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Democrat Vicki Almond seeks to complete rise in politics by becoming Baltimore County executive

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of profiles of candidates for Baltimore County executive.

Vicki Almond has had an inside view of Baltimore County government over the past eight years as a county councilwoman.

She’s convinced she can make it better.

“I’ve had this time to really look at things and say: What would I do differently? Or, how would I do this? How would I handle that?” Almond says.

She’s vying for a chance to answer those questions — and become the first woman ever to serve as Baltimore County executive.

The 69-year-old councilwoman from Reisterstown is one of three leading candidates vying for the Democratic nomination for executive in this month’s primary election, facing state Sen. Jim Brochin of Cockeysville and Johnny Olszewski Jr., a former state delegate from Dundalk. Two Republicans are seeking their party’s nomination: Del. Pat McDonough and insurance commissioner Al Redmer Jr.

Being elected as county executive would cap a political career Almond says she never imagined for herself.

A high school dropout raised by a single mother in Catonsville, she worked as a teenager to help support her family. She later earned her diploma and became a school and community advocate when she had children of her own.

“My journey here is a little different than most,” Almond says. “I think my background helps me relate to regular people.”

For decades, Almond was a community volunteer, helping at her children’s schools, planning neighborhood parades and organizing police officer appreciation events at the local precinct.

In 2006, state Sen. Bobby Zirkin hired her as his chief of staff in Annapolis. She worked for him for three years.

Almond saw an opening to get into politics herself in 2010. Kevin Kamenetz, then a county councilman, decided to run for county executive, leaving no incumbent vying for his northwest seat. Almond entered the council race and won. She was re-elected in 2014, and has served as council chairwoman twice.

Almond says her council experience helps her know what’s doable as county executive — and what’s not. She says other candidates are making promises they can’t keep, such as generous teacher raises or using the budget surplus to build new schools.

“I know local government,” Almond says. “In many of these forums … I’ve heard my opponents say things that just can’t happen.”

At a meet-and-greet event at an Essex pizzeria this week, Almond was joined by fellow Councilwoman Cathy Bevins of Middle River — and noted that their tenures represent the first time two women have served on the council at the same time.

“We handle the boys pretty well,” Almond said.

Kathy McCourry of Rosedale, owner of a local auto shop and president of a business group, hosted the Essex event for Almond.

She called Almond “a lovely person that doesn’t divide” — a contrast, she said, to the often toxic political climate in the country. She also likes that Almond is supportive of the business community and seems to be a good listener.

“She’s a well-balanced woman and I truly believe she can make a difference in Baltimore County,” McCourry said.

During the campaign Almond has come under fire, mainly from Brochin, for her ties to developers. Brochin points out that Almond has accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from developers who have sought approvals from county government or the council.

Almond dismisses Brochin’s attacks.

“He can’t find anything else to talk about, so he’s talking about that,” she says, adding that all candidates accept donations, and aren’t necessarily beholden to those donors.

“There isn’t one of us who doesn’t take donations from everyone who will give them — whether it is $5 or $1,000,” she says.

Almond says she is an independent thinker on development, and points to Foundry Row, a commercial redevelopment of a former Solo Cup factory in Owings Mills, as an example.

She agreed to rezone the factory site in 2012 to allow for the Wegman’s-anchored redevelopment, a move that angered many constituents, campaign donors and rival developers. The rezoning decision later faced a petition drive that attempted to overturn it. The drive failed, and the project was built.

“I felt it was the right thing,” Almond says of Foundry Row. “I knew it was the right thing for District 2, for my community and for Baltimore County as a whole.”

Almond says her subsequent re-election is proof that voters agreed. And when it came time to launch her campaign for executive, she picked Foundry Row as the place to make her announcement.

Almond says as county executive, her relationships with developers would benefit the county. She says she will urge developers to work closely with residents, and also encourage them to look at areas of the county that need investment and redevelopment, such as Liberty Road.

Almond has also pledged to invest in schools, hiring more support staff such as counselors, and working to renovate and replace old school buildings.

She’s the only candidate who says she intends to stick with the school system’s program to provide a laptop or tablet for every child. Other Democratic and Republican candidates have said they intend to revisit the program or scrap it entirely.

Almond has won endorsements from the Teachers Association of Baltimore County and Baltimore County FOP Lodge 4, which represents county police officers. She’s also gotten support from one of her political mentors, former Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith.

Smith, now a top assistant to Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, has used his Baltimore County Victory Slate to send money to Almond’s campaign, to pay wages and expenses of some of her staff and to mail a flyer to voters on her behalf. He also sometimes accompanies her to campaign events.

Smith says he got to know Almond when he was county executive from 2002 to 2010, while she was president of the Reisterstown-Owings Mills-Glyndon Coordinating Council. He recalls her as a strong leader in that role.

“She represented the interest of the communities, but she also listened and tried to understand the limitations on government,” Smith says.

While Almond has connections to politicians and developers, she says she remains true to her community roots.

“When I look at community, I see three things,” she says. “I see people wanting to move in where there are great public schools, where they feel safe and where there is good economic development — jobs, places to shop, things to do.”

Vicki Almond

Home: Reisterstown.

Age: 69

Experience: Two terms on the Baltimore County Council; former chief of staff to state Sen. Bobby Zirkin.

Family: Married, two children.

pwood@baltsun.com

twitter.com/pwoodreporter

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