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

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 heart in Bethesda, Md. He was 90.

His daughter Lisa Baker confirmed the demise however didn’t cite a trigger.

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 fashion, which led associates 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 Occasions. (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 suppose I might win” statewide workplace in Virginia, a former bastion of the Confederacy and the Jim Crow South. “The Bakers of the world might be sorely missed,” he added. “That breed of inquiring and daring, asking the powerful questions — and truthful questions — is required right now within the American political area.”

Mr. Baker’s old-school strategy 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 underneath fireplace for his position within the Iran-contra affair, and the incumbent Robb, a former Virginia governor who overcame damaging experiences 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 Conflict Room”), the documentary used Mr. Baker as a stand-in for the viewers, looking 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 exterior the story. “Numerous time once I thought they should have the digicam on Ollie or Chuck, they’d have it on me,” he instructed Publish journalist Marc Fisher for a 1996 article. However he developed a friendship with the filmmakers and ultimately 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 introduced Mr. Baker as a disillusioned romantic, reflecting not simply on the Senate race however on politics basically. “Through the years, I’ve admired completely different politicians,” he stated whereas driving down a avenue, trying to find the proper phrases, “however then they’ve at all times performed 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 acquired 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 unbiased Texas billionaire. A yr later he traveled south, reporting on the murder of Italian clothier Gianni Versace in Miami Seaside and on the World Sequence victory of the Florida Marlins.

Whilst his reporting took him removed from Richmond, he at all times 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 have 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 have 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 instructed 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 Expertise 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 subsequent yr, and she died in 2021.

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

Mr. Baker labored on the Indianapolis Occasions and the Cleveland Press earlier than coming to The Publish, the place he began out protecting native information and Maryland politics, together with corruption allegations towards Gov. Marvin Mandel. He was additionally a frontrunner 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 typically confirmed an unbiased 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 form 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 have been distributed with Don’s face and the phrase.”

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