Rushern Baker

Josh Kurtz has an article at Center Maryland about Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker.  It’s a good read about one of Maryland’s most interesting political figures. Kurtz discusses Baker’s recent – albeit unsuccessful – efforts to bust Prince George’s almost 40 year tax cap and provide more funding for schools. Then he gets down to some analysis.

But in the end, the episode proved to be vintage Baker, for better and worse. Here is a good man, a man of integrity and vision and, yes, courage, who nevertheless seems incapable of muscling some of his top policy and political priorities through. At a minimum, it has become increasingly apparent that Baker needs better political instincts – and advice, and follow-through.

Baker’s political acumen becomes an ongoing question not just because he still has 3 ½ more years at the helm of one of Maryland’s most important – and challenging – jurisdictions, but because Baker is one of the top Democrats mentioned as possible candidates for governor in 2018. In fact, given his own abilities, the demographics of the statewide Democratic electorate and the fact that he leads the jurisdiction with the most Democrats in the state, by many standards Baker ought to be considered the early Democratic frontrunner, even in a field that could include such top-flight politicians as Congressman John Delaney, U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez and Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz.

But can Rushern Baker ever fulfill that potential?

Baker’s push for more education spending followed a pattern: identify a pressing problem in the county; advance a bold solution, often with little notice and not much time before other politicians have to make a decision; win the enthusiastic support of The Washington Post editorial board – which amounts to nothing in Prince George’s County – and then scramble to achieve the goal, usually with very mixed results.

After discussing some of Baker’s other political decisions, Kurtz comes to his conclusion:

Which brings us full circle. Rushern Baker is a good man – and incidentally, one of the nicest guys in Maryland politics. When his term ends in 2018 he’ll be able to say he transformed Prince George’s County from a hive of corruption into something better, that he’s put the county on the road to being what most residents aspire for it to be. If Baker decides to seek higher office, that will be an important and legitimate part of his campaign narrative.

But you can’t help thinking that with a little more political savvy, Baker would be accomplishing a whole lot more – and that his political misfires could become a handicap as the 2018 election comes into view.

 Kurtz makes a critical point here that I think doesn’t just apply to Rushern Baker. And to be clear, I’m not agreeing or disagreeing with Kurtz, as I don’t know much about Baker at all. But the general point about judging “political savvy” is huge, and I think Kurtz would agree that it’s not just about the candidate but those he surrounds himself with. 

When assessing politicians, particularly when they seek to move up at moments of opportunity like we are presently experiencing, the question isn’t just one of comparing one candidate to another, but of assessing each candidate’s political operation. Who does he or she turn to at key moments of decision? Who provides the sounding board, the sage advice, the insight, to the candidate? Who provides the political savvy?

Because when we vote to elevate a state senator or a delegate or a former County Council member or a former lieutenant governor or s former state’s attorney or even a former corporate executive/news anchor to Congress, or a sitting congressman or woman to be a senator, we’re not just getting the name on the ballot. We’re also getting all the networks and support systems that candidate brings with him or her to office. And it’s vastly better to make judgments about those systems and networks now, before we vote, than it is to find them wanting after the election is over.

Kurtz, by the way, provides consistently good analysis. Lest you think that I find everyone wanting. Which I don’t.