At 65 and standing well under six feet tall, Jim Shea says he often tells people that when he started as a managing partner of Venable LLP, “I was 6’8″ and had a full head of hair, and 22 years later, I don’t.”
Beyond his time spent leading what would become Maryland’s largest law firm, Shea has served in various public roles, including as chair of the Board of Regents the University System of Maryland and of multiple nonprofit entities created to serve Baltimoreans. Like all but three of this year’s gubernatorial candidates, the Baltimore attorney has never held elected office before, though he counts that as a strength, saying it gives him a “fresh perspective.”
Throughout his campaign, launched last June, Shea has made a point of calling out screw-ups in Maryland’s transportation infrastructure and taking the the Trump and Hogan administrations to task. Last month, his campaign distinguished itself by announcing City Councilman Brandon Scott as his running mate leading up to the June primary, making his the only one with a Baltimore elected official on the ticket.
Last week, Shea sat down to talk with Baltimore Fishbowl about teaming up with Scott, his experience serving, living and working in Baltimore and the core pieces of his platform. Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Baltimore Fishbowl: As a candidate who hasn’t held office before, how can you set yourself apart from challengers who have more political and campaigning experience?
I think one way to set myself apart is that most of the others are career politicians. I think the fact that I’m not gives me a fresh perspective on things. But more to the point, to your question, I think what I have been doing is quite relevant to the position of governor. I have run very large, complex organizations, both public and private. The university system I was chair of is the largest public agency in the state, and its budget is larger than any political subdivision. With 160,000 students, 12 schools and 200,000 personnel, all told, it’s also the biggest employer in the state.
I’ve run other complex organizations on the public side: I was Empowerment Zones chair for 10 years, that was a $100 million federal project. I was the founding chair, and served for 10 years, of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, which was a labor, business, higher ed and nonprofit coalition advocating–still is advocating–for mass transit solutions. I was chair of the Downtown Partnership Business Coalition, to keep the central business district both clean and safe.
So I have all that experience, and my day job was, for 22 years, building a law firm, which during my tenure became the largest law firm in Maryland. And beyond that, with 700 lawyers in five cities across the country, we’re one of the largest in the world.
BFB: A year into the Trump presidency, Gov. Larry Hogan has generally avoided criticizing or praising the Trump Administration. If you were governor, would you approach the job differently?
Yes I would, very much so. During my career, I have faced in litigation, and elsewhere, bullies like Trump: rich, arrogant, hard-headed, willing to take advantage at any time and any moment, very hard to make a deal with. The only way to handle bullies is to face up to ’em and beat ’em. Being silent in the face of the activities of a bully enables the bully. It really enables him or her to do stuff that is really not good.
And as governor of a state like Maryland with so much at risk, with Trump zeroing out Bay Restoration funding, aid to cities in a wide variety of areas, threatening health care, increasing the taxes of Marylanders, for our governor to be silent or hedge on it is completely unacceptable. We need an advocate, a strong advocate, for the people of Maryland on these crucially important issues. So yeah, I would handle it very differently.
BFB: In your campaign, you’ve made transportation a key talking point. How would you plan to fix transportation accessibility in Baltimore and around the region, including D.C. and other parts of Maryland?
I have published a full statewide transportation plan. It’s on my website and has all the detail, but let me give you the overview of it:
The first thing we need is what I supply in my plan, and that’s just that: a plan. We do not have a statewide transportation plan now. And that means a couple things. That means when you do make transportation improvements, you often have roads to nowhere or roads halfway there. And we have a number of examples of that around Maryland. So we need a plan so that when you build transportation improvements, they fit into a whole, a coherent whole. Without it, you’ve got chaos.
The second thing you do with a plan is you vet it, you get buy-in on it. It’s not just imposing a plan on people in the state, it’s having a plan and taking it around the state and talking to people about it, adjusting it where appropriate, and where we can improve, so that at the end of the day you’ve got buy-in on a statewide plan. And that means when somebody in Salisbury hears abut an improvement in Baltimore City, an east-west transportation line in Baltimore City, they realize that it’s coming from a plan that will benefit them, too. Without the plan and the coherence, you have people opposing improvements in other areas, thinking that means they won’t get improvements in their area.
Our plan covers the Eastern Shore, it covers Western Maryland, and it covers the Baltimore-Washington corridor and points around, including Southern Maryland.
And what you need is reliable Metro infrastructure in the large urban and suburban areas: metropolitan Baltimore and greater Washington. You need fast, reliable connection between those two points. You need public transportation on the Eastern Shore, probably in the form of bus service. And in Western Maryland, you need to be hooked up with the infrastructure in Washington through the MARC lines–the Brunswick line can be extended. And there are other improvements that are connected with the Purple Line.
BFB: Do you think the recent change in leadership in the Baltimore Police Department will help to reduce violent crime?
I hope so. I think so. I’ve heard very good things about the new police commissioner, and I’m optimistic that it’s the dawn of a new day.
BFB: Going off of that, what would you do to address police reform in Baltimore, in whatever capacity the governor’s office can?
I think one fact that is not widely recognized, and needs to be, is that the Baltimore City Police Department is a state agency, and that means the governor has an extraordinarily important role in making sure that we have the best police department we can possibly have in Baltimore City. I have not seen any action of a positive nature, or any action at all, from the current governor.
I think the principles of the consent decree are very important; I think we have to restore the community’s trust in law enforcement. That means better training, better recruitment, that means better leadership, that means a system of accountability within the police department, it means strengthening programs like Safe Streets and others that can be quite helpful in doing the dual jobs of stemming violent crime and restoring trust.
BFB: Baltimore is grappling with a deadly opioid crisis that only worsens every year. How would you change or reinforce the steps that the City Health Department has taken to confront the problem of addiction?
Well, I think our city health commissioner is superb. [Health Commissioner Dr.] Leana [Wen] has done a great job with what she’s had to work with, so there’s an easy teaming opportunity there.
But the essential elements of dealing with the opioid crisis involve more community health centers; more access to treatment, including treatment in Maryland’s prisons and jails; widespread availability of Narcan–all first responders should have it, it should be readily available to people who need it. The treatment at the community health centers should be on-demand for people suffering from opioid overdoses.
It’s extraordinarily important to get people into treatment. That is your goal. It is not a criminal justice problem, it’s a medical, public health problem.
They need help, and we need to provide it for them. We have a public health crisis. And so far, all the governor has done is have press conferences and declare states of emergency, not taking any of these concrete steps to solve the problem. And not surprisingly, the number of deaths from opioid overdoses has only gone up every year he’s been governor.
BFB: What’s the best piece of advice you have received in regard to running for office?
I’ve gotten all kinds of advice. People have told me to speak more directly about people and not as much about policies and programs. I think that’s probably the best piece of advice for somebody like me to communicate effectively.
Other people have told me to drink a lot of water and wash my hands a lot. So far– knock on wood–I haven’t gotten the flu, so I think that’s probably been pretty good advice too.
BFB: Do you have a favorite place in Baltimore?
There are a lot of great places in Baltimore, but my favorite place, I have to say, is Camden Yards. On a summer evening with a good baseball team, that’s an awfully special place. We have the best baseball stadium in the world. I’ve been to the others that are supposedly rivals, and they’re not as good.
BFB: You’re the only candidate that has chosen a running mate who is a current officeholder in Baltimore City. I know it’s only been a little while since the announcement, but how has that shaped your campaign?
Brandon’s the only officeholder period of the lieutenant governor candidates. It adds a lot. Brandon’s had seven years of experience in Baltimore City Council. He’s chaired, for the last year, the most important legislative committee in the state in the Public Safety Committee in Baltimore City. So he adds an enormous amount to the ticket.
Between the two of us, we have experience that is very deep and relevant to the most important issues to Marylanders. The four most important issues to Marylanders, I believe, are education, transportation, job creation and public safety/health. Between Brandon and me, we have deep experience in each of those areas. And yet, because of his youth and energy and my non-career politician perspective, we have a very fresh perspective on all of these problems. So I think it makes for a very solid team.
BFB: If you don’t get the nomination, who are you backing to run against Gov. Hogan?
You mean among my competitors?
Who among them would I favor? It’s a six-way tie, I have to say. I really can’t choose among them.
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