Former New York Governor and lifelong Democratic politician Mario Cuomo once famously said, "You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose." This dictum often hits newly elected officials hard, said Rushern Baker, former county executive of Prince George’s County, MD.
"I walked into my position as a former legislator and business leader, but nothing prepares you to be county executive," he said. "I was lucky to have former county executive Wayne Curry as a mentor, and he poured his knowledge into me so that I wouldn’t make as many mistakes."
When Baker left office in 2018, he set his sights on creating a program to help county executives — particularly those without a strong mentor — take over local-level government leadership. The result: the Elected Executive Leadership Program (EXCEL) at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy.
As a former attendee of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Executive Education, which is aimed at large municipalities, Baker wanted to make his program available for mid-sized county executives. "The Kennedy program is largely aimed at county executives with bigger budgets," Baker said. "It’s a two-day seminar, and I wanted to provide a year-long cohort instead."
Fellow Kennedy School participant Dan McCoy, county executive of Albany County, NY, and former president of the County Executives of America, found value in this aspect of the EXCEL program during his involvement this year.
"The Harvard course has its own strengths, but it’s important to get as many unique perspectives as you can when you hold a leadership position and when you are responsible for 310,000 residents, like I am here in Albany County," he said. "There is no book on being a great county executive, and you have to oversee every department and think about the residents of the entire county. This is why I think the EXCEL program is indispensable.”
Baker and the University of Maryland officially launched EXCEL last year, and McCoy helped formulate some of the curriculum. Attendees are now benefiting from the program — particularly in a year when governing has perhaps never been more complex.
Baker designed the EXCEL program to serve a cohort of 15 to 20 executives, selected and invited by EXCEL to participate in the training. Participants meet three times in a year: first in a two-day session, then for two full-day lectures.
“We try to get a good cross-section of leaders, and we provide subject matter that is important to everyone," Baker said. "We encourage our cohort members to stay in contact in between and to reach out to one another for advice on issues they may face."
Baker establishes the cohorts to include a variety of experience levels so that some members can take on informal mentorship roles, too. Rich Fitzgerald, executive of Allegheny County in western Pennsylvania, brought 10 years of experience with him to the 2020 cohort.
"With the big issues we’ve all faced this year, I’ve spent plenty of time on the phone with other county executives,” he said. “Even in a non-pandemic year, it’s nice to bounce issues off of other execs with similar demographics and size.”
Topics covered include a mixture of what Baker calls the "practical and the policy." The first session features former chiefs of staff, for instance, who speak to the cohort about the unique relationship of their roles and the roles of county executives. In light of the nationwide focus on social justice, Baker also included an implicit bias training segment in this year's program, with Dr. Kris Marsh of the UMD sociology department.
McCoy said he found this training extremely useful. "Given the recent social upheaval in response to strained relationships between communities of color and law enforcement, this is something government should always be aware of," he said.
The value of networking
While a key value of the EXCEL program is its curriculum, so too is the network established by cohort members, particularly in the midst of a pandemic. The 2020 cohort was able to meet once in person — in February — before the pandemic forced the next sessions virtual.
"The group was able to get to know each other before they all had to face the pandemic, which is fortunate," said Baker. "We’ve since shifted some of our topics to focus on the impact of COVID."
This focus has included the pandemic’s effect on county budgets, county healthcare, communication, and vaccine distribution. The final session of 2020 will include insights from former Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski, who will advise the executives on positioning their counties to ensure the federal government understands their needs.
Phyllis Randall, chair-at-large of the Loudoun County (VA) Board of Supervisors, participated in the 2020 cohort and has appreciated the camaraderie she's established with fellow attendees. "Every profession needs a support network within that profession," said Randall. "Elected officials don’t have that as much, especially across demographic and county lines."
This networking has also helped Randall navigate problem-solving, she said. "I’ve learned so much from fellow members," she said, "and to have the experience of Mr. Baker available has been invaluable."
As Baker begins selecting the 2021 cohort, he and his team are also focused on incorporating the important topics that will shape the year for county executives.
"There’s a new administration coming in at the federal level and a vaccine on the horizon," he said. "Everything we cover will have a focus on how this impacts the local county executives."