Smith primary tactics are decidedly low-key

Incumbent executive seldom mentions 3 opponents

Maryland Votes 2006

September 09, 2006|By Josh Mitchell | Josh Mitchell,Sun Reporter

As a man beat on a drum and young girls dressed in pink danced to an African beat, Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. smiled and clapped along.

"I don't know about all of you, but I couldn't have done that," Smith told about three dozen people gathered yesterday in Towson for an event promoting the county's African-American Cultural Festival on Sept. 16. "I can't move that fast. I can't bend that well. Incredible."

The 64-year-old Reisterstown Democrat then read from a short prepared speech and shook a few hands.

As Smith, in the final year of his first term, heads into Tuesday's primary, it's sometimes hard to tell that he's up for re-election.

He has posted campaign signs. But he has been to no candidate forums -- and said he doesn't think he's been invited to one.

Despite a recent report showing that he has $1.3 million to spend on his campaign, he has run no television advertisements and has sent out just one mailing. The top news items on his campaign Web site are about him endorsing candidates in other races.

Smith, one of four Democrats in the primary, said he's been busy attending community events and doing his best at running the government of the state's third-biggest county.

"I've been very accessible as a county executive and very much out in the community, and I've just continued to do that," Smith said.

He has seldom, if ever, mentioned publicly the names of his opponents in the Democratic primary: John F. Weber III, a former county recreation and parks director; and two last-minute entrants, county human resources employee Ronald E. Harvey and Alexander Bob Page Jr., a retired Orphans' Court judge.

On the Republican ballot, Clarence W. Bell Jr., a state police lieutenant who was recruited for the race by county Republican leaders and has received the endorsement of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., faces Norman J. Cioka, a county employee.

Since Smith took office, the county has maintained its triple-A bond rating and has pumped more money into schools.

He points to redevelopment in older neighborhoods, particularly in eastern communities such as Middle River. Big-name retailers are coming to Liberty Road in Randallstown, and Smith says crime is at a longtime low.

But critics say Smith has not done enough to rein in development in the county's suburban neighborhoods, and some criticize him for accepting what they say is a large number of campaign contributions from developers.

Weber, who was replaced in one of Smith's first personnel changes after taking office, said he has been campaigning actively for the past year and a half, and said he's spent about $50,000 on his campaign. He recently ran a television advertisement in which a voice says, "Overcrowded schools, traffic jams, out-of-control development. We have a choice."

In the driveway outside his home in Dundalk, sitting in a motor home that doubles as his campaign headquarters, Weber said the Smith administration has not done enough to preserve open space and to plan for schools.

"We planned for the Owings Mills and White Marsh growth areas, and Perry Hall High School is grossly overcrowded," said Weber, 63.

He said he thinks the problem might not be that the county needs new laws, but that existing laws need stricter enforcement.

Harvey said many new housing projects are not held to strict standards.

"There's probably not a single new development that is in compliance with the development plans, in terms of adequate roads, sewer designs, right of ways," said Harvey, 59. "If the county right now had an effective check where the community rights were equal to the developer rights, you would at least have a more equal playing field."

Attempts to reach Page for comment were unsuccessful.

Smith, a former county councilman and Circuit Court judge who has never lost an election, rejected the idea that he has not done enough to relieve school crowding.

"I've been fighting ... for school renovation and construction money," Smith said. "My goodness, I've forward-funded two new schools in the county and forward-funded a third under way."

Bell, 47, a Pikesville resident who commands the state police Waterloo barracks in Howard County, initially filed to run for Baltimore County sheriff, but entered the race for county executive at the last minute after county Republican leaders asked him to run.

He has called for more community involvement in the development process and for better planning so that new homes to do not overwhelm schools and roads.

Cioka, of Rosedale, who orders parts in the county government's equipment maintenance division, wants to cut the piggyback income tax by 5 percent, repeal salary raises given this year to the county executive and council members and create more vocational programs in schools, such as shop classes.

"I think everybody's not on the same level as far as academics goes," Cioka said. "I'd rather get them introduced into these trades while they're in the young stage instead of having to go to trade schools after they get out of high school."

josh.mitchell@baltsun.com

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