Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III sought a higher calling, specifically to become Maryland’s governor.
But he lost in the Democratic primary, and term limits will close out his eight-year run as county executive on Monday, Dec. 3, when county State’s Attorney Angela Alsobrooks replaces him as the first woman and first Black woman to hold the position.
But Baker said he plans to keep busy not only taking care of his wife, Christa “Cis” Beverly, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, but also a pending nonprofit organization named after Beverly to support Alzheimer’s research and care.
As for Baker’s eight-year career as county leader, he instituted ethics reform to eradicate illegal behavior through county government. He successfully pushed for approval of state legislation six years ago to restructure the county school system that allowed for the county executive to appoint the school superintendent and school board’s chair and vice chair.
Some Prince George’s residents voted against Baker for governor because of a 2017 grade-fixing controversy in the county schools system and his backing of former schools chief Kevin Maxwell, who oversaw the scandal and received school board approval for a nearly $800,000 severance package.
Meanwhile, the former state delegate’s mark in Prince George’s can be physically viewed in the present and future from several economic development projects such as MGM casino and resort at National Harbor; transit-oriented development near at least five Metro stations — Branch Avenue, Largo, Prince George’s Plaza, New Carrollton and Suitland; and the $543 million University of Maryland Capital Regional Medical Center in Largo scheduled to open in 2021.
David Harrington, president and CEO of the county’s Chamber of Commerce, said those projects were discussed when the late Wayne K. Curry hailed as county executive. Harrington described Baker as “the finisher.”
“I think [economic development] is one of his strongest accomplishments,” Harrington said. “The county executive was the one who got these projects up and growing and seen. That’s not an easy thing to do. [Baker] should be certainly remembered and acknowledged for that.”
During an interview Monday, Nov. 26 at the Wayne K. Curry Administration Building in Largo, Baker spoke about economic development, Maxwell and becoming a private citizen. Here are some of his thoughts, in his own words:
I’m so proud of the economic development that has taken place in Prince George’s County. It’s something I talked about in the campaign [for county executive] in 2010. When you look at Prince George’s County, I saw opportunity. We were the only place in the Washington region that had the availability of land and office space that was not being taken advantage of. We had to get a hold of our ethics challenges, which was huge. The county had been rocked by it. At the same time, we had a nationwide downturn in the real estate market. I predicted then that if we worked hard, we could change it. In eight years, we went from one development happening in the county and that was the Wegmans [in Glenarden] to $8 billion worth of development happening around the county at one time. We had led the state in job creation for three quarters in a row. We focused on five Metro stations that we announced at the beginning of my administration and each one of those had developed. One of my favorites is New Carrollton. You can catch the train from New York. It has a bus line and a Metro station. That is the future. It is the home of 2U, Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development and Berman [Enterprises of Rockville building luxury apartments, businesses and a parking garage]. It’s now the home of 850 jobs from Kaiser Permanente and that’s just the beginning. The next three to five years will be a hotel and mixed-use development. There was no Whole Foods in Prince George’s County. Now there is two. There was no Harris Teeter in Prince George’s County. Now there’s two. Every part of this county has seen an explosion of economic development that translates into jobs. Not just jobs in one industry, but in a variety [of them]. Hospitality industry is the fasting growing industry in Prince George’s County with building all the hotels. The culinary arts center [at Prince George’s Community College] is fully paid for by county funds at $38 million. That means one of the best culinary arts programs in the Washington region is now in Prince George’s County where our children can come in and learn these skills.
The children learn a variety of skills through our public school system. There’s more to be done. As [former New York Gov.] Mario Cuomo said, ‘You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose.’ The decisions that we make should be based on the best interest of the place we govern. Let’s take Dr. Maxwell. I was getting advance a year before I announced my run for governor that I should get rid of Dr. Maxwell because of the media around it. What I said to people was, ‘Politically, that might have been an expedient way to deal with a perceived problem.’ But in reality, and when you looked at the numbers in what he was accomplishing as superintendent, the expansion of the things I asked him to do … was building the confidence in the public in our school system. When he came in, our school population was about 124,000 students and shrinking. We were losing a thousand students a year in our school system. At the same time, our population was growing in the county. In his five years, it grew from 124,000 to almost 134,000 which almost took it back to the numbers when I had my children in the school system. The reason that was he expanded the language arts program. He expanded [pre-kindergarten]. He expanded dual enrollment program for students to get an [associate’s degree] and high school diploma so parents wouldn’t have to pay for only two years of college. We have the largest arts integration program in the state of Maryland. We have three locations for our visual and performing arts. I do three budget hearings across the county. The most vocal group that comes out during budget hearings are about schools and libraries. If people come out and tell me he’s got to go at these budget hearings, I’ll agree with you. Not once did anybody come out and say, ‘Dr. Maxwell has to go.’ Then it was time to reappoint Dr. Maxwell, [and] the loudest group was the teachers’ union. When decisions reach the county’s executive’s desk, they are not easy decisions. People may not have always agreed with the decisions I’ve made, but I’ve always made decisions that I felt were in the best interest of the county.
‘A private citizen’
When people ask me what am I going to be doing, the one thing I know for sure is working with the [Christa Beverly Foundation] to raise money and awareness to change the quality of people’s lives who live with Alzheimer’s and dementia. I’ve been able to do a little bit around the issue and raise awareness as county executive. Now that I am going to the private sector, I plan to spend more time working with national organizations to make sure we get the federal funding. It was increased under the Obama administration. It needs to be increased more. When I started this journey as county executive, my wife could walk and speak, smile, understood what we were doing. She could participate in the [county executive] inaugural event. By the time of my second inaugural event, her mobility had lessened. He ability to communicate was harder. Now, she doesn’t have the ability to speak or to walk. What this foundation is for is to support organizations, support families and to support communities. When I first started as county executive after we announced my wife’s battle with Alzheimer’s was in D.C. because there was no Prince George’s County chapter. Now, there is a chapter here. We went from raising $16,000 [five years ago] on the first walk to raising almost $100,000 on the Alzheimer’s walk this year. One of the last things I signed off as county executive was to provide 50 families with watches that will be able to help track individuals who wander off or away. Our Department of Family Services identified the families and it is free through the program. In the last four years, we have had four individuals with dementia who have passed away because they have wandered off. I wanted to do something about that because I’ve experienced it. It was hard for me with my wife wondering off in our neighborhood. I had neighbors that knew her and able to catch her. It was 1 o’clock in the morning. She was in her gown. It could have been very tragic. I’m very proud of the work Prince George’s County has done. The men and women here are just amazing. I look forward to going back as a private citizen.