Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. declined Friday to enter the race for state Senate, but with more than a million dollars in campaign funds at his disposal, he's expected to play a significant role in the 2010 elections for local and state offices, including governor.
Smith, a Democrat who was believed to be planning a run for the General Assembly — going as far as putting his longtime family home on the market last fall and moving to an apartment in the 7th District — ruled out a run for the seat held by Republican state Sen. Andrew P. Harris.
Now the eight-year incumbent, barred by law from seeking a third term as county executive, has triggered a fresh round of speculation about a potential "Smith factor" in this fall's campaign.
"He has enough money to seriously influence any race around the county, or the state," said state Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat. "He really becomes the premier kingmaker in the state, maybe aside from [Senate President Thomas V.] Mike Miller."
Donald F. Norris, chairman of the department of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said Smith has "quite an organization and a lot of money" and would be in a position to influence the rematch between Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley and former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in what Norris considers the "battleground county. … It's the county that will make or break the campaign."
If O'Malley "can break even or nearly in Baltimore County," Norris said, "he wins."
O'Malley finished within 6 percentage points of Ehrlich in the county in 2006 and won the election. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in 2002, lost to Ehrlich there by 60 percentage points en route to her defeat.
Smith's campaign committee's last annual report in January showed a balance of nearly $1.1 million, with nearly $300,000 collected in the previous 12 months.
Steve Whisler, a Republican running for County Council, said he was concerned about Smith's ability to "buy political seats around the county" by creating a campaign "slate" that would allow him to exceed limits on campaign contributions from any one source.
Now that he won't be running in the conservative District 7, Smith will be more free to talk up O'Malley. He acknowledged as much in the interview Friday morning in which he announced he would not enter the Senate race: He said his polling showed he could win, but his stance on the governor's race would be touchy.
"Me talking about O'Malley in glowing terms gives me a platform to help him, but it gives me greater challenges in winning that seat," said Smith, who employed the governor's brother, Peter, as his chief staff. The decision not to run, he said, "gives me the chance to speak throughout the county on [O'Malley's] behalf."
Smith, who had been leaning toward a run, said he informed O'Malley on Thursday and Miller a day earlier about his change of plans. He said he called House Speaker Michael E. Busch on Friday.
"The governor certainly understood, and so did the speaker," said Smith, a former Circuit Court judge. "The [Senate] president wanted me in the Senate. He was a harder sell on my decision. I'm not sure he fully appreciates it yet, but he will."
No other Democrat has publicly expressed interest in running to succeed Harris, who is leaving the post for a second run at Congress. The district includes the east side of Baltimore County and part of Harford County.
"I think he realized it was going to be a tough district for him to win," said Del. J.B. Jennings, who is seeking the Republican nomination in the 7th. "It's a very conservative district."
Jennings said he was surprised by the news, but pleased. Without a general election campaign to run, he said, "my time will be spent getting Governor Ehrlich elected."
Alfred W. Redmer Jr., the former state delegate and insurance commissioner, is also running for the Republican nomination. He said he was pleased by Smith's decision, but added that he's been focused chiefly on trying to win the primary in September.
Whatever Smith chooses to do with his campaign money, Redmer said, he imagines Friday's announcement "will garner him a whole lot of new friends very quickly."
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