Less than a week after stepping down as a circuit judge, James T. Smith Jr. said yesterday that he will seek election as Baltimore County executive on a platform advocating greater community input in government.
Smith, 59, of Reisterstown is the first Democrat to enter the race to succeed C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who cannot seek re-election because of term limits.
Douglas B. Riley, a Towson Republican who announced in February, is the only other candidate.
Smith served notice a month ago that he would retire from the bench and said he would try to gauge how much financial support he could expect in a run for executive.
Yesterday, he said the response exceeded his expectations, and he believes he will be able to raise the $1 million he thinks he'll need to win the office.
"People know I'm serious," Smith said. "They know I am committed to the race and I really want to be county executive of Baltimore County."
If elected, Smith said, he will work harder than the Ruppersberger administration has to involve residents and neighborhood groups in government, while following up on Ruppersberger's efforts to improve the county's infrastructure.
Ruppersberger has run into harsh criticism for not consulting the public before proposing Senate Bill 509, a failed measure aimed at rebuilding aging neighborhoods, and expansion of the Baltimore County Detention Center.
"You hear people say the government should run like a business," Smith said. "If that means it should be efficient and run well, then yes, but government is different. We have citizens and taxpayers. Businesses have stockholders, but the interests are not synonymous."
Smith said he would emphasize education, particularly adult education programs in the county's universities and community colleges.
He said he would also strive to improve the safety of neighborhoods and increase treatment options for drug addicts. As a judge, he too often saw the devastating effects addiction can have on families, Smith said.
The Bromwell question
A major question in the campaign is whether state Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, a Perry Hall Democrat, will run for executive. Bromwell did not return a message yesterday.
Smith, who speculated yesterday that Bromwell would stay out of the race, insisted that he's trying not to focus on who else might run.
"We ought to win regardless of who's the opponent," he said.
Still, the pledge to seek input from residents and neighborhood groups over established political interests appears more targeted at Bromwell, the powerful chairman of the Senate Finance Committee with extensive contacts in banking, insurance, transportation and other industries, than at Riley, a lawyer and former county councilman who is generally well regarded among community groups in the Towson area.
The conventional wisdom among county political observers is that Smith will have more work to do in establishing name recognition than Bromwell.
Although he was a councilman for two terms in the early 1980s and ran a countywide campaign for his Circuit Court seat, Smith has been out of the political arena for 15 years.
Many community leaders and activists, particularly on the west and northwest areas of the county, said they know Smith well and respect him. But their counterparts in the central and eastern county said they knew little about him.
Ruppersberger, who said he would not endorse a candidate until after the Democratic primary a year from now, started campaigning for the office about this time in the 1994 election cycle.
Even though he, like Smith, had been a two-term councilman from the 3rd District and twice served as council chairman, establishing name recognition proved a difficult and expensive proposition, Ruppersberger said.
"I found out pretty quickly." he said. "People in politics think they're well-known, but I really didn't have enough name recognition. Even with all the door-to-door [campaigning], I had to have a program for TV to get the message out."