Updated – 12:35 p.m. – Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett on Tuesday endorsed Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, his former law school student, in Maryland’s gubernatorial race.
Baker is running for the Democratic nomination in a crowded field vying to take on Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in the 2018 general election.
Leggett, 73, and Baker, 59, have had a close relationship since they first met when Leggett was a professor and dean at Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C., in the mid-1980s while Baker was a student at the school.
Leggett formally announced his endorsement in a conference room at Houston Hall at the law school.
Leggett said he was endorsing Baker not only because of their long relationship, but because Baker had led Prince George’s County out of the recent recession and through the scandal following former County Executive Jack Johnson’s bribery case. Johnson was released from prison last year after he pleaded guilty in 2011 to evidence tampering charges in the case that centered around him accepting more than $1 million in bribes.
Baker had run for county executive unsuccessfully against Johnson twice before winning the election in 2010.
“He persisted,” Leggett said. “He persisted not once, but several times to obtain a job that many would not want. Not only has he obtained the job, but he served in excellent fashion. I could not be prouder.”
Baker said he was honored to receive the endorsement because he respects Leggett and looks up to him.
“There is not a better endorsement,” Baker said. “There is not one I sought out more.”
Leggett’s endorsement gives Baker the backing of three of Montgomery County’s most prominent politicians. The Prince George’s executive was previously endorsed for governor by Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, who served as a state senator from Bethesda; and by U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen of Kensington.
Baker is running in the Democratic primary against Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, former NAACP President Benjamin Jealous, Baltimore attorney James Shea, state Sen. Rich Madaleno (D-Kensington), tech entrepreneur Alec Ross and former Michelle Obama aide Krishanti Vignarajah.
A January poll by Gonzales Media and Research showed Baker with 24 percent support from the likely Democratic voters who were polled—a 10-point lead over his nearest competitors, Kamenetz and Jealous. The primary is set for June 26.
Baker recalled in an October interview with Bethesda Beat one of his first encounters with Leggett.
“I knew of Ike before I actually met him,” Baker said at the time, recalling hearing the first day of law school about well-known people who came through Howard University, including federal Judge Spotswood Robinson, who as a lawyer argued for the plaintiffs before the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education, and Leggett. “And they talked about how Spotswood Robinson graduated with the highest grade-point average in the history of the university, except it was beaten by one student, and it was Professor Leggett.”
Baker said Leggett was this “God among people who had gone to Howard University.”
Leggett often got to know students well. Baker recalled the time he was forced to request permission from Leggett, who was a dean at the time, when he tried to drop a property law class.
Baker tried to explain to Leggett that he had an internship at a Silver Spring law firm and also was concerned he wouldn’t do well in the class.
“People were failing it left and right,” Baker said.
Leggett refused to let him drop the class.
“He didn’t say these words to me, but you knew what he was thinking,” Baker said. “Clearly, everyone wanted to get out of that class because it was hard and people were failing. He looked at me and said, ‘You know what? I think you can pass the class.’ ”
Despite pleas from Baker, Leggett didn’t back down.
“Before I graduated, [Leggett] came up to me and said, ‘How did you do in Property 2?’ and I’m still mad at him. I’m like, I can’t believe this guy did this to me, and I must have said it in a way, maybe not disrespectful, but with an attitude, ‘Well, I got one of my highest grades,’ ” Baker recalled. “And he’s like, ‘I knew that. I checked.’ ”
“He knew me before I knew him,” Baker said. “That started a mentorship with him that continues to this very day. At periods of my career, when I needed someone to go to, to ask for advice, he was the guy.”
In a phone interview with Bethesda Beat in October, Leggett said he remembered the encounter and described Baker as “ticked off” about being forced to take the class, but added that “it was the right thing for him.”
Leggett demurred on whether his GPA was higher than Robinson’s, who became the first black judge appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. Leggett acknowledged, though, that his own GPA was “pretty high.”
Leggett said he’s pleased to work with Baker as fellow county executive in the state.
“I’m extremely proud that he’s evolved into what I think is an outstanding leader,” Leggett said.
On Tuesday, Baker told a similar, but shorter version of the story. He also recalled how Leggett was there for him in 2010 when he first took office.
“It was a similar conversation, only I was 52 years old and I went to County Executive Ike Leggett … and I wondered whether in fact I had what it took to do it,” Baker said. “Once again, he gave me sound advice that scared the heck out of me.”
Leggett said Tuesday he had considered the other Democratic candidates in the field, including Madaleno and Kamenetz, who he has worked with during his three terms as executive.
“Those three rise to the top because I know them,” Leggett said. “I’ve worked with them and I think any of them would be a good governor. I simply believe Rushern will be a better one.”
Leggett, who is term-limited and must step down from his position at the end of this year, said he was not considered as a lieutenant governor running mate by Baker and that he has no interest in joining Baker’s administration if Baker were to win.
“I’m not interested in any position,” Leggett said. “I’m not interested in any political office.”
Baker and Leggett were joined at the event Tuesday by dozens of former Howard deans, professors and alumni.