Analysis: On Friendly Turf, 2 Candidates for Governor Make Their Opening Bids

May 8By Josh Kurtz

Two likely Democratic candidates for governor – Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker and state Sen. Rich Madaleno – have addressed friendly, home-based audiences in recent days, and what they said reveals a lot about the campaigns they plan to wage.

Madaleno spoke Monday morning to a meeting of the District 18 Democratic Club, laying out his progressive vision for the state but also conceding that he’s got to work hard to build credibility as a statewide candidate.

Baker boasted about Prince George’s County’s economic gains during his tenure at a speech last week to local business, political and civic leaders – signaling that the county’s economic progress will be a major theme of his gubernatorial campaign.

Both also betrayed potential vulnerabilities that the well-oiled and well-funded political operation of Gov. Larry Hogan (R) will look to exploit.

Baker had the easier and more conventional task, speaking at a “State of the Economy” breakfast that has become a major annual cheerleading event for the county.

Serving as a warm-up act to Baker, County Council Chairman Derrick Leon Davis (D) noted that in Prince George’s, “everything that’s up is supposed to be up and everything that’s down is supposed to be down – and isn’t that how we like it?”

Davis called Baker “the quarterback” for the county – recalling, perhaps, a piece of Baker campaign literature from his unsuccessful 2002 race for county executive. Davis added, “We have a county executive who walked in the door and said, ‘What we’ve been doing is the old way – things are going to change.’”

It’s easy to see why Baker would want to tout the county’s story as he introduces himself to voters around the state. Job creation is up, income levels are up, median home sale prices are up.

Then there are the tangible signs of economic development – from the glittering MGM casino and hotel at National Harbor to the new Whole Foods Market in Riverdale Park, from the growing transportation hub at New Carrollton to the promise of a new regional hospital in Largo to the possibility of the FBI building a new headquarters at one of two locations in the county.

“I like to say we’re the economic engine for the Washington region,” Baker told the crowd. “Well, we pressed down on the gas and we’re moving even faster to our ultimate destiny.”

Baker contrasted the experience of serving as county executive today with the way it was when he took office in late 2010, following a wide-ranging corruption scandal involving his predecessor, Jack Johnson, and other political and business figures.

“In the first part of my administration, I didn’t read the paper or watch the news – or if I did, I did it with one eye closed. ‘Oh please, God, don’t say anything bad about Prince George’s County,’” he recalled. “Now I do it all the time.”

But the headlines still aren’t uniformly kind to eager Prince George’s County readers. Despite Baker’s Boy Scout mien, he can’t truly say he has eradicated political corruption in the county. There are still pockets of poverty and crime in the county, and not all public schools are performing as well as they should be. And Hogan is sure to attack Baker’s failed attempt to raise taxes.

If Baker wants to own Prince George’s successes, won’t he have to acknowledge the county’s challenges on the campaign trail?

In an interview, Jim Estepp, a former county councilman and county police chief who now heads the Greater Prince George’s Business Roundtable, said Baker has an estimable record that should propel him in the gubernatorial race.

“I have worked with every county executive in the history of charter government,” Estepp said. “This is a very exceptional county executive. He is very focused. He said he wanted to change the paradigm here and he has. I think he’s well-poised to do whatever he wants to do.”

Baker was coy with the crowd when it came to discussing his political future. But as Maryland Matters reported last week, Baker has just hired Andrew Mallinoff to helm his gubernatorial campaign.

He may have also dropped a hint about his intentions when he appeared at a rally last week in favor of the stalled Purple Line light rail project linking Prince George’s and Montgomery counties. There, Baker cast the project in far broader terms than most other advocates.

“It’s not just about Montgomery County and Prince George’s County,” Baker told the crowd assembled in front of the Silver Spring Library. “It’s about Howard County, it’s about Anne Arundel County, it’s about Charles County. It’s about this region and connecting with it.”

Madaleno, meanwhile, showed an ability to lob partisan attacks at Hogan during a speech to his home-district Democratic club Monday – a characteristic that could serve him well in a fractured primary with an increasingly angry Democratic electorate. Yet Madaleno’s criticisms come with liberal policy prescriptions befitting a well-regarded budget expert and policy wonk who has served in the legislature since 2003 – and began working in Annapolis as a budget analyst and then a county government lobbyist in the early 1990’s.

Madaleno – who is not being shy about his political plans but says a formal announcement about a gubernatorial bid is still months away – accuses Hogan of being too conservative, too expedient, and too focused on his re-election than on being a bold leader.

“We need a change in Maryland,” Madaleno said – riffing off of Hogan’s own rhetoric and the governor’s grassroots group, Change Maryland. “A change that says we’re focused on the future. A change that says Maryland is willing to lead the rest of the country” on an array of issues, including public education, the environment and mass transit.

Madaleno said he’s bullish on the Democrats’ prospects generally in Maryland, arguing that 2018 will be much more of a “nationalized” election than 2014, which will favor Democrats. He added that the fact that control of redistricting is at stake after the next Census will energize all Democratic officeholders and party activists as well – and that the party will benefit from the inevitable changing of the guard in leadership over the next several years.

Madaleno laid out his credentials, mentioning his “unparalleled experience in state government, the relationships I have in Annapolis.” He also said, “I have a strong reputation within the political class” of the state.

But Madaleno conceded, in a question-and-answer session, that he faces “a credibility test” as he seeks a promotion from representing a single liberal legislative district to leading a polyglot state like Maryland. He said he is traveling around the state, talking to Democratic and progressive activists – and noted that when there was a rally for more Baltimore city schools funding outside the State House this year, he was the only non-city resident invited to speak.

And even though Madaleno told the home crowd it would be exciting to have a governor from Montgomery County, that’s hardly a universally-held sentiment.

“I think it’s listening and it’s engaging and it’s providing solutions,” he said of the drill. “And it’s not the heavy-handed, ‘I’m the liberal from Montgomery County and I’m here to solve your problems.’”

DISCLOSURE: The author’s wife is a teacher in the Prince George’s County public schools.

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