Josh Kurtz: Mr. Smith Goes ... Where?

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It wasn’t all that surprising when Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith (D) announced 10 days ago that he wouldn’t run for state Senate this year. Despite the very vocal and insistent prodding from Senate President Mike Miller (D), Smith couldn’t see a path to victory in a conservative Towson-area district that he didn’t live in. Plain and simple.

So his decision immediately raises two, inter-related questions: What does he do now? And what does he do with all his money — the $1 million he had in his campaign account as of early January?

It’s no secret that Smith, who is termed out as county executive, would like to be governor some day. It’s also no secret that there are powerful forces in the state that would like to see him as governor — and allies in high places who are prepared to help him.

But for starters, how does he get himself elected in 2014? He’ll be 72 then. With all due respect to Smith and every politician who thrives at an advanced age, that’s pretty old, especially for someone making his first statewide run.

On the other hand, regardless of who wins the gubernatorial election this year, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) or ex-Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R), Maryland by 2014 will have had 12 years of young, handsome, narcissistic governors. By then voters may be looking for something else.

So how does he get elected? Baltimore County can be a potent base, in a Democratic primary or in a general election. It would be especially useful for Democrats to field a gubernatorial nominee from Baltimore County if Ehrlich wins this fall and is seeking re-election in four years.

But first, Smith must get through a Democratic primary. That’s a tricky proposition for a centrist — in either party. To win a primary, Smith would probably need to compete against a crowded field of liberals. That’s certainly within the realm of possibility, with Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, state Comptroller Peter Franchot, state Attorney General Doug Gansler and Howard County Executive Ken Ulman all eyeing gubernatorial bids.

What are the odds of all of them running in four years? Strong enough. None is short of ambition and self-regard.

In that field, Smith would be the only true “Baltimore candidate,” though all the others will try to claim a piece of that title, incredible as it may sound.

Ulman, who was born in and grew up in Howard, runs the classic corridor county, wedged between Baltimore and D.C. Was he more Baltimore than D.C. growing up? Is he now? He’ll choose option A or option B in four years, whichever best suits him politically.

Brown, if he winds up as the only African-American candidate in the race, will get a significant chunk of support in Baltimore.

Gansler will have had eight years as AG and is assiduously courting the Baltimore legal community, which carries plenty of political clout.

And Franchot? Well, he spends so much time in places like Dundalk and Catonsville and Pasadena that his neighbors in Takoma Park are wondering when he’ll come home.

Could another Baltimore-area political power emerge in the next four years who might plausibly launch a statewide bid? Most definitely — watch Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake, just for starters.

But more important than any of these long-term political calculations is the question of what Smith does with himself for the next four years. If he’s serious about running for governor in 2014, he can’t just settle into retirement and then re-emerge in a few years to claim the big prize.

Some Smith partisans suggest that he could yet wind up as O’Malley’s lieutenant governor if O’Malley is re-elected. Brown, they figure, is always a prospect to wind up somewhere in the Obama administration before long. After all, he was reportedly under consideration to be secretary of Veterans Affairs. So O’Malley, whose brother was Smith’s top political lieutenant until leaving for the gubernatorial campaign team earlier this year, might be only too happy to slam Smith into the No. 2 job if there’s a vacancy.

But I’d humbly suggest that President Obama doesn’t have a job for Brown that’s big enough for Brown’s ego. And Brown, remember, despite attending Harvard Law School at the same time as the president, endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2008, not Obama. So Obama might offer him a job at some point — but he doesn’t owe him a biggie.

And if Brown is serious about wanting to be governor, even though there is little evidence in modern Maryland history to suggest that you can get there by being lieutenant governor, it’s got to be harder if you’re buried somewhere in a presidential administration.

Smith may in fact face a similar problem. If Brown isn’t going anywhere, Smith could still join O’Malley’s cabinet at some point. But cabinet positions in Maryland aren’t exactly high profile. Harry Hughes did make the leap from state secretary of Transportation to governor in 1978, but under extraordinary political circumstances. So Smith will have to find something to do to stay relevant and in the public eye.

Other politicians, considering perhaps their own self interest as much as Smith’s, are eyeing Smith’s million-dollar cash surplus and suggesting that he can buy a lot of political favors with that money this election cycle. That may be so. But he might not want to pare down the treasury too much. The best thing he might have going for him is that $1 million. That’s a pretty good head start, with the next election cycle just around the corner.

Josh Kurtz is a managing editor at Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper. He can be reached at .

Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

End of the Line for Vallario?

Mission: Control

Post Plays Favorites

Red Storm Rising

Michael & Me

Wanted: Fresh Blood


Black and Blue?


Take Me Back to Old Virginny

The Political Lives of Peter Franchot

Bob and Weave

How to Make Prince George's County King

Kane is Able

To Be Frank

Gay Rights and Political Wrongs?

The Washington Post Goes to War

Snow Job

Unsolicited Advice for Ehrlich — Wait Till 2014

The Early Bird Gets the Worm?

Wayne's World May Be Another Planet

Miller Time Comes Early

Owings Owes an Explanation
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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.