Controversy over Rushern Baker’s campaign finance has become the first big issue of this year’s election season. While Baker may have formally announced his candidacy for Prince George’s County executive on March 17, controversy had been following him well beforehand. 

In January, Baker posted a $206,000 campaign contribution, but at the time there was no explanation given as to where the money came from.  It has since been disclosed that the funding came from Renters Finance Corp., an extension of Southern Management Corp.

The money came from a slate set up by Baker called “County 1 Now.”  According to Maryland’s Board of Elections, the slate was formed in conjunction with Del. Barbara Frush (D-Dist. 21) and Tawanna Gaines (D-Dist. 22), both seeking re-election.

Unlike individual and business contributions, slates aren’t bound by the same restrictions.  However, $206,000 was seen as a large chunk of money by some candidates.

“When I received the campaign finance reports I was shocked,” said Del. Gerron Levi (D-Dist. 23A), one of Baker’s opponents in the race for county executive. “That’s a lot of money, more than we typically see in Prince George’s County.”

However, the bigger issue according to Levi, was the timing of when the sum of money was disclosed. She believes Baker found a loophole in the election law. She says the slate was set up two days after campaign committees were required by law to receive a reminder notice to file their campaign finance reports 10 days later.

County 1 Now did not receive the reminder notice and could contribute unlimited amounts of money to Baker without reporting the source of the money until the next campaign finance reporting period in August.

Levi says she believes it was a deliberate attempt to get around disclosing where the money came from. But Baker denies those claims. “We formed the slate so that I would be able to reach more people with my message,” Baker told the AFRO.  “My goal is to run a transparent campaign. I’m not hiding anything.”

However the controversy has led Levi to introduce a new bill in the Maryland House stating that a slate that makes transfers of more than $6,000 to the campaign finance of one of its members during a specific period must file a campaign finance report for the reporting period on a specified date. The bill would not apply to this election.

Baker released a statement last week in support of the legislation saying, “I have always supported disclosure of campaign finance information and I believe the citizens of Prince George’s County deserve full disclosure.”

Baker told the AFRO that he would be releasing campaign finance reports every 60 days on his own accord.  He challenges his opponents to do the same.

“My only issue is that if I have to disclose my finances, everyone else should too,” he said.  “I challenge my competitors to join me in disclosing their finances every 60 days.  Every candidate should undergo the same scrutiny.”

Baker says he just wants to get back to the task at hand, which is running his campaign.

“Throughout all of this I’ve still been visible in Prince George’s County,” he said.  “I’m not just saying what I will do; I’m showing people what I will do. I’ve been working to improve education; I was out there helping seniors dig out of the snow.  These are the types of things I’ll be doing as county executive.”

Baker and Levi are being joined in the county executive race by Prince George’s County Council members Samuel Dean (D-Dist. 6) and Tony Knotts (D-Dist. 8); Sheriff Michael A. Jackson and Henry C. Turner Jr., chair of Prince George’s County’s Commission for Veterans.

Only Jackson has agreed to take Baker’s 60-day pledge thus far.

 

George Barnette

Special to the AFRO