaving office, Baker has worked with local officials around the country through a University of Maryland leadership program. He was drawn to run again in part due to his day-to-day contact with them.
On the campaign trail, Baker has focused mostly on public safety, and his events have been held almost exclusively in Prince George’s and Baltimore. He has spoken bluntly — at press conferences, in debates and in TV ads — about the rise in crime, saying repeatedly that political leaders and the public would be insisting on a more robust government response if hundreds of white people were being murdered each year.
Earlier this year, Baker called on Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), who is term-limited, to declare a state of emergency in Baltimore. Doing so, he said, would bring resources from multiple state agencies. Baker also put forward plans to redevelop the mostly-abandoned State Center complex and to offer jobs and scholarships to “squeegee kids,” and he pledged to move the governor’s office to Baltimore when the legislature is out of session.
He also plays up his efforts to create a sense of place in the Largo area, which is now the unofficial seat of county government and home to a state-of-the-art hospital.
Initially, his approach showed signs of working.
Until recently, the 63-year-old Baker, one of ten Democrats running in the July 19 primary and the only holdover from the 2018 race, has been in the top tier in the internal candidate polls that have surfaced. Typically he is in the top four, within striking distance of consensus frontrunner Peter V.R. Franchot (D), the state’s four-term comptroller.
But Baker’s 2022 bid shares one characteristic with his 2018 bid — a lack of money.
When he decided to enter the state’s public financing program, which Hogan used successfully in 2014, Baker said it would lead to a strong grassroots-led campaign that could cast itself as being free from the influences of corporate donors.
And when his campaign raised the number of small-donor contributions needed to qualify for matching funds, Baker backers said the effort was a sign of genuine momentum — and a sign that he would have the network of ordinary contributors needed to see him through the home stretch.
In a filing with the Maryland State Board of Elections late last month, however, his campaign reported having just $15,440 in its account. Last week, his campaign manager, Andrew Mallinoff, announced that he was stepping back from his day-to-day responsibilities to pursue his music career, though he insisted he will stay on as a senior strategist.
More bad news followed on Sunday, when the Baltimore Sun/University of Baltimore poll — the first independent survey of the primary — showed Baker a distant fourth, with just 7% support, closer to the second tier of candidates than the first.
In an interview, Baker shrugged off the challenges, offering an upbeat assessment of his changes. “We feel good about where we are,” he said.
Doing three jobs at once
When Baker ran four years ago, he had to balance his day job (running Prince George’s County government), caring for his ailing wife, Christa Beverly Baker, who died in September from an Alzheimer’s-related illness, and the rigors of a statewide campaign.
Now that he is out of office, and a widower, he is able to devote his full energies to the race.
Backers say they are drawn to him in part because of the role he played in restoring confidence in Prince George’s County’s ability to govern itself after his predecessor went to prison for accepting more than $1 million in bribes. He pressed for more control of the county’s beleaguered school system, wooed an accomplished schools superintendent from neighboring Anne Arundel, and oversaw construction of the glittering MGM National Harbor.
Baker fans also praise him for his doggedness, noting that he lost two bids for county executive — in 2002 and 2006 — before finishing first in 2010.
Even people who are endorsing others in this year’s race praise Baker for his personal integrity. Almost everyone uses the word “decency.”
“Rushern L. Baker III, who as the Prince George’s County executive almost single-handedly resuscitated the locality’s reputation after his predecessor was jailed for corruption, is a public servant of unusual integrity and decency,” the Washington Post said in its endorsement of former U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez (D) last month.
Shortly after he endorsed a Baker rival, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) stressed that he has deep personal affection for Baker.
“I am a very good friend of Rushern Baker,” Hoyer insisted. “I think he is a man of great integrity, with a wonderful spirit. He is a good human being. I really like Rushern Baker.”
Another gubernatorial hopeful, former state attorney general Doug Gansler (D), routinely praises Baker in campaign appearances.
Unfortunately for the campaign, almost all of the high-profile Democratic backers who were with him in 2018 are elsewhere this time.
Hoyer endorsed author and former national non-profit leader Wes Moore (D). So did Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), the speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates. Former Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett, who taught Baker at Howard University Law School, is supporting Perez. Former Gov. Parris Glendening has defected as well; he, too, endorsed Moore. Former Gov. Martin O’Malley and 2018 candidate Valerie Ervin are staying neutral this time.
Baker did win the early backing of eight members of the Prince George’s County Council and former Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young (D).
Baker shrugs off the defections, saying he expected them. He said his priority this time is on meeting voters in authentic settings, not courting power-brokers. (He does allow that he was stung by the decision of his friend Alsobrooks to publicly embrace Moore. “That’s probably one that we didn’t see coming, quite honestly.”)
“Our running of the race was not for endorsements,” Baker said of the endorsement roulette. “It was to talk to people and get the endorsement of actual people.”
Taking part in the public financing system — which caps donations at $250 per person — has been a challenge, he acknowledged. Baker said he made a strategic decision to air television ads in Baltimore early in the campaign, to draw attention to his plan to tackle crime.
As revenues allow, he will run in ads in the expensive Washington, D.C. media market during the campaign’s home stretch. “We’ll be able to compete,” he insisted.
Asked about campaigns that are saving the bulk of their war-chest for the final weeks, Baker said, “It’s going to be really hard to do a [media] blitz in July, when people are on vacation.”