By Josh Kurtz
Listen to a longtime Democratic activist and donor after sitting down recently with Jim Shea, the Baltimore attorney and civic activist who is waging a longshot bid for the state’s highest office.
“I feel like I just met the governor,” the Democrat enthused to Maryland Matters. “He was just so impressive.”
Unfortunately for Shea, he can’t meet all 2,143,217 registered Democrats in Maryland personally.
In the Baltimore legal community, in charitable circles, among certain policy wonks and civic do-gooders, Shea, 65, is a pretty big deal. In these worlds, the former managing director of the Venable law firm, who has also served as chairman of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents and in a variety of other leadership positions, is well known and well respected.
But spreading the word of his accomplishments and intentions to the broad Democratic primary electorate – and convincing voters he’s best equipped to take on popular Gov. Larry Hogan (R) — will be a challenge, especially with better-known candidates in the field, Shea readily concedes.
“It’s a big field, a very accomplished field,” he said in a recent interview in Ocean City, where he had been making the rounds at the Maryland Association of Counties conference.
Since becoming a candidate in the spring, Shea has been moving across the state, meeting with as many individuals and groups as he can, listening and learning.
“As of right now, I’m leaving no stone unturned,” Shea said.
Even with all his civic activity, the decision to run for governor didn’t come naturally. Shea stepped down as Venable’s managing director on Feb. 1 and was trying to figure out what to do next.
“I had no plan,” he recalled. “I was going to continue my practice of law, which never stopped. I was agitated about the country. I’m not going to be happy sitting on the sidelines. And I felt all of us needed to step up and do more.”
When a few friends suggested Shea run for governor, he thought about it for a while and it started to make sense.
“It was just one of those things that hit me at the right time,” he said.
Shea thought his two areas of policy expertise – education, gleaned through his time as a regent, and transportation, which he absorbed as chairman of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance – meant he’d “have something to contribute” on the campaign trail.
“I came into it ready to learn and I am learning every day,” he said. “It’s brand new in many ways but it’s calling upon the same skills and experiences I had as managing partner.”
An excellent education system and a reliable transportation network, Shea says, are the keys to economic development and job creation. But elected officials aren’t always willing to develop comprehensive plans or provide adequate funding.
“It’s going to take time, it’s going to cost money, it’s going to take political will, it’s going to involve tough choices,” he said. “The whole thing is rife with challenges. If you don’t plan, you’re in trouble.”
Shea believes too many lawmakers “focus on the here and now.” His challenge, if he’s elected governor, is to “persuade people” to make some politically tough choices.
“The best thing you can do is to get them to think it’s their idea,” he said, smiling.
But Shea argues that he’s done that already – during the 22 years he led his law firm through a period of unprecedented growth, and as a member of the Board of Regents.
Money to enact bold policies and reforms, Shea is certain, should not be a problem in a state like Maryland.
“It’s not really fundamentally about revenue,” he said. “We are one of the wealthiest states in the wealthiest economy in the history of the world.”
Shea praised former Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) – who appointed him to the Board of Regents – for providing ample funding for education and transportation, even though it required higher taxes.
“You have to convince people that investments are worth it,” he said, “and I would note that Gov. Hogan has not held back on these taxes.”
Hogan’s policies, he went on, are “near-sighted and superficial.” On transportation, he said, the administration appears to be focusing on fixing potholes and resurfacing bridges. “That’s not going to relieve congestion.”
(Shea’s interview with Maryland Matters took place before the state broke ground on the long-awaited Purple Line transit project this week, and before Hogan announced $22.8 million in funding Wednesday for a fourth lane on the Severn River Bridge along U.S. 50.)
Shea said he would like to see MARC rail service extended farther into Western Maryland than it currently goes, and he also favors developing a transit plan for the Eastern Shore.
“A good, robust transportation system isn’t just a Baltimore-Washington perk,” he said. “We all benefit from commerce that flows.”
To get his message across, Shea has already raised more than $1 million. He’s an experienced fundraiser for charities and other causes, and says raising money for himself “isn’t harder – it’s just different.”
Shea is slowly putting together a staff and a team of consultants. Some of O’Malley’s former top aides are among his informal advisers. What’s his path to victory in the Democratic primary?
“The strategy is evolving,” he concedes. But the goal for now is to have voters listen to his pitch and consider him a viable contender.
“I don’t think that name recognition is an issue,” he said. “It’s growing. The real question is the message. I want people to think, ‘That makes some sense and I think he can do it.’”