Months of acrimony between the Ehrlich administration and Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. came to a head this week when two lawmakers briefly persuaded the state to deny the county use of Martin State Airport for a festival unless they're allowed to have a booth at the event.
The Baltimore County Community Waterfront Festival is billed as highlighting progress in revitalizing the east county, honoring people who helped rebuild after Tropical Storm Isabel last year and raising money for those who are still recovering.
But Del. Patrick L. McDonough, a Republican who represents the area, insists that "Jimmyfest," as he calls it, is a blatantly partisan promotion for Smith, a Democrat, at taxpayers' expense.
McDonough said he and Del. Richard K. Impallaria, also an east-side Republican, felt they had to fight back after the Smith administration refused to allow them - or other politicians - to have booths.
The two said they planned to use the booths for answering constituents' questions, not to ask for votes.
"We did not throw the first punch. This is like Pearl Harbor. [Smith] launched the attack, and we were sitting there, and now it's time to come back and protect ourselves," McDonough said. "We have two choices: We can sit here and let him get away with petty politics, which he's been doing all along; or we can begin to make this a public issue."
McDonough said he called James F. Ports Jr., a former Republican delegate from Perry Hall who is now assistant secretary of the Department of Transportation, and asked him to prevent the county from using the airport.
Yesterday afternoon, Ports said the department, after notifying the governor's office, decided not to allow use of the airport unless Smith permits a booth for state officials and one for local officials.
"That's all we've asked, just two tables," Ports said. "And so, if it gets shut down, it's Jim Smith shutting the festival down, and that's what people need to understand."
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday that he knew nothing about the dispute. Shortly after The Sun asked the governor about it, Ports' stance changed.
"We need to take the high road. ... The airport will still be accessible by the citizens of the east side of Baltimore County, with or without a compromise from Smith," Ports said later in the day.
Smith, through a spokesman, declined to comment.
Hal Ashman, an east-side businessman who has helped organize the event, said the overwhelming sentiment among his volunteers was that politicians should not have booths.
"This event is for a very specific purpose, and that is celebrating the east-side waterfront communities, celebrating the heroes of Hurricane Isabel and helping draw attention to those who are still in need," he said. "It seemed very clear that what we did not want to do was create a forum for politicking."
The relationship between Smith and the Ehrlich administration has grown strained in recent months. Smith has criticized the governor's fiscal leadership and called his insurance commissioner "aloof" in his response to Isabel.
Ehrlich, meanwhile, has talked to a Democratic county councilman about switching parties to oppose Smith and has admonished political activists in his native Arbutus who had been planning a Smith fund-raiser.