Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. formally launched his campaign for re-election yesterday, saying he wants to continue reshaping a county that was at a "crossroads" when he took office four years ago.
Addressing supporters gathered in the summer heat in front of the county's old courthouse building in Towson, the 64-year-old Democrat said his work to improve schools and reduce crime make him worthy of a second term. And he promoted his program to advance the "renaissance" of older communities near the Baltimore Beltway through redevelopment.
"We have made tremendous progress, but there is work to be done," Smith said. "So today, I am asking the people of Baltimore County to extend our partnership for four more years."
Four years ago, Smith, a former county councilman and longtime circuit judge, was seeking to follow a popular Democrat, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who had spent eight years in the position and was on his way to a seat in Congress.
Smith won in 2002 with 57 percent of the vote. If re-elected, he would gain a measure of seniority in the Baltimore region. He is the only leader of a local executive branch of government voted into office four years ago who is running for re-election.
Several community activists have accused him of not being sensitive enough to community concerns, mainly about construction within older areas such as Pikesville and Towson. Supporters say he has been a capable steward of the county's pocketbook and has involved residents in efforts to rehabilitate troubled areas of the county.
According to his campaign spokesman, Smith has about $1.5 million to spend on his re-election campaign, much more money than the three other Democrats in the race combined.
His Republican challengers are a state police commander who filed at the last minute after being asked by county party leaders to run and a county maintenance worker who as of early this month had not begun to seriously raise money for a campaign.
"I don't see his opponents being a real force," said Kenneth N. Oliver, a Randallstown Democrat and the only County Council member to attend yesterday's rally. "He's very popular. He's popular because he relates to people."
About 120 supporters gathered for yesterday's rally on the front steps of the building that houses the offices of Smith and the County Council.
With his wife, Sandy, and three children and nine grandchildren by his side, Smith talked about growing up five miles from the couple's house in Reisterstown.
"Baltimore County has always been a wonderful place to live, but in 2002, we were a community at a crossroads," Smith said. "In established, Beltway communities, older shopping centers that once anchored those communities sat dark."
He talked about "run-down," crime-ridden apartment complexes of Kingsley Park and Yorkway, and the county's redevelopment of those areas. He mentioned redevelopment efforts in eastern and western parts of the county, including Dundalk and Randallstown.
He said the county had increased teacher salaries in each year of his first term and that the crime rate is lower than at any point since 1981. And he hailed what he called his administration's fiscal responsibility, pointing out that the county had to deal with a number of funding cuts from the state when he entered office.
In a telephone interview yesterday, John F. Weber III, the first Democrat to enter the race and former director of the county parks and recreation department, faulted Smith for not doing more to address school crowding and to ensure that development within established communities does not overwhelm roads and schools.
'Lots of concern'
"There's a lot of concern on the part of citizens ... that overdevelopment is causing an impact on our neighborhoods that is not improving our quality of life," Weber said.
Alan Zukerberg, a community activist from Pikesville, has faulted Smith's administration for not working harder to make communities aware of projects planned near their neighborhoods.
"I think he's very pro-developer," Zukerberg said, pointing to developer campaign contributions. "The concerns of the communities and notices to the communities of what's going on is far down on his list."
His shirt collar drenched in sweat, Smith dismissed suggestions from some community activists that his government pays more attention to the needs of developers than residents.
In an interview after the speech, Smith said he has worked to build communication between the government and communities.
"I'm out there. I had over 60 community association appearances in addition to 14 roundtables," Smith said, taking a swig from a water bottle. "I have engaged the people and they have responded."
"I'm excited about us being the second largest employment jurisdiction" in Maryland, Smith said. "That provides opportunities for people, family-supporting wages."
Donald Gerding, a community activist in Rodgers Forge and a Smith supporter, credited the county executive for programs aimed at involving the community in growth planning.
"Some folks don't want to develop anything, and the economy dictates that you've got to keep developing and redeveloping," Gerding said. "I think he's done a very good job in getting the initiative moving."
"I think Jim ran a better program of getting the communities to understand what he wants to do," Gerding added. "Whether they all agree with him or not is a different question. But I believe he's had a very open door."