Editor’s note: This is one in a series of profiles of candidates for Baltimore County executive.
Four years ago, Johnny Olszewski Jr. was swept out of politics by a Republican wave that sent Gov. Larry Hogan to the State House and turned southeastern Baltimore County from a Democratic stronghold into Republican territory.
Now the former state delegate is aiming for a bigger prize, branding himself as a progressive leader in his bid to become the next Baltimore County executive.
“I have a clear vision for where I want to take our county that’s built on those Democratic and progressive values,” Olszewski says.
“For far too long, we’ve allowed ourselves to accept just having a good county, when if we had stepped forward and taken more bold, decisive actions, we could have a great county,” he says.
The 35-year-old accounting executive for a software firm is one of three leading candidates vying for the Democratic nomination for county executive in the June 26 primary. The others are County Councilwoman Vicki Almond of Reisterstown and state Sen. Jim Brochin of Cockeysville.
Two candidates are running in the Republican primary: Del. Patrick L. McDonough and Insurance Commissioner Al Redmer Jr.
Olszewski is making lots of promises on the campaign trail: $2 billion to renovate schools, a 20 percent pay raise for teachers, universal pre-kindergarten and an expansion of tuition-free community college.
He’s also pledged to make government more transparent and start a public campaign finance system.
His promises come with a large price tag, but he says he’ll pay for them by scaling back the county school system’s $300 million program to buy laptops and tablets for all students, spending tax dollars more efficiently and spurring economic growth — resulting in more tax revenue.
He says he’ll also lean on the state to send more money to Baltimore County for school construction, tapping relationships he forged during eight years in Annapolis.
Olszewski grew up in Dundalk, the son of a county councilman. He was a 23-year-old teacher at Patapsco High School in Dundalk when he was appointed in 2006 to fill a House of Delegates vacancy. Olszewski won the seat outright few months later, and was re-elected in 2010.
He spent four years as chairman of the county’s delegation in the House, experience he says helped him learn to work with legislators from across the political spectrum.
“I’ve never been afraid to reach across the aisle to get these things done,” Olszewski says.
Olszewski says that in Annapolis, he learned to balance his district’s conservative leanings and his own growing interest in progressive ideas.
He was the original sponsor of a bill — which ultimately became law this year — that requires many companies to allow workers to earn paid sick leave. He also cast a key vote supporting legalization of same-sex marriage.
On the campaign trail Olszewski has come under criticism for another Annapolis decision: his 2013 vote against Maryland’s ban on many assault weapons. That vote was taken just months after 20 children and six adults were killed in a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.
Brochin, in particular, has said the assault weapon vote shows Olszewski isn’t as progressive as he claims.
For his part, Olszewski says that vote was a mistake.
“I think that voters of Baltimore County want someone who is willing to admit if they make a mistake, or if they get something wrong,” Olszewski says.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch says Olszewski deftly balanced competing interests and showed political skill at a young age. “He was respected by everyone. He works well with people and reaches across the aisle,” Busch says.
Busch says he counted on Olszewski on tough votes: the same-sex marriage decision, increasing the minimum wage and allowing undocumented students to attend college for the same cost as in-state students.
“Some of them were very controversial for his district,” Busch says, “and it did catch up to him in the next election.”
In 2014, Olszewski sought to move to the state Senate but lost to newcomer Johnny Ray Salling, a Republican, by 851 votes.
Did Olszewski stray too far to the left?
“In the immortal words of Popeye: I am who I am,” he says, adding, “I almost won that race, in the worst possible environment for Democrats.”
Olszewski sees a different landscape in 2018. He’s opened dual campaign headquarters — one in Dundalk on the east side of the county; another in Randallstown on the western side.
On a recent weekend afternoon, Olszewski was looking for voters in the west-side community of Windsor Mill. Barnard Jones was pleased to see the candidate show up at his door.
“Only a few people come around here,” said Jones, who said his top concern is making sure communities such as Woodlawn and Randallstown get treated equally with other communities. He liked that Olszewski had been a teacher.
Dawn Murphy also liked having a candidate make the rounds in her neighborhood. She’d seen Olszewski’s TV ads, and said she’d support him.
“I think he’s nice,” she said. “I was shocked he came out here. … He’s the first one I’ve seen.”
As he talks about ideas, Olszewski often raises the pitch of his voice at the end of sentences, almost turning statements into questions in a way — perhaps intended — that pulls the listener toward agreement.
Between phone calls and door-knocking efforts, his campaign has reached out to more than 50,000 people; Olszewski says he’s knocked on 6,000 doors himself on travels “from Randallstown to Rocky Point.”
He was the first to get into the executive race, launching last June. Before that he created a group called “A Better Baltimore County” that he used to promote ideas and discuss community needs.
Olszewski says the campaign has helped him appreciate the county’s diversity, yet underscored that most people want the same things out of the government.
“Everyone wants to have a good school to send their kid. Everyone wants an opportunity to have a job and earn fair wages and have economic development in their corridors — whether it’s the Liberty Road corridor or Reisterstown Road or Dundalk Avenue or Eastern Avenue or York Road,” he says.
Olszewski pledges he’ll continue to be visible if he’s elected county executive.
“I’m not going to hide behind a desk in Towson,” he says. “I’m going to be in the community.”
Johnny Olszewski Jr.
Experience: Former state delegate, former public schools teacher, account executive for a software company.
Family: Married, one child.