There is an oligarchy comprised of rich, powerful men who exercise an inordinate amount of control over the Baltimore County government and who are the principal beneficiaries of the pay-to-play culture in Baltimore County. They are determined to install Councilwoman Vicki Almond as the next County Executive to preserve their power and influence. And they are increasingly fearful that they will not succeed.
That oligarchy, orchestrated by former county executive Jim Smith, is now taking dead aim at State Senator Jim Brochin who, according to a Baltimore Sun/University of Baltimore poll, is the decided frontrunner in the Democratic primary race for Baltimore County Executive. Mr. Brochin also happens to be a declared enemy of the pay-to-play culture in Towson.
In a post yesterday, I stated that a campaign of dirty tricks against Mr. Brochin was inevitable. Less than a day later I received in the mail a large, glossy mailer sent out by the “Baltimore County Victory Slate” (BCVS), a “slate fund” controlled by Mr. Smith. The mailer featured a demeaning photograph purporting to be Mr. Brochin with two fingers crossed behind his back.
The mailer urged me to vote for the “Southwest Team” of Ms. Almond and Councilman Tom Quirk, who represents my district. It attacked Mr. Brochin for not being a “Real Democrat” and for his alleged opposition to gun control.
Never mind that gun control is an issue decided on the state and federal levels, not the local level. Or that any favor Mr. Brochin enjoyed with the NRA ended when he co-sponsored a 2009 bill that allows judges to require subjects of temporary protective orders to give up their guns and voted in favor of Maryland’s ban on assault weapons in 2013.
The mailer did not go after Johnny Olszewski, Jr., the other Democratic contender in the primary, even though he voted against both the 2009 and 2013 gun contol bills when he was a state delegate. Why wasn’t he mentioned in the ad? Because he is lagging well behind Mr. Brochin and Ms. Almond in the polls, and it is Mr. Brochin who is the main obstacle to the oligarchy’s goal of getting Ms. Almond elected. A mailer like the one in question is more effective when a single candidate is targeted.
Slate funds have always been controversial in Maryland, not only for an initial absence of limits on contributions to individual candidates but also because of their lack of transparency. The BCVS, however, has had an especially controversial history.
The BCVS was established in 2006 by Mr. Smith when he was the Baltimore County Executive. He set up the slate fund, contributed $400,000 to it from his own campaign account, and promptly transferred $315,000 from the slate fund to the campaign of Scott Shellenberger, then running for his first term as Baltimore County State’s Attorney. Mr. Smith ultimately contributed $585,000 to the slate fund from his own campaign account and moved $465,000 to the campaign account of Mr. Shellenberger in 2006.
It was a whopping amount of money for one candidate to give to another, especially when the candidate giving the money was the sitting County Executive and the receiving candidate was the would-be State’s Attorney for the county. It raised eyebrows around the state and drew immediate criticism.
Common Cause of Maryland noted its opposition to slate funds in general. Mr. Shellenberger’s opponent in 2006, Steve Bailey, was more specific:
“I never expected and was quite frankly shocked the county executive [Jim Smith] would form what appears to be a sham slate,” Mr. Bailey said. “Even if it technically complies with the letter of the law, it clearly violates the spirit of the law.”
Mr. Bailey filed complaints with both the State Board of Elections and the State Prosecutor. He was right; Mr. Smith may have violated the spirit of the law, but he did not violate its letter and was cleared of any wrongdoing.
A few words to explain the unease about the amount of money steered by Mr. Smith to Mr. Shellenberger in 2006: The allegations of a pay-to-play culture and too-cozy relationships between developers and County officials did not begin when the late Kevin Kamenetz took office as Mr. Smith’s successor in 2010, and the good old boys’ network was in full swing during Mr. Smith’s tenure as County Executive. Baltimore County had a robust history of corruption in prior decades.
Although Mr. Smith, a former Circuit Court judge, had an untarnished reputation, a few of his predecessors as County Executive such as Spiro Agnew and Dale Anderson did not. The idea of a Baltimore County State’s Attorney beholden to a Baltimore County Executive to the tune of almost one-half million dollars in campaign funds just did not sit well. For example, the State’s Attorney for a county is one of the few public officials who has the power under state law to refer a matter involving a county executive to the State Prosecutor for investigation.
To my knowledge, Mr. Shellenberger has never referred a matter involving alleged corruption within Baltimore County government to the State Prosecutor. Given some of the events that I have studied in Baltimore County, I find that difficult to understand.
In 2010, the BCVS ran into controversy for a second time. Even though Mr. Smith wasn’t running for any office at the time, he transferred money in his campaign account to candidates for County Council through the BCVS.
In 2015, the General Assembly amended the law governing slate funds to limit membership in a slate fund to persons running for office. It was referred to as the “Jim Smith rule.” Also, donations to individual members of the slate fund were capped at $24,000 which, incidentally, was $441,000 less than the amount given to Mr. Shellenberger by Mr. Smith via the BCVS.
The third time that the BCVS ran into trouble was in 2017, when it was accused by the State Prosecutor of making a $100,000 loan to Catherine Pugh in April 2016, a loan that some believed helped get Ms. Pugh over the finish line in her primary fight with former mayor Sheila Dixon. Although Ms. Pugh was running for mayor at the time of the loan she was not an official member of the slate as required by law.
By the time the civil charges were filed in January 2017, Ms. Pugh had been elected mayor and had appointed Mr. Smith to a $175,000 position in her administration as Chief of Strategic Alliances. I have been unable to find a specific job description for his position.
When the civil charges were filed against the BCVS in 2017, Donald Norris, director of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, told the Sun that Mr. Smith had a reputation for being an “extremely honorable and a decent guy.” I take Mr. Norris’s word for that.
In fact, I have no doubt that the principals of Caves Valley Partners and all the other rich and powerful guys who lavish money on the campaign accounts of Baltimore County elected officials are also honorable and decent guys. But that’s not the point. The point is that a handful of rich and powerful men pursuing their own interests should not be wielding such extraordinary influence over the affairs of County government.
I also believe that honorable is as honorable does. The mailer that I received today attacking Jim Brochin suggests that honor has given way to desperation. In my opinion, it was misleading and shameful at best, scurrilous at worst. Mr. Smith needs to come out of hiding and tell us who designed and approved the mailer. It was what one would expect from political bottom-feeders, not from rich and powerful men. Unless the two are one and the same.