Democratic hopeful out for upset in Balto. Co.

Walters enjoys underdog bid for county executive

September 08, 2002|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

In his campaign to be the Democratic nominee for Baltimore County executive, Joseph P. Walters Jr. is facing an opponent who has raised nearly $750,000, recruited more than 500 volunteers and spent a year giving his pitch to anyone who'll listen.

When Walters filed for the office in July, some of his neighbors didn't even know who he was, but he isn't discouraged.

He has a shiny, black truck rigged with signs and flags, and he is campaigning the old-fashioned way, rolling through neighborhoods, microphone in hand, getting to the county's voters as fast as he can.

As Walters sees it, he has a 50-50 chance of beating his opponent, James T. Smith Jr., in the primary Tuesday.

"Most of the people I'm talking to have no clue who's running," he said.

In the 50 years that Baltimore County has had its present form of government, there have been a handful of major upsets in county executive races, most notably the improbable victory in 1962 that launched Spiro T. Agnew's political career.

The candidate with the most money hasn't always won, and Smith was hardly a household name when he declared for the office a year ago.

But even so, a Walters win would probably be the biggest county executive upset of all time.

"Highly unlikely," said Kevin Kamenetz, a Democratic county councilman from Pikesville who is unopposed in this election. "I hope he enjoys his run."

Smith has long said that he wouldn't shy away from a primary challenger -- the contest would help him get his message out earlier and test his volunteers before November. Realistically, political observers say, Walters' candidacy will probably just show Smith where he has the most work to do.

Walters, 46, was born on the Fourth of July in his parents' living room in Parkville. He graduated from Parkville High School in 1974 and went straight into the Army. After a tour of duty, he went to California to go to school, but got homesick and came back to Baltimore.

He returned to the Army and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Walters has a host of ideas for new things that the county could try. Mostly, though, he wants to make the government more efficient and responsive to citizens.

In recent years, the Army has been forced to act more like a business, to find ways to become more efficient and get by with less money, Walters says. That's the kind of attitude he wants to bring to county government.

"My most important priority is making sure the county government is led efficiently and effectively, that we comply with Maryland's Sunshine Law and have full disclosure," he said. "Customer service is the top priority, and good fiscal management."

Walters recently put in his papers to retire from the military. He is on leave while they're being processed and is campaigning full time.

He said he has been pleasantly surprised with the reception he has gotten and feels as if he is connecting with voters better than Smith is. He thinks that maybe people have trouble relating to Smith because he still has the aura of a judge.

And Walters says he is thoroughly enjoying his first foray into campaigning. County residents are good people who want to make things better, he says, and he is happy to have met so many of them.

"If I make it or not, it doesn't matter," Walters says. "It's been worth the trip."

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