Smith seeks to lead county that's vastly different

February 28, 2002|By Michael Olesker

GROWING UP in Reisterstown, in northwest Baltimore County, Jim Smith lived in a world of green and white. The land was still green, and the people almost all white. Now Smith, 60, wishes to become county executive of a place enormously changed. The land is marked by shopping malls and highways and gas stations, and the people reflect the full American mix.

He has resided, his entire life, within a three-mile radius of the home where he grew up. He has raised a family in the same home for the past 33 years. Three of his four grown children live within five minutes of his home. But the world around them has changed endlessly, and Smith has been part of the change.

He remembers nearby Franklin High when it was a dairy farm, and housing developments such as Tollgate an open field. Smith's mother would stand in their kitchen and worry about some modern expressway veering directly through their breakfast nook. He remembers Owings Mills before it had enough people to give itself a name.

Now there's an entire county broken into teeming communities, overflowing schools, air-conditioned malls - and a modern diversity of people. When Smith goes to a produce market near his home, he hears the sound of transplanted Russians. When he goes to church, Sacred Heart in Glyndon, he knows they will have a Mass in Spanish every week for about 200 parishioners. When he talks about the public schools, he knows they are racially integrated as never before.

"I think," he was saying over breakfast the other morning, "that people in Baltimore County are getting more comfortable with diversity. And I think the county is still a wonderful place to live."

The two concepts - diversity and livability - are increasingly tied together. Smith served two terms on the Baltimore County Council, from 1978 to 1986, in the aftermath of the Dale Anderson years, when a U.S. civil rights commission studied county housing and racial policies and described Baltimore County as a "white noose" that was strangling the city.

He spent the past 16 years as a Circuit Court judge, then retired in August to "begin spending time listening to citizens. If we're going to have a renaissance in Baltimore County - which is what I want to do - then we have to listen to people's concerns."

That's a well-intended, if stock, political remark. But it takes on added texture in the aftermath of C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger's plans to rehabilitate Essex and Middle River, only to run into troubles when citizen input was short-changed. That's become a lesson to everyone, and it informs all of Smith's thinking.

"Dutch's intentions were absolutely right," he says. "But process is important. You have to get people involved. They have to feel they have their shot to be heard."

He talks about establishing "Our Town" round-table community talks. He wants to televise such meetings. He talks about neighborhood celebrations, also televised. The language feels like a father figure calling the whole gang together for a family chat.

It is also Smith's paternal look: gray-haired, buttoned-down, blue blazer - a grown-up.

"I've been a grown-up all my life," he says. "The world needs a few."

Particularly with its children. Something familiar is happening in the county's public schools. The county's population is about 20 percent black, but the schools are about 40 percent black. Some see a reflection of 40 years ago in the city, when the changing schools led to white flight to private schools - or to suburbia.

Have we learned, Smith was asked, to handle racial difference with any more intelligence, and sensitivity, than we did 40 years ago?

"People still want the same things they did then," he says. "They want good learning opportunities in a secure atmosphere. I don't see the schools as a racial issue. But look at a school like Woodlawn High," mostly African-American and noticeably anxious.

"You've got 1,900 kids there - far too many for a principal to handle - and 300 of them are juvenile justice kids. How can you do that without special counseling, without tutoring, without remedial help? Because, let's face it, they aren't involved with juvenile justice because they're good students.

"We've got to make sure schools get the resources they need. Because, if we don't, that's when people move away. That's when educated people look elsewhere. We have to give this generation what previous generations got. And I don't see this as a racial issue because I do think we're getting more comfortable with diversity."

Smith is the only announced Democrat thus far openly in the race - though former County Executive Ted Venetoulis has been pressured to run. Though the county is heavily Democratic, Smith sees possible entanglements in a general election.

Rep. Robert Ehrlich is considering a bid for governor. If that happens, national Republicans have big concerns about holding their slim congressional margin. They would be expected to pour considerable money into a congressional race here - money that would spill into the pockets of a Republican candidate for county executive.

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