Smith as Ehrlich blocker
Democratic Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. said he changed his mind about running for comptroller because he didn’t think the statewide job would be a good fit for him. The sudden nature of announcement has political types guessing about his future, and about how he might spend his more than $1 million bankroll.
Among those who should keep an eye on the money: former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County native who is waiting on the sidelines, possibly contemplating his best route for a return to politics.
Speculation is building about what position Ehrlich will run for, if any, in 2010. While he'd instantly be the most viable Republican in any race he decides to enter, the former congressman and Arbutus native is nothing if not a pragmatist. He doesn't get into races he doesn't think he can win.
Some believe Ehrlich is pondering a run for comptroller, a job that would put him back in Annapolis and allow him to serve as a thorn in the side of his arch-rival, Gov. Martin O'Malley. That's a role that was perfected by Ehrlich's ally and role model, former Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who ended his career as the irascible comptroller and all-around gadfly. Political columnist Blair Lee IV recently wrote that Ehrlich's chances of getting into the comptroller's race are 50-50.
Others wonder whether Ehrlich might be interested in becoming Baltimore County executive, the job Smith now holds but is leaving because of term limits. A clear front-runner has not yet emerged, and Ehrlich, with his name recognition and broad base in the county, would be a more-than-viable contender.
But in both scenarios, Smith's recent decision comes into play.
Smith and Ehrlich don't get along. The county executive was miffed that Ehrlich never returned phone calls when he was governor and didn't include him in decisions.
It was no surprise that when the 2006 election rolled around, Smith threw all his support -- as well as money and his campaign apparatus -- behind O'Malley, a longtime ally. In 2002, Ehrlich carried Baltimore County by 65,000 votes en route to a victory over Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, basically his margin of victory statewide. In 2006, Smith helped keep the margin down to about 8,400 votes. Ehrlich still carried the county, but by nowhere near enough to carry the state.
Smith is now poised to deny Ehrlich more victories. By bowing out of the comptroller race, Smith helps clear the way for incumbent Peter Franchot, a fellow Democrat, to retain the seat. A Democratic primary between Smith and Franchot would have been a bruising affair, leaving the victor (the incumbent, most likely) battered by negative advertisements and a lot poorer. If Ehrlich enters the race, he'll now face a stronger, better-funded incumbent -- and he knows how unlikely it is that incumbents lose, especially in such a Democratic state.
If Ehrlich decides to make a play for the Baltimore County executive seat (a job he has never really indicated he wants), Smith could deploy his formidable war chest -- he has raised over $1 million in donations that he now doesn’t seem to need -- to help the strongest Democrat vying for the county executive job. There's no doubt he would take great pleasure in once again helping orchestrate an Ehrlich defeat.
So as Ehrlich ponders his next move, he needs to ask himself not just, "Can I win?" There's another question that's nearly as important: "What will Jim do?"
-- with David Nitkin