Join us for our annual conversation about the best summer books for kids and young adults.
The District gets a statue in the U.S. Capitol, and members of Congress put out a call for D.C. voting rights. Disclosures about personal expenses weigh down Virginia’s governor. And the long-running saga of the Silver Spring Transit Center continues to haunt local politicians in Maryland. Join us for our weekly review of the politics, policies and personalities of the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.
- Rushern Baker Executive, Prince George's County (Md.) (D)
- Tom Sherwood Resident Analyst; NBC 4 reporter; and Columnist for the Current Newspapers
- Eleanor Holmes Norton Member, U.S. House of Representatives (D-D.C.)
Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker responded to criticism that the county’s reconfigured school board lacks a Latino member. More than 20 percent of students in the Prince George’s County school system are Latino. Baker said he made his selections based on the pool of qualified applicants, but said he is committed to greater diversity in government. “But the first priority always in any situation is finding the best people that can help move Prince George’s County forward because I owe that to all the children of Prince George’s County — black, white, Latino, anyone who walks through our school system,” Baker said.
Politics Hour News Quiz
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Politics Hour," starring Tom Sherwood. I'm Kojo Nnamdi. Tom Sherwood is our resident analyst. He's an NBC 4 reporter and a columnist for The Current Newspapers who once covered politics in Richmond, Va., for The Washington Post. So maybe, Tom, you can explain what's being going on with the family of Gov. Robert McDonnell in Richmond, Va., when they've been billing the state for body wash, sunscreen, dog vitamins, a digester system, detox cleanse, and then even after being briefed by an official about what they could and could not do and paying the state back more than $300, since then there have been having taxpayers pick up the tab for vitamins, nasal spray and all kinds of stuff. What's going on?
MR. TOM SHERWOODYou know, I feel sorry for Bob McDonnell. You know, he ran for governor of Virginia. Everyone thought he was gonna be a wild ride, rightwing lunatic-type guy. He actually became quite -- almost middle ground governor who did a lot for transportation where a lot of other governors failed. He was considered as a vice presidential candidate for the Republican Party. He had his -- he had what...
NNAMDIYou have to contextualize everything?
SHERWOODWell, yes, I won't -- I will say this because he had the proper Virginia gentleman credentials. And now, you just see that no one was watching the medicine cabinet or the store or whatever else in his -- it just seems so low rent, this kind of waste and using the government office for these kinds of things you just said enumerated. It -- I just feel sorry for him.
NNAMDIEspecially for somebody who clearly has presidential ambitions for this all to be coming out in the latter part of his tenure as governor does not bold well for his political future.
SHERWOODYou know, it's the kinda stuff that campaign opportunists could just use for ridicule endlessly, and I just think -- and the troubling part for me as a reporter is that they were cautioned after the beginning. Of course, you go in -- you're living in a public mansion, and you're told what -- kind of what you can do, and then you start getting charges, and then people say, well, no, you can't do that. You need to kinda separate those things, and then they continue to do it. And that's why I think it's bad for him.
NNAMDII know you're not an accountant, but I would like you to try be one for the purposes of radio so that you can explain to our listeners the bill recently introduced by the chairperson of the City Council and Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, a bill that would entitle, according to The Washington Post, taxpayers whose income for 2000 or earlier has been changed or corrected by federal authorities to receive refunds in the form of tax credits starting in 2017.
NNAMDIThat bill was apparently introduced to the councilmembers who introduced it by Pepco which stands to gain a hefty tax refund, but frankly, not being a CPA, I don't understand it.
SHERWOODWell, and I'm not gonna try to explain better than you did. It's just that Jack Evans generally knows what he's doing when he -- he's been the financial -- revenue chairman for some time, and he does all the bills involving taxes, and he's also a candidate for mayor. So I don't think that this was any kind of skullduggery on his part because obviously he's siding with Pepco for any refund is not the way to get people to vote for you.
SHERWOODSo I haven't had enough time because we had the other scandals in the city this week to investigate that more, but I'm sure there's another side to the story that I haven't heard.
NNAMDIWell, the other scandals in the city this week involved accounting and CPAs and accounting firms because it all has to do with the fund that Jeffrey Thompson started, known as Thompson Cobb Bazilio and Associates. And this week, an employee of this firm, Lee Calhoun, pleaded guilty and to making illegal campaign contributions which is a misdemeanor but he can still get up to a year in jail.
NNAMDIAnd Ron Machen made a statement that's likely to be quoted a great deal because he said the accounting firm was an assembly line for illegal campaign contributions.
SHERWOODAnd Lee Calhoun, he's 65 year old. He used to work for the city government, I think, during the Sharon Pratt Kelly administration. He's been out in private business. He worked for the Thompson Bazilio Cobb...
SHERWOOD...accounting firm. And it was kinda sad, again, I think I'm feeling sorry for everyone today. But he's in court yesterday, and Mr. Calhoun sat there, and he looked kinda -- what's the word -- bedraggled?
SHERWOODBedraggled, that's the word. And he acknowledged the judge. He started out he was giving 50 and $100 to candidates, and then Mr. Calhoun's attorney said that Mr. Thompson, who's at the center of all this, Jeffrey Thompson, started asking for more and more money, and he started giving reimbursements and then adding $100 or more over the top for the trouble of it.
SHERWOODAnd he just got caught up in a really terrible thing. The big story is prosecutors are not gonna have a whole series of people. Somebody from Pennsylvania this week was also charged.
SHERWOODWhat's happening? There's two things going on with Jeffrey Thompson. He over the last decade apparently amassed a massive campaign to give money to everyone with money that wasn't his or he reimbursed for others, straw donors, fake contributions. That's one thing. And that's a part but separate from the $650,000 shadow campaign...
SHERWOOD...that elected Mayor Gray. So we've got two parallel tracks with Jeffrey Thompson who so far has declined to comment on anything, running the train going down those tracks.
NNAMDIAnd the speculation, of course, is that if the U.S. attorney can get enough on Jeffrey Thompson, then he can get Jeffrey Thompson to speak candidly about whether or not he thinks Mayor Vincent Gray knew about the shadow campaign...
NNAMDI...and his donations to it.
SHERWOODThis is -- Brendan Sullivan is a very tough defense attorney. He has pretty much declined to cooperate or at least has challenged the prosecution on every step. But this is the ultimate goal of the prosecutor, Ronald Machen. Jeffrey Thompson orchestrated a massive campaign contribution scheme, and he allegedly orchestrated a shadow campaign.
SHERWOODThe more you can get people -- now, I'm told there might be 20 or 30 people will come in and say, yes, Jeffrey Thompson personally told me I will get the money back. And so they'll have built up a huge case against him. And whether he wants to come in and cooperate with authorities himself, or whether he'll just fight it to the bitter end, we don't know the answer to that.
NNAMDIAnd do you have to be a CPA to know that if somebody asks you to make a campaign contribution and they say they're going to give you the money back that you're doing something illegal?
SHERWOODWell, no. But, you know, you...
NNAMDI'Cause one of the people said, he said it was all legal.
SHERWOODWell, you -- as an adult, you're responsible for knowing the law when you do something, whether it's riding the bike or giving to a campaign. But, you know, this -- Mr. Kelvin said, you know, he started out early. And then he said, well, I was gonna get a bonus to -- kind of replaces the money, but it was a different track, so maybe the bonus was not really a reimbursement. He said it was just all very fuzzy, and then he realized very soon that this was a scheme. But then he was caught up in it, and he continued to do it.
NNAMDITom Sherwood, he's our resident analyst. He's an NBC4 reporter and a columnist for The Current Newspapers. Tom, our next guest announced his bid for re-election yesterday, and I thought that he was making the announcement because there was a stampede of people who were running to opposing. Exactly how many people, as far as you know, are involved in that stampede?
SHERWOODZero. Which is the worst nightmare for a reporter who covers a campaign. Some honeymoon walks down the aisle to a re-election.
NNAMDIRushern Baker is our guest...
SHERWOODThere's more time, though. There's more time. Gear up, folks. Gear up.
MR. RUSHERN BAKERHere we go.
NNAMDIHe is the county executive in Prince George's County, Md. He's a Democrat who is running for re-election next year. Rushern Baker, thank you so much for joining us.
BAKERKojo, it's so good to be here with you and Tom.
BAKERI feel in danger, though.
NNAMDIWe're gonna drum up some competition...
BAKERNo. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
SHERWOODLet me start the question. Did there come a time -- that's what the lawyers love to get in the courts.
SHERWOODWell, congratulations, announcing for re-election. You didn't go through nearly as much agony as Ike Leggett did in Montgomery County.
BAKERNo, I didn't, you know, although we shared in these last almost four years of, you know, the weather, the natural disasters, and, you know, Ike also didn't have as much to clean up as I did. But certainly, you know, I'm proud to and glad to have the opportunity to run again and to have my family with me when I made that announcement.
NNAMDIWith all that's been going on in the District the past few years, it's been easy to lose sight of the fact that when you took over as county executive, Prince George's County was still reeling from a massive scandal of its own. Your predecessor and his wife, Jack Johnson and former Councilmember Leslie Johnson, both arrested and charged with corruption. What can you say that you have done as county executive to put Prince George's back on an ethical footing and turn the corner from a political culture that a lot of people felt was pay-to-play?
BAKERYou know, it's interesting. When I first took the job, people felt really sorry for me. They said, you waited -- you know, it took me two times, actually --three times, actually, get the job, and I stepped into this situation where not only were there ethical lapses in Prince George's County and a feeling that it was pay-to-play, but literally because we stepped into the administration in the midst of an FBI -- ongoing FBI investigation, which meant, for me, I couldn't retain any of the top-level folks in the government.
BAKERWe literally had to build the government from the ground up. And if you remember, Kojo, that, you know, I got some criticism when we hired a number of people who had worked for the Kerry administration. But that's how far back I had to go in order to get people who had no even any taint of scandal to come in and help turn us around.
BAKERAnd if you look at us 2 1/2 years later, the first thing, first bill I put in was a major ethical reform for the council -- for the county, which included a county executive and the council, which had five new members who had done nothing wrong and no hint of anything wrong. But I felt it was necessary to send a signal that we were serious about ethical reform. We were serious about informing people what they could and could not do so you didn't have ethical lapses.
BAKERAnd we did -- the other thing we did to businesses was say, you know what, we understand you're skeptical about Prince George's County. So we're gonna put some of the county money into these development projects by this, our $50 million EDI incentive fund, which means...
SHERWOODEDI, economic development incentive.
BAKEREconomic development incentive fund. Which meant that the county would take a risk with development projects along with commercial developers. So we were investing in ourselves. And then I spent a lot of time talking to people about what this government was gonna be like. We...
NNAMDIBut a couple of the things you didn't do that The Washington Post pointed out that you had promised to do, that you...
BAKERYou mean they pointed something out that I didn't do? I thought they liked me.
NNAMDIThey said you promised an independent inspector general. You promised an online database of county salaries. Neither of those things have happened. Why not? Oh, by the way, you can call if you have your own questions for Rushern Baker. 800-433-8850 is the number.
BAKERWell, let me deal with the independent inspector general, which is certainly something I called for during the campaign. We put together a panel with, at the time, dean -- I was gonna say Dean Leggett, but he's county executive. He was dean when I was there at the law school. But Dean Kurt Schmoke from the Howard University Law School and Judge Missouri, retired judge in Prince George's County.
BAKERAnd we asked them to look at the best, you know, look at the best practices around the country, people who had gone through similar situations, what we were going through in Prince George's County, and give us some options, myself and the council.
BAKERWhat they came back with was you could do an inspector general, or you could revamp the ethics office, make it a real accountability office, hire a executive director, give that person a team of lawyers and some accountants and investigators, put more money into the state's attorney's office where the prosecution would go forth and team that up with the council's audit and investigation.
BAKERAnd then do some of the things that they talked about, which is, you know, set up a hotline, do more transparency in the government which is putting the contracts on -- county contracts online, which we've done. Set up a 311 system. Set up anonymous tip line. We did a lot of those things. But in order to do any of that, I had to go to the general assembly and ask for permission to do it.
BAKERI simply did not have the power as county executive to do it. And like any piece of legislation, there is a compromise. There are things people thought we should do, and there are things people in the general assembly thought were overreaching.
NNAMDIThe inspector general is one of those?
BAKERNot the inspector general, but certainly some of the power that we wanted. The problem with the inspector general was really coming up with a way that financially, we could make sure that we did what we wanted and what we needed to do in terms of making sure that people in Prince George's County understood and workers and elected officials understood what they could and could not do and also have a strong...
NNAMDIWell, The Post seem to think that you struck a compromise with the Council on that because the councilmembers, according to The Post, worry that it would interfere with the work of their own $2 million Office of Audits and Investigations. Was that a political compromise?
BAKERWell, certainly. I mean, certainly, the Council felt that their audit and investigations office was doing a great job. They had uncovered some of the things that were going on. And they wanted to keep that office because they were doing a good job. But, no. I think with any with piece of legislation, you're gonna have compromises.
BAKERAnd I don't think -- I think it came out to be the best of all possible worlds for Prince George's County because we actually ended up giving the authority to the state's attorney's office to hire a special prosecutor to go after public corruption and allow us to get the best bang for our buck. So I think we did the things that were necessary.
SHERWOODThe big picture of this is is the pay-to-play mentality, that people could make contributions, get county contracts, influence legislation to a degree unfair. Do you think you have ended pay-to-play, or you significantly scaled it back? It's a huge issue in the District of Columbia right now. But in Prince George's County, have you got it under control?
BAKERWell, I think so. And what we've done in the executive branch and what we've done by having the ethics office and having the executive director that appointment runs past the county executive's appointment so that person is independent is we set up a process where I set the policy of the county and the philosophy we where wanna gonna go. I don't actually choose contracts.
BAKERI don't have a role in putting a panel together that goes through and looks at the contracts that we award in the county. If we decide that we're gonna have a, you know, red light cameras in the county, that policy I institute. But the actual contract and awarding and vetting through the people, that's done outside of my office. I don't have any...
SHERWOODBut within the executive branch?
BAKERIt is done within the executive branch, so you have a team put together. But is not -- I have no direct knowledge of the people who bid on contracts or which ones are awarded until they've gone through and signed off by the county administrator.
SHERWOODGiven the history in how people want to lobby you -- and I use the word lobby, in a fair sense, because that's what people do -- have you had to check your own instincts to meet with people or be open to people? Does it -- do you get shut off from some of the knowledge of the county because you're worried about how ethically it might appear?
BAKERYou know what, Tom, that is an excellent question. It really is because what happens is you're so worried about whether, in fact, there is a conflict or you -- appears of a conflict that you might be missing good information that needs to be considered when you're making important decisions. In the beginning, we did. We were very, very, you know, we looked at everyone who wanted a meeting, especially if I didn't know them, with a jaundiced eye.
BAKERAnd -- but as we moved on, we were like, you know, we can't be hamstrung from making decisions. What we made sure of was if someone who wanted to meet with me about a particular issue that we had one of the staff members who had an expertise in that issues in with us. I also use a lot of outside experience to help me, you know, vet through ideas. But we hire some really good, smart, savvy people as directors and as deputy county administrators, which is why we've been able to steer clear of a lot of those things.
SHERWOODAnd that's helping you, I guess, with your effort to get the FBI headquarters in that there is the -- at least the fact and the appearance of a cleanup of the ethics of the county.
BAKERYou know, it was very important to -- I think one of the things...
SHERWOODWhat is -- excuse me. If I may ask, what is the status of your attempt to get 11,000 jobs in the FBI world?
BAKERWe feel really good about it. We think there is gonna be some decision made within this year. We certainly -- I think a big step that helps us in the county is the fact that we were able to be the only place that's bidding in the state of Maryland. We've got a commitment from governor to put infrastructure dollars in into this project, which now that there's infrastructure money in Annapolis that's gonna happen. We put our own money to start the process around Greenbelt Metro, which we think is the best site. And so I think we're in a great position to lure the FBI here.
NNAMDIOur guest is Rushern Baker. He is the county executive in Prince George's County, Md., a Democrat running for re-election next year. Tom Sherwood is resident analyst. He's an NBC 4 reporter and columnist for The Current Newspapers. If you have questions for Rushern Baker about ethics, about development or about education in Prince George's County, give us a call at 800-433-8850, or send email to email@example.com.
NNAMDIOn the business of pay-to-play, the council in Prince George's County still plays a big role in reviewing development projects. That's one of the problems we had here in the District of Columbia...
NNAMDI...councilmembers using their role in reviewing contracts to extract money from people who wanted contracts. And, of course, former at-large Councilmember Michael Brown just pled guilty to that. Is that a problem in Prince George's County? There's a move here in the District to simply say that people who are seeking contracts with the government simply cannot make campaign donations. They cannot throw fundraisers for elected officials. How do you feel about that?
BAKERWe certainly -- we made it harder for folks to do that. If you have a contract or development project pending before Prince George's County, you can't give money to councilmembers or the county executive.
NNAMDIWell, somebody threw a fundraiser for you in January and eventually got a $42 million contract. The rivals have now sues claiming that there was an unfair advantage in the appearance of impropriety.
BAKERWell, I should say, let me just clarify. If you have a development project before -- pending in Prince George's County, I think that's where -- you can't give money to the county executive or to the county councilmembers. That's a big loophole that we changed in the law. The other thing is just what you just said, you know, when that incident where a fundraiser was held for me, someone there actually had bid on a contract and eventually, I guess, was awarded the contract.
BAKERThe way the process works in the county and this administration, I have no clue as to what contracts are out there, what the process is in terms of, you know, who's in the mix for bidding on them. So if you're coming to my fundraiser and thinking you're getting an advantage, you're not because I can't help you because I don't know what you've bid on or anything. I set the policy that we're gonna do this in the administration, but there's a separate panel picked, not by the Fifth Floor.
BAKERNormally, it's when our directors from each of the departments that comes together and picks a panel. That panel is scrutinized by the county administrator and then the awards are made. But there's also a process, if you feel like -- like this company was -- that something was amiss, there's a bid process that's open and transparent, and the awards of contracts are listed on our website.
SHERWOODAnd while we do -- I wanna talk about education.
SHERWOODBut I wanna ask you a Jeffrey Thompson question 'cause we've spoke about this briefly just before the show. It's clear now that Jeffrey Thompson, according to the testimony in court, orchestrated, in some way, contributions from presidential candidates to county council candidates, to city candidates, to congressional candidates, and I'm asking all the people I've talked to, has he given you money and if -- will you try to look at this?
SHERWOODWe consider it and maybe give the money back or donate some charitable money. How will you handle this given that this is such a widespread campaign contribution scandal?
BAKERWell, we certainly, we did look at it. In 2006, when I ran, there was a fundraiser held for me. I've known Ralph Bazilio for a long time. And -- but we discovered that, yes, there were funds given to us. You know, that was in the 2006 campaign. So I spent the money trying to become county executive, which I didn't. But certainly, you know, we're going back and looking at the process.
BAKERAnd one of the things that made us do is as best as we can, scrutinize who is giving us money and making sure that if it's, you know, if there's any impropriety, I think that we have -- we've decided that we don't want that.
SHERWOODWell, you can feel comforted that you're not alone.
BAKERYou know, we're -- I was worried I was -- well, you know, they...
NNAMDIThere's a lot of company there.
BAKERYeah. It's, you know, one of the things that you run into, especially when you're trying to get into the office, it's much easier to scrutinize once you're in the office. It's much harder when you're running and you need all the support you can. But you're usually doing it with a skeleton crew that can actually go through and scrutinize who's giving you money, making sure it's coming through. So you're doing, really, the best you can.
BAKERNow, once you get into office, the benefit that I have is not only the campaign staff, but I've got a great chief of staff that looks at people and -- who are coming to our events. Because we have one incident where somebody under indictment, during the previous administration, actually showed up at one of the fundraisers. I didn't know the person, but our chief of staff, you know, scrutinized and said, hey, this person, we're not accepting any contribution from them. But I when you're in office, you have the benefit of having staff that helps you with that, in council, that helps with that...
SHERWOODJust maybe a caution to everyone that if you get 75 checks, and they're all dated the same date for the same amount of money, you maybe ought to raise an eyebrow.
NNAMDIYou don't have to be a CPA to notice if there's something wrong there.
BAKERYeah. Or it might be good advice to, you know, all of my treasurers have been CPAs, and Desiree, my wife, never trusted me to hire anybody other than that.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 if you have questions or comments for Rushern Baker. Tom Sherwood mentioned schools. You've been involved in a school or education takeover. What have you learned from watching how mayoral control worked here in the District? Even a lot of people who supported the policies that Adrian Fenti and Michelle Rhee tried to put in place felt that they paid a heavy price by how they handled the politics of the issue.
BAKERYou know, and that's a good point, Kojo. I -- when I first introduced the latest round of my school reform, you've been through when I did it before and that they decided I shouldn't be in office anymore. You know, the biggest concern that folks had was what happened in D.C. and what happened with Mayor Fenti and where you putting your political job, you know, you're job online because I actually introduced a bill going into - knowing that we were gonna go into an election.
BAKERBut what I said the focus is, while Mayor Fenti didn't get re-elected, the policies around education, people didn't have a problem with. They had a problem with the way they did it. And they may have had a problem with the superintendent that was selected or CEO. But the idea that you could hold the chief executive responsible for education, who everyone believes is responsible for education, just like they're responsible for public safety, people got.
BAKERThey wanted to know, OK, you're given, and I said this to folks -- and this is why I think ours went as smoothly as it did is I said to folks, you know, I already have control over the budget. They were like, well, this is a power grab. It really wasn't. I had control over the budget. Once I gave the school system $1.7 billion, I can honestly say I've done everything I can around education. I didn't have any of the accountability.
BAKERSo the fact that we weren't progressing the way we should wasn't my fault. I can legitimately run and say, I support education, I don't know why they're not doing a good job. So I think once we explain it that way to folks to say, you know what, when you come to a budget hearing next year and you talk about education, and you ask us to do something, I have a responsibility to do something because now I have greater control.
NNAMDIYou're also allowed to appoint three members to the school board, the chair of the school board and two members. You have done that. There is now some pushback from members of the Hispanic community who said, how could a liberal like Rushern Baker, a guy committed to diversity like Rushern Baker, not notice that 23 percent of the children attending his schools are Hispanic? But what I'd like to know, did those officials consult with you before you made the appointments?
BAKERYou know what, they did. Sen. Ramirez, who is my senator and he's doing a great job, certainly was in my ear about, you know, we wanna make sure there's representation on the school board. My promise to him is there should be, and we need to do that. And we're gonna -- we're -- but the first priority always, in any situation, is finding the best people that can help move Prince George's County forward.
BAKERBecause I owe that to all the children of Prince George's County, black, white, Latino, anyone who walks to our school system. And so we picked all those three people the best candidates we saw. We had 160 applications come in. Some of them were like the best people we'd ever seen. And so we picked individuals we felt could move the school system forward. It doesn't mean that there shouldn't be greater diversity on the school board.
BAKERMy commitment to Sen. Ramirez and others who brought it up is that we have to look at the upcoming elections for our school board. There's got to be greater diversity there. I'm certainly committed to that. There's got to be greater diversity within the government as a whole, you know, we talk about second terms and things we have to do. We've got to do a better job of that because the richness of Prince George's County is our diversity, and so that should be reflected in the government.
SHERWOODI think -- I understand that you said you were taking the best possible candidates you could find for these appointments. If I were a Latino, I might say, well, did you look at the best possible Latino candidates, and they simply didn't measure up to the ones you ultimately chose? It's -- I think sometimes it sounds like a backhanded slap, not necessarily intentional, but when we look at the best candidates but none of them were Latino, maybe we'll look at some more later.
BAKERNo. You know, certainly, when we look at the pool of people who applied, and we had some Latino candidates that did apply, out of that pool, we selected the three best people, which says two things. One, you know, as county executive, I have to make a choice of what I think is best for Prince George's County. But it also says there's work to do. I mean, clearly, the pool of applicants that we got in should have been greater than what I saw.
BAKERSo that means -- and that's not -- and I think that's why Sen. Ramirez's comments were legitimate. Clearly, administration has to do more to make sure why isn't the pool as broad as it should have been.
SHERWOODThis should be part of your re-election campaign to demonstrate that you'll be working on this.
BAKERRight. And I think it means for us that we've got to make sure that we -- in the second administration and as we move forward, even during this time, that we increase the number of applicants. And we make sure that pool is broader and deeper than what we saw because we know and, you know, we heard this as African-Americans, you would always find, well, you mean you couldn't find any qualified African-Americans?
BAKERThat means the pool that we're looking at doesn't include everybody. So that means our reach into the Latino community isn't as broad as it should be, and we've got to change that.
NNAMDISpeaking on education, in today's Washington Post, Keith Harriston's column talked about how education in Prince George's County is related to development of the county. By the way, he said he couldn't reach you, so I figure I'd ask his question for him.
BAKERIf he's out there, maybe he can call in.
NNAMDIYes, it's true. 800-433-8850. Keith -- but he said that the system -- for the system to fulfill its promise, it must stem the tide of middle-class flight in Prince George's County. What would you say to that?
BAKERYeah. You know, it's an interesting comment. I would answer it this way. When he says middle-class flight, I don't think he means it in the terms of people leaving the county. We checked it out. There's always something people say...
NNAMDIIt means them leaving the school system.
BAKERLeaving the school system, which is an issue, and it's something, as we looked at candidates to go on the school board, that's one of the issues we looked at. And, you know, their philosophy on how to address that is also part of the questions I'm asking, and I've asked our folks to ask of the potential superintendent that are coming to Prince George's County, how do you address that?
BAKERBecause clearly, Prince George's County, especially in our public education, has two different jurisdictions. We are a wealthy, educated county, but our school system has a high number of free and reduced lunch individuals in there.
SHERWOODYou know what the percentage is? It's 70 percent in the District, but it's...
BAKERIt's probably close to about 60 or 70 percent in Prince George's County, which doesn't make sense in a county that is as wealthy as our -- our medium income is higher, our education is higher than any -- than the state average, which means that our first choice for folks who are middle income is not our public school system. That also means that we're not getting the message that we're doing a great job in a lot of our schools.
BAKERMy wife and I, our three children went through our school system. They all got in college. They all got scholarships. So we're doing things right, but we're not getting the message out there, and we're not doing it everywhere.
NNAMDIWhat's the latest on your search for a new superintendent?
BAKERWell, we feel like we're really close. The search -- the three-person search panel that was put together by the governor and the state superintendent have been interviewing candidates and talking to individuals. They've done their due diligence in terms of talking to the public. And I feel really positive that we're gonna get -- they're gonna send down three names to me within a short period of time, and I'll get -- be able to choose a really good superintendent for us.
SHERWOODAnd how big is the school board? How many members is it?
BAKERIt is now 14.
SHERWOODAnd how many of those do you control, the chairman and the vice chairman and the others?
BAKERRight. I appoint the chair and the vice chair. The vice chair must come from the current elected school board. But we appoint four. The council appoints one and I appoint three.
SHERWOODIt just sounds -- when this was first announced, I just wondered if you put an elephant head on a giraffe or vice versa or whatever.
SHERWOODThese people really have to work together.
BAKERRight. Well, it meant that, you know, the person that I put as the chair of the school board, I think, is phenomenal. I've known him for years. You know, as the Post pointed out, he's my former brother-in-law. So it's, you know, I think he thinks I'm trying to get back at him.
SHERWOODStill the positive, right?
BAKERYeah. Well, I think he thinks I'm trying to get back at him. But, you know, the reason that I wanted him to head up this -- the school board is just what you said. This is unique. This has not been done anywhere else in the country and certainly not in the State of Maryland where you have a hybrid board that is elected and appointed by the executive branch and by the legislative branch.
BAKERSo that person coming there has to be able to have those skills to bring you together but also having the expertise around education and teacher retention and teacher quality which Dr. Eubanks brings to the board, I thought, was important
SHERWOODIn fact, you want more thing on education or you got to go to the phones?
NNAMDINo, go ahead.
SHERWOODIn the District where we've had some of the same discussions, I hear from parents across the board of all middle income, upper income, African-American, Latino, is that we love our little elementary schools, but no school system is taking control of the middle schools where kids start to act out and where truancy and all those issues started to happen. And if the county, your county, our city can get control of how middle schools operate, you can -- the high schools won't even be an issue.
BAKERYeah. Middle school is a challenge for everybody. I mean, not just areas -- Montgomery County, Fairfax middle school is just an area that that education system is looking at. We're experimenting with K-12 where there's a continuing of education where you get to monitor these children through those middle school ages. Certainly in Prince George's County, we've seen it work well. If you look at Robert Garder (sp?) or Thomas Pone (sp?) in the District, they're doing the same thing in Montgomery County.
BAKERSo part of the conversation about -- with the incoming CEO or superintendent is what's your philosophy around middle school 'cause you're right. Middle school is where we start to track when the kids are gonna start dropping out in 9th grade or high truancy rate. What is the reason for that? And so for us in moving the education system for middle school is where we're gonna concentrate. But also, we're gonna look at what's going on in private schools. Are they any more effective in dealing...
SHERWOODWell, yes. What they do is they throw out the bad behavior to do this. They don't have to have them. So you can't come out.
NNAMDIWe're running out of time very quickly. So I guess this is gonna have to be the last question. We got this email from Jake in Greenbelt, "Mr. Baker, thanks for doing everything you've done to repair the image of the county. However, I fear that the incoming casino to the National Harbor area is going to give momentum back to the unfair idea that Prince George's is a seedy place. That's why I think this project is poorly timed. Are you concerned about how gambling will contribute to the image of the county?"
BAKERNo. It's something that we took in consideration before supporting the bill. I think...
NNAMDIYou took into consideration. You agonized over.
BAKERYes, I did for awhile. Some say too long. But, you know, we -- that's why I wanted a high-end destination resort. And I also wanted things there that would go beyond just table games and slot machines, which I don't play, and I readily admit that is not something I would support in the past. That's why it was important for me to see that we bring in entertainment, that we bring in shopping, that we bring in high-end retail, and that is a place where they're gonna attract people not just for the table games and slot machines.
BAKERAnd I think that will happen in the county. And we're putting everything that we can to make sure that, you know, we monitor this, we scrutinize it, the police, the state and the county to make sure it's up and up.
SHERWOODMaryland Live! the -- in Anne Arundel County is doing -- it's just going gangbusters.
BAKERYes, it is.
SHERWOODDo you want some of that money?
BAKERI would like some of our money back. Yes, I would. I mean, $41 million coming into Prince George's County would be great.
NNAMDIRushern Baker, he is the county executive of Prince George's County, Md. He's a Democrat. He's running for re-election next year. Rushern Baker, thank you so much for joining us, and I'm almost loath to say good luck to you 'cause you don't have any opponents, at least not yet. Well, good luck...
BAKERTom Sherwood, he was jinxing me, you know?
SHERWOODThe media -- well, maybe because the media will be your opponent.
NNAMDIWe'll get Tom to move to Prince George's County...
BAKEROh, we love to have you. Thank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou're more than welcome. It's "The Politics Hour." Tom Sherwood is our resident analyst. He's an NBC 4 reporter and a columnist for The Current Newspapers. Joining us now by phone is Eleanor Holmes Norton. She's a member of the United States House of Representatives. She's a Democrat from the District of Columbia. Congresswoman Norton, thank you for joining us.
REP. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTONGlad to be with you, Kojo, and Tom.
NNAMDICongresswoman Norton, the District took one small step toward getting more respect on Capitol Hill this week with the official introduction of the Frederick Douglass Statue in the U.S. capital. Before we get into what comes next, let's allow you to enjoy the moment. What did this mean to you personally? And what do you feel it means for the District?
NORTONWell, many would've said before the actual ceremony that this was just a symbolic event. This has been the biggest boost to statehood in many, many years because of unforeseen sponsorship, unforeseen enthusiasm that I don't think even those of us close to the Congress knew. What we see now is that first, the top leader, Harry Reid, not only went on the bill. That is very rare.
NNAMDIWell, allow me to interrupt for a second because we think we like our listeners to hear exactly what the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said.
SEN. HARRY REIDWashington, D.C. residents pay taxes just like those in Nevada and California and any other state. Washington, D.C. residents have fought and died in every war, every American war, just like residents of Ohio, Kentucky or any other state. And Washington, D.C. residents deserve the same right to self-government and congressional representation as residents of any other state.
NNAMDIAnd of course, he said, he signs on to the bill for statehood for the District of Columbia. Congresswoman Norton, when I interrupted you, you were underscoring the importance of that.
NORTONI was because leaders don't go on bills. He has to go in their own bills, and occasionally, they will on other bills. But not only do leaders not go on bills, but the committee chairs often don't go on bills. Here we have the leader of the Senate, the Senate Majority Leader, using this occasion to go on the statehood bill that's already out of the ballpark then with gusto. Then if you think about it, we now have all of the Senate leaders on the bill. We have...
NNAMDIAnd Sen. Tom Carper, the chair of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee in which the bill sits, tweeted today that he's going to be holding hearings on the bill.
NORTONThat is right. But let me go down who we have on the bill so you'll understand just how important this lineup is. Now, we have a top leader. Then we have a second top leader, Sen. Durbin, who's on the bill. Then we have the third top leader, chair of -- secretary of the Democratic Conference, Patty Murray. She is a sponsor.
NORTONAnd to top it all off, the chair of the committee, Tom Carper, who has been an enthusiastic statehood supporter going after co-sponsors and using the occasion, just as the leader did, Leader Reid, using the occasion to announce that he would have his hearings in the fall. We understood there were gonna be hearings, but he had never said before that occasion that they would be in the fall. Now, isn't that a tribute to Frederick Douglass that...
NNAMDIAnd if there are hearings in the fall, are you hoping that he will vote the bill out of committee so that there can be a vote by the full Senate?
NORTONWell, wait a minute. You got to do it at the hearings first.
SHERWOODWell, Ms. Norton, Tom Sherwood. It is terrific to those who live in the city to see the strong support, public support, from the Senate Democratic leaders. But before the hopes get too high, the Republican House has shown no interest, and maybe you can tell me whether Republicans have shown some interest in this. Although it's fundamental American democracy, they don't seem to share this. They don't want two more senators -- Democratic senators, in upper chamber.
NORTONAnd that remains as it always was. And that has never deterred us. But, Tom, did you notice that during the hearing, when people clapped every time they would talk about statehood, look at the vice president, for example, and what he had to say. The Republican leadership -- and this was -- this is one of those extraordinary occasions that we rarely have in the Congress, where we have the entire Democratic and Republican leadership. The Republican leadership sat stony-faced when all have applauded of how D.C. statehood came forward.
NORTONSo I think that does tell you what we already know. And it's not new to you, Tom, and it's not new to you, Kojo. We got somewhere to go, but you gotta start going there to get there. And this is a very big start with all the leadership in the Senate on record on the bill with the two senators, by the way, from Maryland also co-sponsors of the bill. With Carper, using the occasion, he's standing before the statue to announce that he will have a hearing, I think what that does is to send a signal to other Democrats, it's time for you all to get onboard.
NORTONAnd we are most appreciative. When you have it all the way from Biden -- and the only reason the president wasn't there is, of course, that he was out of the country -- to the chairman of the committee, I think that we've got a good, fresh start here for statehood. It's the kind of start we needed. Nobody in the District expected this start, much less that we get out of committee even before we have a hearing.
NORTONSo yes, we got to have a hearing, and then the next thing we've gotta do is to find our way out of committee. And Tom may remember this, that we, in fact, did get a committee vote -- it never got to the floor -- when the prior chairman, who was also an enthusiastic supporter of statehood, gave us a hearing. So I'm not giving up on going to the floor.
NNAMDIThey seem to have...
NORTONWe got a majority out of committee. We got a much more conservative Senate. But we did...
NNAMDIThey seem to have been more enthusiastic that some members of the D.C. Council who didn't even show up for this ceremony, the chair didn't show up, a majority of Council members didn't show up. I, for one, thought that the mayor and the Council would be showing up as one group sitting together to emphasize the solidarity we have in the city for the D.C. vote. Maybe, Tom, you know something we don't know.
SHERWOODNo, I think -- Ms. Norton won't be able to say this, but I think maybe it's good that they didn't parade themselves into the front of the room. Do you want them to see the national...
NORTONWell, first of all, I don't know how you all -- how did you know that they didn't show up?
SHERWOODNo. No, I saw them. I watched the whole program. I didn't come, but I did watch the entire program on C-SPAN or whoever recorded it. But, you know, this was not a chance for -- this was not a local city project. This was the national. You spoke, Ms. Norton, and I saw that you quoted Frederick Douglass, saying, we have to follow his famous words: agitate, agitate, agitate. There wasn't a time for the mayor or the councilmembers to be up there speaking. This was to hear just from the last...
NNAMDINo, not speaking. I was just talking about the show of solidarity.
SHERWOODBut they were there. I saw the number of them there.
NORTONWell, I must tell you the ones that came -- the ones that I saw came up and we all had our picture taken before the statue. By the way, people were crowding to get their picture taken before this statue. His statue means something to people.
SHERWOODYou know, I did a story on not only this, but every state has two statues up there, and you've worked very hard to get Frederick Douglass there. But now we have poor old Pierre L'Enfant sitting in the government building downtown. I spoke to Mr. Kray, the sculptor of that. He suggested, let's put that statue on Freedom Plaza where there's an outline of the original boundaries of the city, and that would be right there for all the tourists and people to see rather than putting it on Capitol Hill.
NORTONWell, wouldn't the problem be that...
NORTONThis is -- wouldn't the problem would be, though, that it would deteriorate the statue? It's not meant for outdoors, Tom.
NORTONIt's got to be indoors. And we just have to start now from the ground up. When you see this kind of enthusiasm for statehood coming out of one statue, we just got to build on that to get the second statue. And I think we can do.
SHERWOODI have two quick things to talk to you about, if you would. You know, this -- some people unfairly say, well, the city has to clean up its eye before it can be considered seriously, and that's not true. Otherwise, Illinois wouldn't have statehood or Norwood, La. But there was new legal developments for Jeffrey Thompson this week and you, among others -- Mr. Baker was here -- have received money from Jeffrey Thompson.
SHERWOODHow do you think that money should be treated? You probably should spend it. But the money that's -- fake money that was given out to many people, including you, how do you see this? You know Mr. Thompson. What effect does this have on your own ethical feelings about the moneys you got unintentionally maybe, unknowingly?
NORTONWell, this thing...
NNAMDIHe hasn't seen your latest press release yet.
SHERWOODI haven't seen it.
NORTONWell, I've issued...
NORTON...a press release indicating that I was gonna give back money that wasn't covered yesterday.
SHERWOODWho do you give it back to?
NNAMDIDC Vote. She is giving it to DC Vote.
NORTONI'm not -- guess who I'm giving it back to. DC Vote.
NORTONYou can give it to charity. So I'm giving -- when the two people came forward, one of them clearly -- I mean, I was named as one of the members of Congress and noticed that one of these people, Lee Calhoun, gave 53,000 to members of Congress. So one of the reasons I don't think you'll see Congress jumping up is because it looks like there were a fair number of members of the House and Senate who also got such funds.
NORTONAnd I'm sure your audience understands that nobody could tell except maybe a U.S. attorney that somebody else reimbursed to the person. And that's what these charges have been all about.
SHERWOODMark Segraves from Channel 4 suggested this morning, he said this could turn out to be the biggest nationwide campaign scandal in the country because of the moneys, millions of dollars. This is just one person we talked about, Lee Calhoun, who pled guilty this week, all the people who gave so much money. I have one more quick question. There -- the people who played -- this a very serious issue.
SHERWOODOn the Ellipse, there are people who play Frisbee on the Ellipse down -- off the National Mall in front of the White House complaining that trees were planted where they play. And now, it turns out, that you've recently said today, the Secret Service ordered the trees in this open space for security reasons at the White House. So we've got trees now instead of Frisbee players on the Ellipse.
NORTONI'll tell you, Tom, that really was the last straw for me. They're closing E Street. And I've had a tough briefing so it's nothing I can do to get that open. I really don't think we're gonna get it open. So now I'm trying to make sure we don't have even more traffic jams. (unintelligible) Well, I asked the Secret Service and the NPS to comment and tell me why in the world they would do this without giving us an opportunity to...
SHERWOODOK. We're running out of time. Maybe you...
NORTONAnd, in fact, the Secret Service pulled back, and now there will be an opportunity to be heard on July 9, 6:30 to 8:30 on this project at the Martin Luther King Memorial Library, 901 G Street.
SHERWOODOK. If they were really worried about it, they wouldn't allow the Ellipse, which used to be a place for tourists to go, to park all those bureaucratic cars there for free and block the tourists but let bureaucrats park for free.
NORTONYeah. Well, let's keep our eye on...
SHERWOODNot that I have an opinion about it.
NORTONYeah, yeah. Let's keep our eye on these people's trees, for God's sake.
SHERWOODYeah. Trees and Frisbees instead of commuter cars.
NNAMDIEleanor Holmes Norton is a member of the United States House of Representatives. She's a Democrat from the District. Congresswoman Norton, thank you so much for joining us.
NORTONMy pleasure always. Bye-bye.
NNAMDIAnd, Tom Sherwood, Mayor Gray talked about education. He says that he's not sending out seismic shockwaves or trying to make headlines, but what he is suggesting, he thinks, will make a big difference or a significant difference to District families and students.
SHERWOODYou know, what happens is Mayor Gray and Council Chairman -- Education Chairman Catania...
SHERWOOD...with Kaya Henderson, who's in the middle, needs -- they all need to be on the same page. Let's hope that they do get there.
NNAMDIWell, and I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Tom Sherwood is our resident analyst. He's an NBC 4 reporter and a columnist for The Current Newspapers. I said maybe a majority of the members Council didn't show up. Maybe I spoke incorrectly, but about half of them didn't show.
SHERWOODWell, I'll go back and look at the tape. Did you -- were you there?
NNAMDINo. But I looked at the -- I also looked at the live stream coming from the House speaker's office.
SHERWOODThat's what I looked at. It was great if Frederick Douglass is up there. Remember his words: agitate, agitate, agitate.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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