Fund-raiser for Smith generates $400,000

Balto. Co. executive strikes early to tap willing donors

October 17, 2003|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

In his first major fund-raiser since last fall's campaign, Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. took in more than $400,000 - about $100,000 more than his opponent spent for the entire campaign last year.

Associates called it one of the most successful fund-raisers for a first-term Baltimore County executive.

"I looked around the room, and I saw a lot of the decision-makers in Baltimore County, and I saw a lot of regular citizens, too," said former state Sen. Francis X. Kelly, a confidante of Smith and of Smith's predecessor, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger. "I was impressed. It was a lot bigger than I thought it was going to be."

Organizers estimated 300 people paid $1,000 each to attend a reception, and several hundred more paid $150 each for the main event.

Smith said he didn't relish the idea of raising money for a re-election bid so soon, but voracious fund raising by Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. - both of whom have held $4,000-a-ticket events, the highest allowable under Maryland law - means that he and other candidates will have to start soliciting contributions earlier before all the donors hit the limit of $10,000 for the election cycle.

"With the governor and the mayor having these $4,000 events, if you buy a ticket to each, you spend $8,000 and have $2,000 left to support every other office that you're interested in," Smith said.

"It wasn't that I really wanted to go back and have a fund-raiser again after only 10 months in office, but the reality is the election cycle may be effectively up in two years."

Wednesday night's event was reminiscent of Smith's first major fund-raiser as a candidate nearly two years ago. Both took place in the same rooms at Martin's West in Woodlawn. There was the same food, the same band and many of the same people.

The event two years ago instantly established the then little-known former Circuit Court judge as the front-runner in the race to replace Ruppersberger and helped discourage major opponents from challenging him in the Democratic primary.

Some saw this more lucrative sequel as proof of the power of incumbency, but Smith's boosters said they hope the event will mark an end to the political stumbles that he experienced in his first months in office.

"The first event really does that, it kind of sets the stage for how people think you're doing, and when you have that kind of turnout and that kind of money this early, it's a very good sign," said Robert J. Barrett, who was a close adviser to Ruppersberger and now serves as Smith's director of parks and recreation.

Although Smith hasn't resolved his most recent disagreement with the County Council over appointing Orioles principal owner Peter G. Angelos to an open seat on the Revenue Authority, many of the executive's supporters pointed to his performance in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Isabel as showing him at his best - effective and in charge, if not particularly flashy.

Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., a Dundalk Democrat, said the executive came across well among his constituents who were affected by the storm.

"I think he has a lot of support," Stone said. "This was a very tragic event as far as people's property and homes, but as far as services and being on top of things, the highway department and the Fire Department and the Police Department, all the services that were rendered were, I think, exceptional."

This fund-raiser was different from Smith's first one in that it was a much more professional affair. Then, and throughout the campaign, Smith relied almost exclusively on volunteers and family members

Fund-raising duties are now handled by Colleen Martin-Lauer, a professional whose clients include O'Malley.

Hanan "Bean" Sibel, who was a major fund-raiser for Ruppersberger, said Smith is also doing well in raising money through more personal networking.

Sibel said he and others have recently held living-room fund-raisers for the executive and found it easy to sell tickets to those as well.

Smith said it was difficult enough for him to come in as an outsider toward the end of the last four-year election cycle, and it will only be harder for relatively unknown candidates next time around.

But for the incumbent Smith, a successful event puts him in line for an easier shot at re-election and makes him more confident in his governance, Kelly said.

"I think Jimmy is finding his wings, and I think it's doing a lot to help his confidence," Kelly said. "It shows his support in the community is a lot stronger than people might have thought."

Smith said he was grateful to his supporters and encouraged by the strong start to his re-election campaign.

"What is nice is the whole cross-section of people who took the time and had the spirit to come out," Smith said.

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