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Donald P. Baker, who chronicled Va. politics for The Publish, dies at 90 – The Washington Publish


Donald P. Baker, a wry and grizzled Washington Publish reporter who served because the paper’s longtime bureau chief in Richmond, chronicling the rise of the nation’s first Black elected governor, L. Douglas Wilder, in addition to the bitter 1994 Senate race between Oliver North and Charles S. Robb, died Dec. 25 at an assisted-living middle in Bethesda, Md. He was 90.

The trigger was not instantly identified, stated his daughter Lisa Baker.

Mr. Baker, a West Virginia native with twinkling eyes and a full, scraggly beard, was The Publish’s Richmond bureau chief from 1985 till his retirement in 1999. For a lot of that interval he was thought-about the dean of the Richmond press corps, identified for his powerful, aggressive questioning and for his shambling model, which led mates to liken him to Columbo.

“You could possibly simply underestimate him, and you probably did it to your detriment,” stated his former Publish colleague Peter Baker, now the chief White Home correspondent for the New York Instances. (The 2 Bakers weren’t associated.) One other former colleague, John F. Harris, the founding editor of Politico, stated that Mr. Baker “didn’t have an abrasive method, however he was blunt and direct and freed from artifice.”

“His curiosity was above all within the human dimension — he wished to know what made politicians tick,” Harris added in an e mail. “He delighted within the methods their pious or self-important personas collided with their real-world scheming and dealmaking.”

Mr. Baker got here to prominence within the state capital partly via his tireless reporting on Wilder, a grandson of enslaved individuals who served as Virginia’s lieutenant governor earlier than being elected governor in 1989. Weeks earlier, Mr. Baker had printed an unauthorized biography of the politician, “Wilder: Maintain Quick to Desires,” that recounted his early years — together with a stint ready tables at segregated eating places in Richmond — in addition to his struggles as a trial lawyer and his clashes with fellow Democrats.

In a cellphone interview, Wilder stated that Mr. Baker was one of many first journalists “who took the time to attempt to perceive what made me assume I might win” statewide workplace in Virginia, a former bastion of the Confederacy and the Jim Crow South. “The Bakers of the world shall be sorely missed,” he added. “That breed of inquiring and daring, asking the powerful questions — and honest questions — is required at present within the American political area.”

Mr. Baker’s old-school method to newspaper journalism was on full show within the 1996 documentary “A Excellent Candidate,” which regarded again on the 1994 Senate race between North, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who was beneath hearth for his position within the Iran-contra affair, and the incumbent Robb, a former Virginia governor who overcame damaging stories about his private life to win reelection.

Directed by David Van Taylor and R.J. Cutler (who chronicled Invoice Clinton’s 1992 presidential marketing campaign as a producer of “The Battle Room”), the documentary used Mr. Baker as a stand-in for the viewers, searching for to get straight solutions from the candidates and to make sense of an election that one voter described as a selection between two evils, “the flu or the mumps.”

The publicity-shy Mr. Baker stated he was reluctant at first to be featured within the movie, preferring to stay outdoors the story. “Lots of time after I thought they must have the digicam on Ollie or Chuck, they’d have it on me,” he advised Publish journalist Marc Fisher for a 1996 article. However he developed a friendship with the filmmakers and finally agreed to cooperate, albeit whereas steadfastly refusing to put on a microphone. (“I wasn’t going to do one thing that I wouldn’t ordinarily do in my job,” he stated.)

The ensuing footage offered Mr. Baker as a disillusioned romantic, reflecting not simply on the Senate race however on politics usually. “Through the years, I’ve admired totally different politicians,” he stated whereas driving down a avenue, trying to find the fitting phrases, “however then they’ve all the time carried out one thing to lose my admiration. So, if the query is, who’s the final politician I nonetheless admire?” He paused for some time, then added, “Oh, I don’t know.”

The documentary obtained an Emmy nomination after it aired on PBS, and Mr. Baker went on to roam far past the Virginia Capitol, taking a break from state politics to cowl the 1996 presidential marketing campaign of H. Ross Perot, the impartial Texas billionaire. A yr later he traveled south, reporting on the murder of Italian dressmaker Gianni Versace in Miami Seaside and on the World Sequence victory of the Florida Marlins.

At the same time as his reporting took him removed from Richmond, he all the time returned to his residence on Monument Avenue, the place he mentored reporters together with Baker, Harris, Mike Allen, Spencer S. Hsu and Gregory S. Schneider whereas internet hosting occasions that included an annual Easter parade viewing social gathering on the entrance porch. Close by had been a number of monuments to Accomplice leaders, which Mr. Baker got here to view as symbols of the state’s Jim Crow previous. Once they had been taken down within the wake of the 2020 protests over George Floyd’s homicide, Mr. Baker was thrilled.

“The longer we lived right here,” he advised Harris in an interview that yr, “the extra they offended me.”

The older of two sons, Donald Parks Baker was born in Wheeling, W.Va., within the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, on Nov. 20, 1932. His mom was a homemaker, and his father was a hospital upkeep engineer.

Mr. Baker studied journalism on the West Virginia Institute of Know-how in Beckley, and after graduating in 1954 was employed as a reporter on the Day by day File in Wooster, Ohio. He later labored on the Courier & Press of Evansville, Ind., the place in 1958 he met his future spouse, Nancy Cottrell, whereas reporting a narrative at a magnificence salon the place she labored as a stylist. They married the following yr, and she died in 2021.

Survivors embrace two daughters, Lisa Baker of Brooklyn and Amanda Baker of Canton, Ohio; and 5 grandchildren.

Mr. Baker labored on the Indianapolis Instances and the Cleveland Press earlier than coming to The Publish, the place he began out overlaying native information and Maryland politics, together with corruption allegations in opposition to Gov. Marvin Mandel. He was additionally a pacesetter of The Publish Guild — he was elected chairman of the newspaper’s union unit in 1976, close to the top of a very divisive pressmen’s strike — and taught journalism at colleges together with American College, the College of Maryland and Virginia Commonwealth College.

Colleagues recalled that Mr. Baker generally confirmed an impartial streak whereas speaking along with his topics, together with at a information convention in Virginia the place he requested a query with what Harris described as “a type of irreverent, honking air.”

“The particular person holding the convention responded that the information convention was restricted to members of the media,” Harris continued. “‘I’m the media, buster!’ Don shot again. It was an immortal line, and at his retirement social gathering buttons had been distributed with Don’s face and the phrase.”

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