Political Dimensions of Jim Smith’s New Job

Jim Smith

By Barry Rascovar / June 2, 2013

BY CHOOSING former Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith as Maryland’s new transportation secretary, Gov. Martin O’Malley solved multiple problems, especially for his governor-in-waiting, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown.

O’Malley left the top MDOT post vacant for nearly a year. Smith, apparently, had been the governor’s choice but never accepted until after the governor did the heavy lifting in pushing a multi-year gas tax increase through the General Assembly, After all, what fun would it be to serve as MDOT secretary without $$$ to upgrade Maryland’s transportation network?

Smith has modest experience dealing with state legislative issues outside of Baltimore County delegation matters. He has minimal background in the inner workings of the statewide transportation program and its political underpinnings. He would have been of little use to O’Malley in lining up votes for a hefty gas tax increase.

Now it’s a different story. The gas tax rises by four cents a gallon on July 1 and there’s much more to come in future years. There will be a steady flow of construction announcements and ribbon cuttings. It’s a great time to be Maryland’s transportation boss.

Smith brings administrative skills to the job. He’s also a fiscal conservative, which means projects that bring the biggest bang for the buck will take priority. And he’s a first-rate political operator who knows how to massage egos and quietly seek common ground.

It’s an ideal landing spot for Smith, who sorely missed public service. It’s one of the most important posts in Maryland.

In selecting Smith, O’Malley did a big favor for his lieutenant governor. Smith might have ended up running on Attorney General Doug Gansler’s ticket next year, which would have aided Gansler in the Baltimore suburbs on election day.

But now Smith is locked into the O’Malley-Brown administration. If he wants to keep his job after 2014, Smith knows he’s got to working tirelessly to elect Brown. That could prove pivotal in Baltimore County, which often decides state elections. Smith also has a good chunk of campaign cash lying around, which might help Brown gain name recognition.

O’Malley owed Smith big-time, Without Smith’s hard work and vocal support for the Baltimore mayor, O’Malley might have lost in 2006 to incumbent Gov. Bob Ehrlich. In that election, Smith managed to hold Ehrlich to a draw in his home county, which locked up the race for O’Malley.

The governor has re-paid Smith with perhaps the biggest plum in state government. For at least the next 18 months, Jim Smith will be a big wheel in Annapolis.