When Democratic voters cast their ballots this summer, they’ll see Rushern L. Baker III’s name on the list of candidates for governor even though he’s no longer campaigning or trying to win votes.
Baker, who was making his second try at winning Maryland’s governorship, suspended his campaign in June, citing a lack of money and an unclear path to victory in a crowded field of Democratic contenders.
At the time, he’d planned to spend a week or so talking to the other candidates and deciding whether to back one of them or restart his campaign. But he’s run into a thorny legal question that’s prevented him from throwing his weight behind another candidate — an endorsement that’s potentially valuable in a race that polls show is tight, with many undecided voters.
Baker and his running mate, Nancy Navarro, have been participating in a state public financing program, in which they take in small-dollar contributions from individuals and then receive campaign funding from the state.
If Baker and Navarro officially end their campaign, they might have to pay the money back — possibly more than $850,000.
“This, I’ll be honest, was a surprise to us,” Baker said in an interview with The Baltimore Banner.
Baker said he understands that there needs to be rules to prevent candidates from abusing the system. But Baker said he made an honest attempt to win the primary, and now that he sees little chance of success for himself, he’d like to give his supporters a recommendation for who to vote for instead. Any candidate running a traditional campaign without state funds wouldn’t have their hands tied.
Baker said the laws that govern public financing for campaigns are unclear about what happens if a candidate ends their campaign or endorses another candidate. Even if he doesn’t file withdrawal paperwork, would an endorsement be viewed as a de facto withdrawal?
Baker’s situation is one that wasn’t contemplated when lawmakers updated the rules that govern public campaign financing, said Jared DeMarinis, the top official for candidacy and campaign finance at the Maryland State Board of Elections.
“This is a unique situation here in that the candidate is on the ballot, can’t withdraw from the ballot, is not shutting down his campaign and is not officially withdrawing from the public financing program — but is seeking to potentially endorse a rival candidate,” DeMarinis said.
Baker and Navarro have received more than $850,000 in state funds for their campaign, according to state records. Baker believes that they might be personally responsible for paying that back if they officially withdraw from the race.
There are rules for other situations where a candidate might have to repay state money that went to their campaign, such as if a candidate switches from public financing to conventional campaign financing, DeMarinis said. But the law isn’t clear on Baker’s exact situation.
How state elections officials interpret the law in this case would have ripple effects not only on future elections but also public financing programs at the city and county level, DeMarinis said. It’s unclear if the questions about Baker’s campaign funding will be resolved before primary voting concludes.
“It’s going to be a precedent-setting policy,” DeMarinis said. “Hopefully the General Assembly will weigh in on the matter in 2023.”
Regardless of what Baker does next, ballots are already printed and his name will appear as one of 10 Democratic candidates for governor.
Polling shows that the top three candidates — Comptroller Peter Franchot, author and former nonprofit executive Wes Moore and former Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez — are statistically tied and significantly ahead of the rest of the field.
Other Democratic candidates include former state attorney general Doug Gansler, former federal education secretary John King, public policy expert Jon Baron, former federal employee Ashwani Jain, socialist Jerome Segal and perennial candidate Ralph Jaffe.
About 35% of Democrats polled by the Goucher College Poll in partnership with The Baltimore Banner and WYPR said they were undecided, and of those who made a pick, 63% said they could be persuaded to vote for someone else.
Getting Baker’s blessing has been a hot item in this campaign, at least among the front-runners, especially as early in-person voting runs from Thursday through July 14, followed by traditional Election Day voting on July 19.
Baker said he’s talked with the other candidates, some of them multiple times. But he hasn’t been able to offer his support to any of them. Baker and his lawyers are continuing to talk with state elections officials, hopeful for an interpretation of the law that will allow him to endorse another candidate.
The situation has left Baker feeling like he’s in “purgatory.”
“I’ve gotten advice from literally everyone. Everyone has an opinion of what I should do,” he said. “But it’s been in limbo.”
Even as Baker hasn’t been able to back a different candidate, some of his supporters have done so. Former Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young and several Prince George’s politicians who had been backing Baker have switched their support to Moore.
Baker, 63, brought to the race significant governing experience, including two terms as county executive of Prince George’s County, the second-largest jurisdiction in the state. He also served as a member of the House of Delegates.
Baker ran for governor in 2018 and finished second behind Democratic nominee Ben Jealous, who went on to lose in the general election to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. Baker thought his political career was finished, and went on to work with the University of Maryland to train local government leaders from across the country.
But he was moved by the protests of the death of George Floyd, and the struggles so many had with the coronavirus, to get back into politics.
Baker focused more on Baltimore City this time around, offering an array of ideas: moving the governor’s office to the city part of the year, jump-starting redevelopment at the State Center office complex, using state police to crack down on illegal dirt bike riders, developing a plan to help transition squeegee kids into legitimate careers.
In one TV ad, Baker focused on the staggering toll of murders in Baltimore and declared of the victims: “Because they’re Black, nobody in power gives a damn.” In the ad, Baker promised to declare a “crisis,” hire more police officers, combat poverty and deal with vacant buildings.
Despite suspending his campaign, Baker still believes he was delivering an important message about how he would help Marylanders feel safer. He’s said the other candidates are not talking enough about how they’ll prevent violence and improve public safety.
“We face — especially around crime and homicides — critical issues that I don’t hear enough about,” Baker said, adding: “We can’t lose sight of the fact that people are scared.”
Whether or not he’ll be able to give an endorsement in the primary, Baker said he’ll back the winner over the Republican nominee in the general election.
“I want a Democrat to win and will be working for the Democratic nominee,” he said. “If it’s not us.”
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