Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. took office four years ago with the task of succeeding an almost larger-than-life political figure whose tenure was marked by growth and prosperity. Supporters say that he has been a success, presiding over hefty budget surpluses and continued redevelopment of older communities.
But Republican Clarence W. Bell Jr., a political newcomer, says Smith has run the county government with a top-down style that favors developers. He faults Smith for not doing more to address community concerns such as school crowding.
On Tuesday, voters in Maryland's third most populous county will decide who will lead their government for the next four years: Smith, a former judge and county councilman who has amassed widespread support, or Bell, a state police barracks commander who entered the race at the last minute after being recruited by GOP leaders.
Political observers say the race is for Smith to lose.
"There's a kind of a nice calm in the county," said former County Executive Theodore G. Venetoulis. "There's not a lot of issues you see that are emerging that the community seems to be upset by."
Bell's campaign has been minuscule compared with that of Smith, who has raised more than $2 million. Since entering the race in July, Bell has raised $5,800. He said he has kept to waving signs rather than knocking on doors because the county is so big.
Bell has attended candidate forums, but often to give a speech to a few people at a time.
Bell, 48, of Pikesville, said he has researched the County Charter and closely examined Smith's handling of problems.
"I saw what Jim Smith is doing, and I thought -- and still do feel -- that I could do it better," said Bell, who along with an unsuccessful Democratic candidate this year are believed to be the first African-Americans to run for Baltimore County executive.
Bell said he grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in Washington. His father was a school custodian, and his mother died of a heart ailment when Bell was a teenager.
After graduating from high school, Bell was working at a record store when he met a police recruiter. He liked the idea of a job that allowed him to drive around and be outside, and soon he was in state police training.
He worked his way up the ranks and now oversees 40 to 45 employees as the commander of the Waterloo barracks in Howard County. He plans to retire next month after almost 27 years with the state police.
Bell initially filed to run for county sheriff, but when former state Del. James F. Ports Jr. decided in the final weeks before the filing deadline that he would not run for executive, county Republicans turned to Bell for that office.
"Clarence has more qualifications as a barracks commander, handling people and personnel, than Jim Smith did as a judge," said Chris Cavey, chairman of the Baltimore County GOP. "He handles the budget, he handles personnel, he handles crime."
Bell has said he would immediately stop development near crowded schools, create an office of "constituent services" to handle complaints, and involve public safety officials in growth planning, among other proposals.
The two candidates were scheduled to appear together for the first time at a forum last night.
Smith, a lifelong Reisterstown resident, surprised some when he retired from the bench four years ago to run for executive. Campaigning on fiscal responsibility and the revitalization of older neighborhoods, he showed an impressive ability to raise campaign dollars, and he beat Republican former County Councilman Douglas B. Riley with 56 percent of the vote.
His deliberative, stick-to-the-script style stands in contrast to his predecessor, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a captivating politician whose proposals -- including a new jail in Towson and a failed property condemnation bill -- sometimes caused uproars.
"I think Jim has done extraordinarily well in not aggravating people," said Michael J. Collins, a former Democratic state senator. "And I think that comes from being very hard-working, very inclusive and being very willing to take the time to painstakingly listen to people."
He added: "When you succeed a very popular guy, who was elected to higher office, who was outgoing, gregarious and a commanding presence, the worst thing that could happen to you is to have people looking at you as Dutch II or Dutch light."
Smith said he has made the cornerstone of his tenure commercial and residential redevelopment of communities such as Middle River on the east side and Randallstown on the west. He also points to what he calls record-low crime levels and the county's triple-A bond rating -- an indicator of economic health.
He said he has focused on community involvement while avoiding inserting himself in the spotlight. "I don't have to be looked at as, `Hey, that's the guy,'" Smith said. "That doesn't mean anything to me. It's the final product I'm interested in."
His first term has not gone entirely smoothly.