Maryland Commissioner's Comments on Crime Stir Local Controversy

A Charles County commissioner is being criticized for remarks that some say are laced with racial overtones.

Al Smith, a Republican who is running for president of the Board of Commissioners on an anti-crime platform, has said he does not "want to see Charles County become another Prince George's County."

Smith also insists that much of Charles' crime is committed in Waldorf, which is near the county line, by Prince George's residents. "There's a crime wave coming from the northern border," he said.

Smith's comments have upset some in Charles County, which has seen its black population surge partly because of residents arriving from neighboring Prince George's County — the nation's wealthiest majority-black county.

Smith, who notes that his campaign manager is black, said that he was sorry if he offended anyone but that he is not backing down.

"Folks think I'm saying this because it's all being committed by the blacks," said Smith, referring to crime. "It's an unfair characterization of who I stand for. I stand for all citizens of this county, no matter what the color of their skin is."

Still, some political analysts say Smith, who is favored to win the Sept. 12 Republican primary, could benefit from the remarks by shoring up support among some white voters.

Although Charles's black population grew by about 52 percent from 2000 to 2005, according to U.S. census estimates, blacks make up only about one-third of the total population.

Smith, who grew up in Virginia's Tidewater region, is a retired Air Force colonel and owns a company that makes rubber stamps and embossing seals. He lives on a farm in Waldorf, wears a cowboy hat and drives a pickup he painted red, white and blue. He often speaks in the third person.

"Whether you agree or disagree with me, you know where Al Smith stands on an issue," he said.

On the issue of race, however, Smith's remarks have some people guessing.

"He's got to own up to what does he mean by that," said state Del. Murray D. Levy, a former Board of Commissioners president.

"An African American realizes racial intonations when they hear them," said state Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, another former board president. "They think Commissioner Smith's remarks are racial."

Those tensions were on display last week after racist epithets were spray-painted in a majority-black Charles neighborhood.

Local NAACP leaders stood on the steps of the county government building accused Smith of inciting such incidents with his remarks.

"I am frustrated to my wits' end," said William Braxton, president of the local NAACP branch. "When a commissioner speaks up and refers to African Americans as `you people' ... we stand here today and tell you to your face, sir, that your comments are offensive to African Americans."