Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of profiles of Democratic candidates for governor.
Jim Shea, until recently the chairman of Maryland’s largest law firm, stood in a Bethesda living room on a recent Sunday afternoon explaining to a small group of voters why he is seeking a late-in-life career change.
At 65, Shea is one of the most respected attorneys in Maryland. As guests sipped white wine, Shea spoke of how difficult it’s been to become a politician seeking the Democratic nomination for governor.
“One of the things you’re supposed to be able to do as a politician is deliver applause lines. That’s new to me,” Shea said. “There are no applause lines in the Court of Appeals. Never had a judge clap when I made an argument.”
Given that one of Shea's rules at his law office was “don’t spike the football,” he says he’s not comfortable with the political necessity of, well, bragging.
“I’m not bombastic,” he told attendees at the house party, one of about 100 such events Shea has done across the state. “I’m not a table banger. I never was.”
In addition to leading the Venable law firm, he is a former chairman of the state’s Board of Regents, overseeing Maryland’s public colleges and universities. He also chaired the Empower Baltimore Management Corp., which provided job training and money to small businesses in East and West Baltimore.
Despite such positions, Shea is little known outside the legal community. Standing out has been a struggle in a crowded field in the June 26 Democratic primary. It includes the chief executive of the Maryland county with the most registered Democrats and the former national president of the NAACP.
“The problem is he’s getting lost with all these other candidates,” said John Dedie, a political science professor at the Community College of Baltimore County. “To me, you’re not in this race until you go on TV.”
Shea this week began airing television ads, the first in a planned effort to bombard radio, TV and the internet with commercials. Shea has donated $534,000 to his campaign, helping him accumulate more than $2 million.
As an accomplished businessman, Shea is hoping to appeal to moderate and pro-business Democrats who voted for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in 2014. But Shea proposes reviving plans for the Red Line light rail through Baltimore, which Hogan scrapped as too expensive. Shea’s platform also calls for universal pre-K and cutting what he calls “unnecessary and burdensome red tape” in state government that prevents small businesses from growing.
To give his campaign a spark, he selected as his running mate Baltimore City Councilman Brandon Scott, an energetic 34-year-old who Shea advisers hope will win over city voters. Dedie said the choice of the younger, outspoken Scott complements Shea’s experience and modest persona.
In a crowded field, Dedie said Shea and Scott need to surge from low poll numbers in the Baltimore metro area to have a chance at capturing the primary.
“The road to the governor’s mansion goes through the Baltimore region,” he said.
The city I was born in is struggling with violence. I couldn’t just walk away. I think I have something to offer. I think I can help.
Democrat Jim Shea
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Shea was born in Baltimore and went to Baltimore County public schools before he attended high school at the elite Andover Academy in Massachusetts, where he was classmates with future Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and current Baltimore City Solicitor Andre Davis.
Shea attended Princeton University, where he majored in history, played soccer and was named a lacrosse team captain. There, he met his future wife, Barbara, who he noticed was always the first student in class to finish her exams. When Shea left for law school at the University of Virginia, he says he missed Barbara and proposed soon after.
While serving as a clerk for federal judge Joseph H. Young in 1977, Shea told the judge he was engaged and that he and Barbara were deciding on a wedding date. The judge told Shea he could get married during the first week in November while Young was at an out-of-town conference.
The couple now lives on a three-acre property in Owings Mills, where Barbara keeps a large garden and the couple hosts campaign fundraisers. Shea, one of just two candidates in the field to release his tax returns, reported earning $12.5 million from 2012 to 2016 — while paying $4.7 million in taxes and giving away nearly $1 million to charities.
After law school, Shea joined the law firm of Semmes, Bowen & Semmes, where he specialized in litigating rear-end car crash cases before joining the Maryland Attorney General’s Office.
After two years as an assistant attorney general, Shea joined Venable and rose through the ranks to become managing partner in 1995.
He saw the firm needed to expand to survive. “It was pretty obvious we needed to put a lot of time and attention into growing the D.C. office. So I did that,” Shea said. “Today we have well over 300 professionals in Washington.”
Then, he expanded Venable to New York and Los Angeles. In his decades leading the firm, its annual revenues grew from $50 million to $500 million.
One key to the company’s success, Shea says, was identifying lawyers who would fit in the Venable culture. Its lawyers were expected to join civic organizations and volunteer in the community.
In the first televised debate of election season, eight Democrats running for Maryland governor swiped at popular Republican incumbent Larry Hogan, but highlighted their differences on whether they would raise taxes if elected.
“The catalyst was the election of Trump and feeling that our governor is not standing up to him and the state is stagnating,” Shea said. “The city I was born in is struggling with violence. I couldn’t just walk away. I think I have something to offer. I think I can help.”
William E. “Brit” Kirwan, former chancellor of the University of Maryland System, worked with Shea during his 10 years on the Board of Regents and said he provided a steady hand during the recession. Shea helped to lower costs and avoid large tuition increases, Kirwan said.
“He’s a no-nonsense person,” Kirwan said. “He sets very high standards for himself and his organization.”
As he contemplated a run last year, Shea contacted Baltimore community leaders to better understand how the governor’s office can help neighborhoods.
Jackie Caldwell, president of the Greater Mondawmin Coordinating Council, said she put Shea in touch with community leaders in Druid Heights and Lafayette Square in West Baltimore.
“He wanted to know what was going on in a real way,” Caldwell said.
Scott, who often spends evenings driving around Baltimore looking at how police are deployed in high-crime areas, said he was surprised when Shea asked if he could come along.
“He called me out of the blue,” said Scott, chairman of the City Council’s public safety committee. “We went all over the city: Westport, Cherry Hill, Brooklyn, the Western District. No one else had ever randomly asked to do that with me before.”
At the house party in Bethesda, Doug Green, a partner at Venable, assured guests that Shea does not lose.
“He picked the right people and he gave them autonomy to do the right thing and the motivation to do it as well,” Green said of his time at Venable. “He will bring those values we all share to the governor’s office.”
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