When the awful news arrived suddenly last week about Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, I immediately telephoned Ted Venetoulis to commiserate. The two men had a friendship, both personal and political.
But now Kamenetz was gone, a fit, youthful 60, and Venetoulis struggled for words.
“To run for governor while you’re county executive,” he said. “The sheer exhaustion …”
And then his voice trailed off. But he remembered. Forty years ago, when he was Baltimore County executive, Venetoulis ran for governor of Maryland. The process was absolutely exhausting, but he’d been a much younger man than Kamenetz.
Now, four decades later, Kamenetz returned from a late-night political gathering, awoke in the dark in cardiac arrest, and died before sunrise. His death saddens and stuns not only his family but an entire metropolitan area, including those championing his bid for governor.
Now 81, Venetoulis had been a kind of mentor figure for Kamenetz. They shared not only a political party, and similar job histories, but an outlook about the future.
They both understood that neither Baltimore County, nor the city of Baltimore, can go it alone.
When Venetoulis won the county executive position four decades ago, his war cry was, “Throw the rascals out.” It wasn’t just the payoff money under the table that was plaguing the county — Do the names Spiro Agnew and Dale Anderson still resonate? – but a cultural climate.
We were still in the midst of the massive migration of city to suburb, which certain Baltimore County leaders wished to limit to white people. Venetoulis, who’d run the late William Donald Schaefer’s first mayoral campaign, was a city kid from the east side, and a product of the great American ethnic mix.
He understood – in ways that even the current leader in the White House fails to grasp – that you can’t put up walls to keep people out.
In the modern era, Kevin Kamenetz understood this quite well. He added minorities to county agencies. He signed an agreement to build low-cost county housing. As the percentage of minorities in the county’s public school system grew, Kamenetz funded laptops for every student, a bid to level the educational playing field. And he encouraged city-county cooperation.
Of course, some of this was perceived as political motivation. If he’d gotten past the Democratic primary, Kamenetz would have faced the incumbent, Gov. Larry Hogan. Kamenetz’s obvious political strength was the Baltimore metro area; Hogan’s is the D.C. suburbs.
But the greater impulse was Kamenetz’s overall philosophy of inclusion, of understanding the great overlap in modern American life, and the need to build bridges instead of walls.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books. His most recent, “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age,” published by the Johns Hopkins University Press, is now in paperback.
Community Pays Final Respects to Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz — Kamenetz, a leading Democratic gubernatorial candidate in the 2018 race, died on May 10 of cardiac arrest. He was 60.
What Md. Politicians and Others Are Saying About Kevin Kamenetz — Maryland politicians and national leaders share their thoughts on Kamenetz’s passing.
Jmore Catches Up with Baltimore Co. Executive Kevin Kamenetz — In a Sept. 27, 2017, exclusive with Jmore, Kevin Kamenetz discusses his intention to replace Gov. Larry Hogan.
Kamenetz Looks Beyond his Baltimore County Base — Michael Olesker writes about Kamenetz’s official announcement about running for governor.