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Smith known as man who runs 'a tight ship'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A day after the first candidates forum in the Baltimore County executive race, Democrat James T. Smith Jr. was mentally rehashing his performance and wasn't all too pleased.

After 10 months of campaigning; hundreds of meetings with residents, politicians, educators and businessmen; and scores of speeches to community groups, Smith was thrown for a loop by the first question from the Essex-Middle River Civic Improvement Association: Which three projects not already planned do you envision to improve the east side of the county?

He didn't quite answer the question, talking instead about projects on the books and missing an opportunity to say he wants to help residents devise ways to improve their communities.

"That's totally not what I'm all about," he said later of the question. "I don't want to impose my ideas on them."

The idea that government should respond to the people is hardly unique in Baltimore County elections in 2002. Virtually all candidates for local office have sought to define themselves in relation to outgoing County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and his plan to use condemnation as part of a revitalization program on the east side and in Randallstown.

The plan was defeated overwhelmingly in a referendum two years ago, emboldening candidates to attack the county government as arrogant and overbearing.

But none of them has used this more carefully, and none has researched how residents feel about it more thoroughly, than Smith.

Smith has conducted a yearlong "listening tour" of the county to get input from residents. He has convened six working groups to address issues such as the county's economy, its growing senior population, technology and education. He has given his stump speech more than 100 times and participated in countless living-room chats. He has even held a trial run of the kind of town meeting he wants to hold if he's elected.

Smith is not the most dynamic man ever to run for executive, but other county politicians look on his campaign with awe for its extreme discipline and organization. At heart, Smith is a man who likes to be prepared.

During his 16 years as a circuit judge, he wouldn't so much as sip a cup of coffee while on the bench, lest it detract from courtroom decorum and he took reams of notes to keep himself constantly focused on the proceedings in front of him.

"You could tell that each evening or morning, it was clear that he had done his homework before we got to the courtroom, and he expected us to have done our work," said Scott D. Shellenberger, an attorney who argued many cases in front of Smith, notably the murder trial of Steven H. Oken, who is now on death row. "He ran a tight ship, but that's a good thing."

Criticism leveled

The most frequent criticism of Smith - most often leveled by supporters of the Republican nominee for county executive, former councilman Douglas B. Riley - is that he is nothing more than Ruppersberger Part II and would not bring about a significant change in how the county is governed.

In speeches, Smith rarely mentions the man he would replace, but their paths often have crossed. They used to lunch together when Ruppersberger was a young lawyer, and when Smith went on the bench, Ruppersberger replaced him on the council.

But in terms of personality, at least, they diverge.

Ruppersberger is not known for his discipline but for his larger-than-life personality. The executive loves a crowd, and his aides go to great lengths to keep him on schedule lest he spend the day talking and shaking hands.

Donald P. Hutchinson, who was county executive from 1978 to 1986, said Smith is more introspective and shows more marked problem-solving abilities than Ruppersberger or anyone else who has been county executive.

Smith is a political animal, Hutchinson said, but he would show a greater degree of interest in and facility for the details of governance than most county executives have, and he would project a very different presence in the community than Ruppersberger has.

"No one tries to bully Dutch because his presence won't allow him to be bullied. No one is going to try to bully Jim Smith because he'll look you in the eye, and he'll have a better answer," Hutchinson said. "And I think his government will be different. It will be different from what mine was and it will be different from what Dutch's was. I've known every county executive, and this guy is different from any of us."

'The end of a problem'

Smith, 60, was born in Baltimore and grew up in Reisterstown. He graduated from Loyola High School in 1960. He earned his bachelor's degree in English from Wheeling Jesuit University in 1964 and his law degree from the University of Maryland's night school in 1968. He worked in his family's law firm, Smith, Johns and Smith, for 17 years.

Smith has been married to the former Sandra Cody for 36 years. They have three daughters and a son, all in their 30s. Smith's children attended Catholic schools, following their family tradition.

Like other members of his family, he was heavily involved in the local rec council, the Jaycees and the 4th District Democratic Club.

Unlike other members of his family, he went a step further and ran for office, winning the 1978 and 1982 council races in the Republican-heavy 3rd District. In 1985, he was appointed to the bench.

Smith says he enjoyed being a judge but ultimately felt he could do more elsewhere.

"Judges come in at the end of a problem. They come in to resolve an issue people haven't been able to resolve themselves. ... But by the time a judge gets into an issue, a lot of pain and hardship and hurt have frequently happened along the way," he said. But as a councilman and in community activities, Smith said, he was able to work on the front end, to solve problems before they became crises. He'd like to do that again, he said. Smith's detailed plans for his administration will be rolled out in the coming months, but he has sketched out some during the past year.

He promises to convene town meetings every month in communities throughout the county to discuss local issues. He would bring heads of county departments, broadcast the meetings on cable and open phone lines so people could call with questions.

He wants to maintain limits on growth in the rural north county and create tax incentives and other programs to encourage builders to make homes in older communities more marketable. He wants to reduce the size of schools and increase drug treatment options.

Different styles

Smith focuses on many of the same problems as Riley, but their personalities couldn't be more different.

Where Smith tends to speak carefully and craft sentences not to offend, Riley is blunt and sometimes gets himself in trouble.

In May, both men spoke to this year's class of Leadership Baltimore County, a group that teaches professionals about civic institutions.

Riley put the crowd on edge - they laughed, they got angry, they asked him questions, they talked about him after he was gone. Smith was a calm, controlled, avuncular presence. During his hour before the group, he elicited a half-dozen or so soft, isolated chuckles. A few minutes after he finished his prepared remarks, the audience ran out of questions.

Both men used Woodlawn High School to illustrate problems in the school system, to strikingly different effect.

Riley said: "You go to Towson or Dulaney or Loch Raven, and you're going to get a great education. You go to Woodlawn High School, and you're going to get a crummy education. One reason is that school is huge now. It has become unmanageable. Now they have 1,993 students there, next year they'll have over 2,000. You can't have a school that big and maintain discipline."

After that comment and others, a teacher and a police officer in the crowd took him to task for insulting the school.

When Smith spoke, he never actually said "Woodlawn High School," but when he started talking about a school with 1,900 students, everyone in the room knew which one he meant.

He said: "We have to look at giving additional resources to schools that have more challenging populations. They've got a principal that is wonderful, they've got a PTA that cares, but they need additional resources. We can't expect miracles if we don't give schools the resources they need."

When the group voted after the candidates left, the results left no doubt as to which approach they preferred: Smith got 25 votes, Riley got four.

"Riley was definitely a heck of a lot more opinionated than Jim Smith, but Jim Smith probably doesn't need to be opinionated," Michael T. Smith, a member of the leadership class, said at the time. "Just lie low and don't stumble."

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