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Former Balto. Co. Exec. Smith to head state transportation department

Gov. Martin O'Malley will turn to a longtime political ally, former Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith, to lead the Maryland Department of Transportation as it begins a new era of stepped-up construction, administration officials confirmed Tuesday.

O'Malley is expected to announce the appointment of Smith, 71, on Wednesday. His selection ends a search that has continued for more than a year — since former Transportation Secretary Beverly Swaim-Staley announced her departure last spring.

Former Deputy Secretary Darrell Mobley has been running the department since Swaim-Staley left last summer. The administration officials said that Mobley will be offered another position in the administration. The officials did not name the post, but there is a vacancy in the high-ranking position of executive secretary of the Maryland Transportation Authority, which Mobley has chaired since Swaim-Staley left.

An administration official said O'Malley had chosen Smith for his experience with financial management and development issues as county executive and his familiarity with the needs of local jurisdictions. The official said Smith is especially qualified to lead the state's efforts to forge public-private partnerships to build major projects with non-traditional financing — an approach bolstered by legislation that passed the General Assembly this year.

Sen. James E. "Ed" DeGrange, who chairs the Senate's transportation budget subcommittee, said O'Malley had made "an excellent choice." DeGrange, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, said he had a good relationship with Smith during his years as county executive.

"He's well-respected by everyone he comes in contact with," DeGrange said.

The appointment requires Senate confirmation, but Smith could serve in the position until lawmakers take up his nomination next year. Smith could not be reached Tuesday night for comment.

The transportation agency is one of the largest in state government, employing more than 10,000 workers and spending $3.7 billion a year in operating expenses and capital projects. Its secretary is one of the most powerful officials in state government, supervising agencies that oversee state highways, transit systems, motor vehicles, toll facilities, Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and the Port of Baltimore.

Unlike Mobley and Swaim-Staley, Smith would take office at a time when Maryland is expected to have money to spend on transportation projects beyond basic maintenance. The General Assembly passed a transportation revenue bill this year, with gas tax increases, that is expected to eventually produce an additional $800 million annually.

As transportation secretary, Smith would play a leading role in putting together the state's six-year Comprehensive Transportation Program this fall. He would lead the annual "road show" in which state transportation officials appear in each county and Baltimore City to discuss the transportation budget and hear about local project priorities.

With the new revenue and an improving economy, Smith is more likely to be able to agree to those requests than any transportation chief since the recession hit in 2008.

Smith began his political career on the Baltimore County Council from 1978 to 1985, when he was appointed to the Baltimore County Circuit Court by Gov. Harry R. Hughes. He served on the bench until 2001, when he stepped down to run as a Democrat for Baltimore County executive.

Elected in 2002 with 56 percent of the vote, Smith was re-elected with two-thirds of the vote in 2006. That year he also played a critical role in the election of county State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger — contributing $585,000 to the Baltimore County Victory Slate of Democrats, which in turn gave $435,000 to Shellenberger's campaign.

As county executive, Smith was known for having a tense relationship with Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who Smith said didn't return calls. Smith forged a strong cross-border alliance with then-Baltimore Mayor O'Malley before his election as governor.

During the 2006 election, Smith appeared in what was regarded as a highly effective ad supporting O'Malley over Ehrlich. Peter O'Malley, the governor's younger brother, worked for several years as Smith's chief of staff.

Smith served as chairman of the Baltimore Regional Transportation Board in 2010. Limited to two terms as county executive, he left office that year and was succeeded by current County Executive Kevin Kamenetz.

Smith considered running for comptroller or state Senate in 2010 before deciding to sit out the election.

Since Smith left office, his political future has been the subject of much speculation. He had more than $550,000 in his still-active campaign account as of January — money he could use toward seeking state or local office.

Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.


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