While some race to Atlanta, Charlotte and other sprouting urban hubs in the South, there’s no getting away from it: Prince George’s County is still the crown jewel of African American affluence. It boasts the highest concentration of middle to upper-middle income Blacks in the nation. It gained national attention via Connie Briscoe’s best selling 2002 fictional novel PG County which explored the exploits of prominent fictional Black characters.
How then did the county eventually become the poster child for having the highest rate of mortgage foreclosures in the state of Maryland? Foreclosure sales in the county have jumped from 34 percent in 2009 to 51 percent by June 2011.
Troubled by that, year-old County Executive Rushern Baker has an idea. He says a few years back when all indicators pointed to the inevitable downfall of the realty industry, his county – then run by disgraced politician Jack Johnson – did nothing.
“What got us is our slow reaction,” Baker claims during an exclusive interview with Politic365 in his Upper Marlboro, Maryland office.
Several people have blamed the housing crash on people purchasing homes they couldn’t afford, but Baker says it was more complicated than that and certainly not as sinister.
“We got there because we had a lot of people who went from two income to one income family and even if they got another job, it didn’t pay how much it was before, “ Baker explained. “People were taking the equity in their homes to finance education, businesses, and trips. When the market hit, people couldn’t go into their home anymore to finance school, colleges or to help pay mortgage rates. “
He also blames the slow reaction on humility.
“We had a number of people who needed help. They were upper income families and I think pride had a lot to do with it and not knowing where to turn to for information,” Baker added.
Baker is no stranger to pride, either – he finally won the coveted County Executive seat after years of running unsuccessfully for it. But, the former state legislator was not one to “wait his turn,” according to one anonymous county political insider speaking on background. Despite finally getting endorsements from some of the Democratic Party machine elite in Prince George’s, Baker had spent a long time bucking the unofficial political seniority system that plagues PG politics to this day.
And since coming into office, Baker has aggressively sought assistance from the state and federal government, as well as the faith community.
“The first line of defense is the Faith community,” he said. “People are more likely to go to their pastor or church before they come to an agency. “
Sweating to accelerate efforts that help people modify existing mortgages and stay in their homes, Baker has struggled to rejuvenate the county, addressing other challenging issues – one major priority: repairing its charred image as a county where businesses have to “pay to play.”
In May 2011, his predecessor Jack Johnson plead guilty to accepting $100,000 from a developer for steering county projects. Though Jackson was credited for bringing more business to Prince George’s, increasing its bond rating, improving emergency services and enhancing its image, he was also known for passing out contracts to unqualified friends while exploiting the county credit card.
Taking on the taint, Baker established a task force to study waste, fraud and abuse in the county. He passed a bill preventing county council members, and the county executive, from voting on measures if they received contributions via slate, an indirect way of getting a donation that would otherwise be prohibited by law. He also put in place committees and other processes improving transparency in government.
He also beamed this summer when the county entered into a memorandum of understanding with the University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS), the state and Dimensions Healthcare System, the company currently overseeing the main county hospital, to improve, upgrade and enhance health care service. In addition, Baker has been working on courting more businesses to the county, lobbying the council to approve a $50 million fund that would be used to leverage business investment dollars and assume some of the risk of developing underexploited areas.
So, it comes as no surprise that he is in support of organic grocer Whole Foods’ decision to open its first store in the county, near the University of Maryland at College Park. Some local residents in the impact area have expressed environment, traffic, and construction-related concerns. All of those concerns can be mitigated, said Baker, who believes Whole Foods’ presence – just like the wildly popular Wegmans store in Largo, MD – would further elevate the county’s stature.
“Clearly I think Whole Foods would be a significant win for Prince George’s county.” Baker said. “The benefits to the county in terms of jobs, in terms of quality of life and in terms of a cache that Whole Foods brings is good for the county.”