Jim Smith isn't exactly a household name in Maryland politics. But his victory on Nov. 5 offers important lessons to Democrats concerned about the future of the state party.

Smith, a retired judge, was elected Baltimore county executive, winning 56 percent of the vote in the heart of Gov.-elect Bob Ehrlich Jr.'s territory. On the same night, Ehrlich won 62 percent in his home county. How did Smith, a moderate Democrat, swim against the Ehrlich tide?

A former Jesuit seminarian, Smith brought a missionary's zeal to uniting Baltimore suburbanites who were worried about crowded schools, growth and crime. He was endorsed by labor groups, even though he took a stand against a binding arbitration referendum backed by the unions. He won broad support among minority voters without alienating middle-class whites.

More important, Smith demonstrated the judgment, balance and independence that voters want in their elected executives. He adopted the approach of Gov. Parris Glendening's three Democratic predecessors: William Donald Schaefer, Harry Hughes and Marvin Mandel. The three governors had different styles, but they all kept Maryland's Democratic Party firmly centered, even as the national party experimented with George McGovern, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis.

Schaefer, Hughes and Mandel had strong labor records, were pro-education and were well regarded in minority communities. But they also had reputations for independence. No interest group "owned" them. Their budgets were balanced. They knew how to say no. They pursued excellence and diversity in their appointments.

The three governors always had winning margins from the "Big 5" suburban jurisdictions that gave Ehrlich his victory -- Baltimore, Howard, Harford, Frederick and Anne Arundel counties. These counties, which represent half of the state's growth in the past decade, form Maryland's political center.

In 1994 Glendening disastrously ended Democratic dominance of the Big 5, losing it by 26 percentage points. Republican gubernatorial tickets have carried the Big 5 ever since. But Glendening really didn't lose the center -- he forfeited it.

A former "neoconservative," Glendening subcontracted his administration to liberal interest groups. Their agendas -- good and bad -- became his. Glendening's interest group capitulation was fueled by a larger ambition: a national campaign that never came.

Meanwhile, closer to home, Glendening focused on motivating "core Democrats" in the "Big 3" jurisdictions of Baltimore City and Prince George's and Montgomery counties. But every time he awkwardly "energized his base," moderates headed for the door. His strategy divided the state and damaged Democratic candidates outside the Big 3.

Glendening's other behavior patterns drove even more moderates away. The $1.7 billion state deficit reminded voters of the $107 million deficit that was his legacy as Prince George's county executive. The grab for the University of Maryland chancellorship reminded them of the grab for Prince George's pensions. His private life reminded voters of his Clinton-Lewinsky hypocrisy.

Glendening leaves office on Jan. 15 with the lowest approval ratings of any sitting governor in modern Maryland history. He will be remembered for a record-breaking deficit and the defeat of Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (his tacky election night disclaimer notwithstanding).

Ironically, his unpopularity also contributed to the loss of two first-rate Democratic leaders: Sen. Robert Neall, who warned of deficit spending; and House Speaker Cas Taylor, who worked to unite the state that Glendening pulled apart.

Now is the time to bring the state party back home. Voters need to know that their elected officials, and not interest groups, are running the government. They want both fiscal and personal integrity. Moderates support public schools, but they also want accountability and standards. They like smart growth, but they don't want reasonable transportation solutions tied up by environmentalists. They reject politicians who veer too far to the right or left, especially for calculated political gain.

Both parties have extremists. But this year, bolstered by a popular president and gubernatorial nominee, Maryland Republicans finally did the better job of keeping their flame-throwers in the closet. And the extremists are likely to stay there for a while.

As Republican governors go, Ehrlich will be more Ted McKeldin than Ted Agnew, more moderate than strident. George Bush's success with Democrats in the Texas Legislature surely is not lost on Ehrlich, who formed strong bipartisan relations during his eight years in Annapolis.

In the short run, Ehrlich can balance the deficit by drawing quickly on slot machines and the state's tobacco settlement and by imposing painful cuts. This will buy time until 2004, when the legislature's massive commitment to new education aid collides with fiscal reality.

In the meantime, Maryland Democrats should look at Jim Smith's success in Baltimore County. His victory is a reminder that Democrats in the Baltimore suburbs didn't leave their party. Under Parris Glendening, the party left them.

The writer is a lawyer and a former Democratic member of the Maryland legislature.