Jim Shea has an impressive resume—successful lawyer, chair of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents—but he’s never held public office. Nonetheless, he says he’s the only one in the crowded Democratic gubernatorial primary field, who can beat incumbent Governor Larry Hogan in November.
“I bring a fresh perspective,” he says. “As I say, I’ve never run for office before and sometimes a healthy view from the outside is a good view.”
But Todd Eberly, a political science professor from St. Mary’s College, says Maryland Democrats have never been big on outside candidates.
“They have typically gone to mayors or county executives to be their governors because they tend to like folks that have demonstrated leadership experience,” says Eberly.
Paul Strain, a partner with Venable, says Shea has demonstrated leadership experience. Strain was Shea’s boss when they worked in the Maryland Attorney General’s in the 1980's and later worked with him at Venable.
“He made this large company—that he was chairman of for many many years—he made it work for the people of the company,” says Strain.
Shea turned Venable from a Baltimore-centric firm to a national one with offices in Washington, DC, New York, and northern and southern California with more than 700 lawyers.
“That’s hard to do,” says Strain. “Because you have to set the right policy, pick the right people, and then have to make sure that those right people implement the policy properly.”
Strain also says that to make Venable a powerhouse, diversity was one of Shea’s number one priorities.
“He carried that through by naming an African American man as the first minority managing partner of any top 100 law firm in the country,” says Strain.
At the same time, Shea was involved in his community as chairman of the Empower Baltimore Management Corporation, which provided federal grant funds to businesses to create jobs for the city’s low income neighborhoods, founding chairman of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance which pushed successfully for weekend service on MARC trains, and a 10-year-appointee to the Board of Regents of the University System of Maryland, four of them as chair, where Shea kept tuition frozen during the height of the 2008 recession.
“So the question comes down to two things,” says Shea. “One, who can get these programs done and I’ve shown through my history I can.”
And second, “who’s most likely to beat Larry Hogan?”
Shea says he's the man for the job. But first, he'll have to overtake Prince Georges County Executive Rushern Baker and former NAACP head Ben Jealous, the front-runners in the Democratic primary.
Eberly says both those candidates have their weaknesses. If the party nominates Baker, Hogan, who is unopposed in the Republican primary, can point to problems in the Prince Georges schools. He could attack Jealous as a “tax-happy liberal.”
“So (Shea) is basically saying you’re looking at two people who, when it comes to the general election, can’t win,” says Eberly.
Eberly says Shea has a demeanor and presentation that would match up well against Hogan in the general election, appealing to moderates, conservative democrats, and independents.
“But it is completely out of step with where the passion of the Democratic base is right now,” says Eberly. “They just want, you know, take no prisoners. We’re going to make this a truly progressive state that stands up to Donald Trump.”
It’s the strategy that has come from the state Democratic Party as well as the candidates: tie Maryland’s Republican governor as closely as possible to an unpopular Republican president.
“It’s the only strategy there is right now,” says Eberly. “So Shea and the other Democrats need to bring up Donald Trump as often as possible.”
While Shea lags behind in the polls, Eberly says he has one thing going for him.
“I think Shea wins the prize for best Lt. Governor pick,” says Eberly talking about District Two Baltimore City Councilman Brandon Scott.
“I partnered with Brandon Scott because he is a marvelous leader, a real star,” says Shea. “He’s part of a generation of leaders that are not interested in doing things the same old way.”
Scott, 34, one of the youngest people to win a Baltimore City Council seat, is chair of the council’s public safety committee. He makes nightly rounds in Baltimore’s most violent neighborhoods.
“Jim just randomly called me and said hey I want to come ride with you on one of your rides," Scott recalls. "What time should I meet you at city hall? And I said well, I normally don’t get started till like 8 or 8:30, and he said alright I’ll be there."
Scott and Shea hit it off.
“I could see that he truly cared, even though these are places he probably would not go, especially at that hour of the night,” says Scott.
The two couldn’t be more different: Scott, the young black energetic city councilman, and Shea the wealthy white executive. But Scott says, “our differences are not our weakness it is our strength."
“Jim showed me Potomac, Maryland and I showed him Potomac Street in Baltimore.”
Despite winning Eberly's prize for lieutenant govrnor pick, the Shea-Scott ticket is polling at only six percent, which Eberly says doesn't bode well.
“I think it would be hard for any of the single digit candidates to close the gap with Jealous or Baker."
Shea, however, takes comfort in recent polls that show nearly half of Maryland Democrats remain undecided with less than a week to go until the primary.
“I don’t think anyone knows who is going to win this election,” says Shea. “Nearly half the voters are undecided. So I think we are going to have to just wait and see what the voters decide.”
Early voting ends Thursday, but we'll have to wait until the polls close next Tuesday to see what the voters decide.