Sixth in a series of profiles of Maryland’s Democratic gubernatorial primary candidates.
Shortly after he became Baltimore mayor in 1999, Martin O’Malley asked prominent lawyer James L. Shea and other local business leaders to vet city agencies and recommend changes.
Shea looked closely at the fire department and urged changes to improve fire suppression, emergency services and billing practices. It was the first of many instances where O’Malley tapped Shea for assistance, including when O’Malley later served as governor.
“He was the person that you called when you needed help,” said Matthew D. Gallagher, a longtime O’Malley aide who now chairs the Goldseker Foundation. “He was the very civic-minded attorney at the big firm in town, who had the unmatched Rolodex, who had credibility with everybody.”
Now Shea is waging his first political campaign, running for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination at age 65, in hopes of wresting the office from Republican Larry Hogan and becoming the person who orders revisions directly.
He’s asking voters to overlook his lack of experience in elected office and focus on his record managing the state’s largest law firm and as a civic leader in higher education, transportation and community development.
“People ask me all the time, ‘Jim, you’re a nice fellow, but can you win?’ ” Shea said at a fundraiser in Bethesda. “I need paid media. . . . I need financial resources to do it.”
Like his rivals, Shea has found it hard to distinguish himself in a crowded field of seven major candidates. He is a comparatively centrist, business-friendly candidate in a left-leaning field, and he could appeal to Baltimore-area voters who were supporting Kevin Kamenetz, the Baltimore County executive who died unexpectedly May 10.
Apart from his pro-business positions, such as urging more investment in start-ups and eliminating what he calls “burdensome red tape,” Shea advocates many of the same liberal stances as the other candidates: increase school funding, build the light-rail Red Line in Baltimore and legalize marijuana.
His calm, thoughtful demeanor doesn’t draw attention at debates and forums, which some analysts said could be a drawback in a year when some Democrats, outraged by President Trump, are looking for a more confrontational style.
“He is somebody who is used to quietly getting the work done,” said Goucher College political science professor Mileah Kromer. “A work horse rather than the show horse.”
Shea doesn’t stand out physically, either, and he pokes fun at his slight stature and thinning, white hair when he mentions his 22 years as managing director of the Venable law firm. “When I started, I was 6-foot-8 with a full head of hair,” he tells audiences. “Working with 700 lawyers will do this to you.”
Shea was relying in part on O’Malley’s support to help him raise money and become better known. As recently as last month, O’Malley appeared at fundraisers for Shea to praise him as “an outstanding candidate” and “a real pillar of the Baltimore business community.”
But O’Malley was also appearing at fundraisers for Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, a front-runner in the Democratic field who has the support of many top Maryland Democrats.
On Thursday, O’Malley stopped straddling the fence and endorsed Baker — citing in part the county executive’s governing experience.
“If there were such a thing as rank-choice voting, I’d be for Rushern, No. 1, and Jim Shea, No. 2,” O’Malley said. “We only get one vote.”
At events, Shea emphasizes his work building Venable from a Baltimore-based firm to one with worldwide reach and civic work he has done, including:
●Chairman of the Empower Baltimore Management Corp., which used $100 million of federal grants to provide loans to businesses and create jobs in six low-income neighborhoods in the city.
●Founding chairman of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, which pushed successfully to add weekend service on MARC commuter trains.
●Ten years as an O’Malley appointee to the Board of Regents of the University System of Maryland. As chairman, Shea helped keep tuition frozen following the 2008 recession while trimming $200 million in costs by centralizing procurement and taking other efficiency measures.
William E. “Brit” Kirwan, who was chancellor of the university system at the time, described Shea as an “exceptionally effective” chair.
“The real accomplishment, there was the ability — and I give Jim a lot of credit for this — to build a partnership with the state to avoid the draconian budget cuts that many states were making in public education,” said Kirwan, who is not endorsing anyone in the primary or general election.
Shea says he plunged into the governor’s race because he had stepped down as Venable’s chairman, Baltimore was struggling with crime and other urban ailments, and he was unhappy with the leadership of both Hogan and Trump.
“I couldn’t just walk away and play golf or something,” he said.
Born in Baltimore, Shea lives in Owings Mills with Barbara, his wife of 40 years. The couple raised four children and have two grandchildren. Shea is a sports enthusiast who was captain of his Princeton lacrosse team and helped pay his tuition there and at the University of Virginia’s law school by teaching tennis.
To offset his image as a “corporate Democrat,” rather than one who sprang from the party’s grass roots, Shea tried to balance his ticket by picking Baltimore City Council member Brandon Scott, 34, as his running mate.
Shea, who is white, and Scott, an African American, talk openly about how they complement each other by race, experience and professional networks. Their tax returns underline another difference: Shea’s income in 2016 was $2.8 million, while Scott’s was $65,000. They say the ticket represents an effort to bring together different wings of the Democratic Party, which Shea says has lost its way.
“The Democratic message of today is tired and fractured,” Shea said. “We would like to unify the party and provide it with real energy.”
By picking a running mate from Baltimore, rather than the more populous Washington suburbs, Shea is betting that what he calls his “niche” in Charm City and neighboring jurisdictions will help carry him to victory.
He also can afford to buy more advertising than anyone else, including in the expensive Washington media market. His campaign had $1.4 million as of the May 23 campaign finance filing, compared with $660,000 for former NAACP president Ben Jealous and $577,00 for Baker.
Shea’s campaign has been running television ads on broadcast stations in Baltimore and Salisbury, and on cable stations statewide. It has field offices in Baltimore and Bethesda.
“We are very well positioned to make a final run,” Shea said. Because so many candidates are set to divide the vote, he added, “we think 30 percent or less might win this.”
Next: Alec Ross.
Read more candidate profiles: