Friday, May 23, 2008

Jim Smith who?

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Next Wednesday, there’s a $1,000 per person fund-raiser for Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith at the exclusive Caves Valley Golf Club.

No big deal, you say?

That would be the case if it were not for a curious fact: Smith is term-limited. He can’t run again for county executive and there are no obvious vacancies coming up in Maryland’s higher elective offices.

So why is Smith on yet another drive to raise large amounts of campaign contributions? What does he have in mind?

It’s no secret Gov. Martin O’Malley is encouraging Smith to run against incumbent Comptroller Peter Franchot, who has been a constant annoyance to the state’s chief executive. And it’s no secret Smith is interested.

But the county executive is an extremely cautious politician. Running against an incumbent isn’t something he would normally consider.

The governor’s support for Smith in a race against Franchot, though, would make a big difference. Smith would be part of the incumbent governor’s ticket in the primary. With O’Malley’s help, Smith could raise big advertising dollars to get his name, his record and his O’Malley connections before voters.

Still, it would be a gamble. But Franchot may have given Smith new motivation to run.

Last month, Franchot went out of his way to antagonize Smith. The comptroller, who is a shameless publicity hound, injected himself into a boiling school controversy in Baltimore County. He toured overcrowded elementary schools in the Towson area and sided with protesting parents against Smith’s plans to relieve the overcrowding.

A Smith spokesperson called it ‘‘another in a series of political stunts” by Franchot. Smith and his staff were furious.

Franchot claimed it was just part of his fact-finding in advance of this week’s Board of Public Works meeting to approve $112 million in school construction funds.

Yet a new school in Towson wasn’t even on the list of projects the board voted on this past Wednesday.

Franchot was, indeed, tweaking Smith and currying favor with angry Towson parents. The move could boomerang on him if Smith vows to get even in 2010.

The Baltimore County executive has a good deal of time to decide what he will do. Events could intervene that will enlarge his options.

If Barack Obama becomes president, Democrats will gain thousands of prime federal appointments. Those most likely to be rewarded will be early Obama backers, such as Franchot and Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler, who co-chaired Obama’s campaign in the state.

Would Gansler accept a top post in the Justice Department? Would Franchot be in line for Transportation Secretary or a coveted diplomatic post?

Would either the governor or Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown accept an offer for a prominent role in Obama’s administration?

Should any of these possibilities occur, Smith could opt to run for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general or comptroller. With a large cash surplus in hand and more money rolling in, Smith would be far head of the field.

There’s also a chance Maryland’s senior U.S. senator, Barbara Mikulski might retire in 2010. Were that to happen, Smith could jump into that contest as well. This option is more of a longshot because there would be a long line of Senate hopefuls better known than Smith, including Rep. Chris Van Hollen and Rep. Elijah Cummings.

The track record of Baltimore County executives running for statewide office isn’t favorable. Their reputations only extend to the county boundary line. Getting known statewide is time-consuming and costly.

And Smith has another problem — a Plain Jane, easily forgettable name. His bland personality and lack of charisma as a public speaker don’t help, either.

Yet he has a rock-solid record: Eight years as a highly regarded county councilman, nearly 15 years as a respected Circuit Court judge and two terms as a progressive county executive. Smith easily won re-election in 2006. He has gradually expanded social programs in the county, kept a tight hold on budget increases, worked closely with the county’s growing African American population and avoided any major blowups with county politicians.

The school overcrowding issue illustrates Smith’s finesse. He and his penny-pinching county administrator, Fred Homan, pushed for the least expensive option that would ease classroom congestion. He eventually let the school board come up with its own solution, one that seems to have appeased parents.

Franchot’s intervention proved counter-productive. It gained him some new enemies. His voice was of no consequence in shaping a resolution. And he may have laid the groundwork for a tough challenge in 2010.

But perhaps Franchot doesn’t care. He may have his eye on a bigger prize: a run for governor against O’Malley. A preview of that campaign may be on display this fall as O’Malley and Franchot butt heads over the slots referendum. If Franchot wins the first round, he almost certainly will take aim at O’Malley for real two years from now.

Barry Rascovar is a longtime State House columnist and communications consultant in the Baltimore area. His address is brascovar@