Second in a series of articles about candidates for mayor.
With less money than the other top Democratic candidates for Baltimore mayor, former city police spokesman T.J. Smith took every opportunity for face-to-face time: knocking on voters’ doors, shaking hands after community forums, waving campaign signs at busy intersections.
Of course, all that was before the coronavirus pandemic. The 42-year-old is still trying to win over voters, but now it’s often from behind a computer screen.
On a recent evening, he attended a virtual event with the group Black Girls Vote before jumping on a Facebook Live session with his social media followers to talk about the COVID-19 news of the day.
The public health crisis has disrupted campaigning for every candidate in the crowded June 2 primary. But with just $22,000 on hand late last month as the race entered its final stretch, Smith lacks the cash others have to flood voters with advertising.
The former Anne Arundel County police lieutenant puts a positive spin on his fundraising numbers, saying he has grassroots support and isn’t beholden to special interests.
“I’m not an asset of big business,” he says.
Amid the outbreak, his message hasn’t changed: The city must “reset” and urgently work to reduce violence and increase accountability in government. And he often draws on his family’s experience to illustrate why Baltimore must take a new direction.
Smith officially started his campaign in the same Upton block where his younger brother, Dion, was killed in 2017. He’s running ads on television and social media featuring mothers who lost children to violence.
“People have been able to see my grief publicly, but there are so many other people who are going through this on a regular basis," he said.
He has promised to tackle gun violence, invest in city schools and ensure city services are equitably delivered across neighborhoods.
Smith “has a personal narrative that speaks directly to the problems the city is facing,” said Mileah Kromer, director of Goucher College’s Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center.
"He’s been directly impacted by violence. ... I think people crave empathy from elected officials. [He] can really talk about that, and that’s a story that, unfortunately, too many families in Baltimore know.”
Polling has shown Smith is “still in the mix” and he’s running effective television spots now, Kromer said. But other candidates with big bank accounts are sure to ramp up advertising further as the race enters its final weeks.
Supporters say Smith shows compassion for those hurt by the city’s violence.
Krenne Simmons, who appears in a Smith ad, said she first talked to him several months after her son, Davon Fair, a 24-year-old Morgan State University graduate, was killed in an attempted robbery in 2017. She had been trying to get media attention for her son’s case, but no one was listening.
When she reached out to Smith, Simmons said, he arranged a radio interview to highlight her story.
“Since then, he’s kept up with me,” said Simmons, whose son’s case remains unsolved. “He took it really personal, because he lost his brother."
Smith served as the police department’s chief spokesman from 2015 to 2018, a tumultuous period that saw one scandal after another.
He oversaw the agency’s communications strategy during a period of surging violence, the trials of the police officers charged in Freddie Gray’s death, a federal consent decree resulting from a U.S. Justice Department investigation of the agency, the Gun Trace Task Force scandal, and a lockdown of Harlem Park after the death of Detective Sean Suiter. He defended the agency’s controversial surveillance plane experiment after an undisclosed test of the program became public. His role engendered criticism from advocates for police reform, who saw him as an apologist for a corrupt agency.
Growing up in Northwest Baltimore, Smith lived with his mother, who is a teacher, and grandparents, who worked at the main post office, and other relatives. The family was “extremely tightknit," said his cousin, Alibe Robertson. “There was no restriction in how his mother could discipline me and vice versa.”
Smith said his parents named him Taiwan because of his father’s love of martial arts. But growing up, he went by his middle name, Jamal. He said he started going by “T.J.” when he became an Anne Arundel County police officer because his nametag read, “T.J. Smith.”
Smith attended city schools until he and his mother moved to Baltimore County, where he graduated from Woodlawn High School.
In the late 1990s, Smith was working security for Target while studying at community college. He got to know Anne Arundel police officers, who suggested he apply to their department. He became a police officer in 1999, eventually rising to the rank of lieutenant and becoming the agency’s top spokesman and chief of staff.
In 2015, then-Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, a former Anne Arundel police chief, recruited him to the city.
The terms under which Smith went to Baltimore were approved by the city’s spending board, but are now the subject of a lawsuit a Republican lawyer filed in April in Anne Arundel. The complaint claims the arrangement — which included Smith remaining a county employee and receiving part of his salary from the county, while the city sent two officers to join a county drug task force — wasted tax dollars and that Smith shouldn’t have been able to draw a full pension from the county in 2019.
Smith said he earned his pension and called the lawsuit politically motivated.
He also faced questions during the campaign after he released three years of tax returns that were all dated this year and had to pay additional taxes on rental income from 2018; Smith’s tax preparer took responsibility for the errors.
Smith quit the Baltimore police job in the fall of 2018, citing turmoil and “mudslinging” in the agency. In early 2019, he went to a much slower-paced role as press secretary for new Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.
Smith moved to the city early last year and left the county job in October to run for mayor. Olszewski has endorsed Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young in the primary. A spokesman for Olszewski said the county executive supports Young because “they have a long working relationship and he’s been a strong regional partner.”
On a frigid Saturday morning in February, before the pandemic shut down in-person campaigning, Smith took a break from knocking on doors for a quick broadcast on Facebook Live.
“Hello, hello, hello,” he spoke into his cellphone as a blast of icy air rattled a wind chime nearby. “It is cold. But that can’t stop us. ... Last night when it was cold, two people were killed. So, we still have work to do."
Crime was often the first thing residents mentioned to Smith after he introduced himself. Smith says it remains a focal point for many voters, along with education and economic recovery from the pandemic.
Smith says the city needs to focus resources in the areas where the most killings occur — the east and west sides and the southwest. He wants to put more officers on the street, push the state to increase penalties for illegal gun possession and trafficking, and focus on reentry programs for people leaving prison.
He has never held elected office before, leading some to question whether he has the experience to govern. He says his time working for three jurisdictions in the region has given him a broad perspective.
To reshape city government, Smith wants to create the role of a city administrative officer — someone focused on day-to-day business, ensuring agencies operate smoothly. He also would create a chief ethics officer post and boost funding for the city’s inspector general office to root out misconduct.
Smith said he wants the city to address trauma and mental health. In March, he stood before a class of ninth graders at the ConneXions school, where he was invited to give a motivational talk. The kids told Smith they heard the gunfire a few weeks earlier when a man was killed in the neighborhood.
“You know what’s crazy?” he told them. “We kind of look at that like it’s normal. And it’s not normal. ... Because this stuff is happening in our environment, doesn’t mean we have to become numb to it.”
Coming Friday: Sheila Dixon
Experience: Press secretary to the Baltimore County executive (2019); chief of media relations for Baltimore Police Department (2015-2018); various roles in Anne Arundel County Police Department (1999-2015)
Education: Master’s degree in management/leadership, Johns Hopkins University, 2009; master’s degree in strategic communication, Washington State University, 2016
Family: Separated, with a 7-year-old son