O'Malley got boost from Balto. Co. executive

Ehrlich ignored Smith at his peril

November 11, 2006|By Josh Mitchell | Josh Mitchell,Sun Reporter

When the governor announced last year that the state would close the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School juvenile detention center in Baltimore County, many people were taken by surprise.

The county's top elected official says he was one of them.

County Executive James T. Smith Jr. says the lack of advance notice showed how his relationship with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. had deteriorated.

It was a theme he reiterated while campaigning on behalf of Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley - playing, observers say, a prominent role in O'Malley's election as governor.

Now O'Malley says the county executive will have a hot line to his office. And some wonder whether there might be a seat on an appellate bench for Smith down the line.

Four years ago, Ehrlich's strong showing at the polls in his home county was seen as the key to his victory. On Tuesday, O'Malley received about half of the votes cast in the county, not including absentee ballots.

O'Malley's campaign said that Baltimore County Democrats - most prominently Smith and east-side County Councilman John Olszewski Sr. - were instrumental in the win.

"The mayor has said this campaign was about ideas and field [organization], and Jim Smith and Johnny `O' played a crucial role in the latter," said Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for O'Malley. "Two of them together were a very powerful voice in the county for the mayor."

After waiting months to come out for O'Malley, Smith sent volunteers to knock on doors, waved to passing drivers with the mayor, and appeared in radio and television ads.

In one ad, Smith said he had worked with O'Malley to reduce crime, while Howard County Executive James N. Robey accused the governor of engaging in "pure partisan politics." Radio ads criticized Ehrlich for putting politics above the interest of his home county, with Smith saying that Ehrlich hadn't returned his calls in three years.

"He talked to me at ribbon-cuttings and ground-breakings and public events, but he never returned one of my phone calls," Smith said this week. "Not one, and he never personally responded to a piece of correspondence, either. And you can't have any collaboration under those circumstances which he imposed."

Smith said his relationship with the governor became strained in late 2003, after Tropical Storm Isabel. Smith had criticized the state's insurance commissioner for his handling of insurance coverage complaints, calling him "aloof."

Smith said that's when Ehrlich stopped returning his calls.

Months later, Smith criticized Ehrlich for cutting more than $25 million in aid to the county, and he called the budget situation in Annapolis a "train wreck." The governor's chief counsel responded with a sarcasm-laced letter to members of the county's delegation to the General Assembly.

Smith said that in late June 2005, he received a call from Ehrlich's office inviting him to a news conference scheduled for the following day at the Hickey school.

Smith said he asked the caller about the nature of the announcement, and he summed up the response: "Well, we're not going to tell you. Just be there."

Smith skipped the announcement.

"I might have had a chance to know he was thinking about doing that and have some discussion about whether that was wise, and the timing of it," said Smith.

He said he was not involved in other Ehrlich administration decisions affecting the county, such as the closing of a MARC train station in Relay.

An Ehrlich spokesman did not return repeated calls seeking comment.

Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College in Westminster, said he was surprised that Ehrlich did not work harder to repair his relationship with the county executive.

"It's the largest jurisdiction in the Baltimore metro area. Jim Smith can scarcely be described as a rabid Democrat. The guy is described as a problem-solver rather than a partisan," Herbert Smith said.

James Smith said that people close to Ehrlich repeatedly asked him earlier this year to hold off on endorsing anyone in the governor's race.

At the same time, some political observers began to speculate that Smith could be a front-runner for governor in 2010 if Ehrlich were to win re-election.

"Jim Smith will be on everybody's short list for governor," David Weaver, a spokesman for Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, said in the summer.

In late July - after Duncan had dropped out of the Democratic primary - Smith endorsed O'Malley. Smith said at the time that he did not want to formally endorse O'Malley until after he had launched his own campaign for re-election, saying he wanted to focus until then on running the county government.

Smith's opponent was a Republican political newcomer who filed to run at the last minute, and many said the absence of a difficult race for executive would allow Smith to campaign for other Democrats.

He was able to provide O'Malley with help that Democratic nominee Kathleen Kennedy Townsend lacked in 2002, according to Herbert Smith and other observers.

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