From Exec To Power Broker

Baltimore County's Smith Out Of Race But In The Money

July 08, 2009|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. might not be on the ballot in 2010, but he is set to leave office with one of the largest war chests of any departing Maryland elected official - meaning his next role could be as kingmaker.

Smith, 67, amassed more than $1 million in the months he was exploring a statewide run for comptroller. Although the term-limited Democrat abruptly announced this week that he's not interested in becoming Maryland's tax collector, he won't have to give the donations back.

Campaign finance laws give Smith wide discretion over the money he raised. He could save it for a run for another office years down the road, or, just as likely, he could steer it in unlimited amounts to the candidates of his choosing - helping friends and knocking off enemies.

"It's a lot of money, and it makes him viable well into the future," said state Sen. Jim Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat and a former gubernatorial campaign manager. "I don't know anybody who has left office with over $1 million. It's unprecedented."

After touring the state for months and scheduling several high-profile fundraisers, the county executive announced in a statement Monday that the comptroller's job "is not a position to which I aspire." Smith left the state Tuesday for the birth of a grandchild, and could not be reached for comment.

Don Mohler, a spokesman for Smith, said the county executive "hasn't entertained" the idea of how to spend his campaign money. "He just decided that comptroller wasn't a good fit for him," Mohler said. "One decision at a time."

David Carroll, an Annapolis lobbyist and former Democratic Party fundraiser, said few have left office with the "great number" that Smith has in his campaign account, because so many state politicians stay in their jobs for decades. "It's a nice luxury to have," Carroll said.

A former county councilman and judge, Smith had taken seriously the run for comptroller, a position perhaps most notable as one of three votes on the state Board of Public Works, along with the governor and treasurer. Democratic incumbent Peter Franchot defeated former Gov. William Donald Schaefer in 2006, and has said he is running for re-election.

Despite bypass surgery last year, Smith is in good health, as is his wife, who was successfully treated several months ago for lung cancer, according to one supporter close to Smith who did not want to be named because of the personal nature of the information.

Smith has strong ties to Gov. Martin O'Malley, and the governor could tap him for his administration. Possible jobs include open positions at the head of the transportation and labor departments.

But even if he never again takes an elected or appointed office, Smith will remain a potent financial force in Maryland politics. And the apparatus is already in place for him to distribute the money as he sees fit.

In 2006, Smith helped form the Baltimore County Victory Slate. Campaign finance laws allow him to transfer any amount of money to the slate, which can then transfer any amount of money to other members of the slate - circumventing the usual $6,000 limit on transfers between campaign accounts.

New members can be added at any time and don't have to have anything to do with Baltimore County.

Among the current 21 members of the slate - all Democrats - are O'Malley, several state senators and delegates and Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger.

Ryan O'Donnell, director of Common Cause, a Maryland campaign finance reform group, said slates are "basically a slush fund."

Such slates create a loophole in campaign finance law "big enough to drive a truck through," he said. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, House Speaker Michael E. Busch, O'Malley and many Republican leaders all maintain slates, as well.

Smith has experience with the permissive intra-slate transferring practices.

In 2006, Smith gave $585,000 to the victory slate. The slate, in turn, gave Shellenberger $435,000 in a contentious battle to become the county's top prosecutor.

"Certainly, his political guidance and financial support was very, very helpful to me in winning my first-ever campaign," Shellenberger said. Smith, once a Baltimore County Circuit Court judge, had known Shellenberger as a prosecutor and the two developed "a deep respect for one another," Shellenberger said.

Smith started his re-election year with more than $1.5 million in his personal campaign fund and has seen similar success in raising money this election cycle, even though he never formalized his candidacy.

Well over 100 supporters attended a Smith campaign event in March at the Martin's West function hall in Woodlawn, padding considerably the $957,000 that Smith reported as cash on hand in January 2009. The next campaign finance report isn't due until January 2010.

As Smith told his closest supporters in recent weeks that he was bowing out of the comptroller race, at least two major fundraisers in the works had to be quickly reconfigured.

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