Closely watched race for Baltimore County executive opens with Olszewski announcement

The 2018 campaign for leadership of Baltimore County — Maryland's third-most populous jurisdiction — gets underway today as Democrat Johnny Olszewski Jr. officially launches his bid for county executive.

Olszewski, 34, a former teacher and state delegate from Dundalk, is scheduled to announce his candidacy during a morning event in Woodlawn.

Candidates from both sides of the aisle will vie to replace County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, a term-limited Democrat who is considering a run for governor next year.

The executive position in Baltimore County is seen as a coveted prize by both political parties. Democrats have held the post since the 1990s, but Republicans see it as an attainable goal — especially after nearly 60 percent of county voters went for Gov. Larry Hogan in the 2014 gubernatorial race.

"Baltimore County looks like the state. It's a miniature of the state," said Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College in Towson. The county electorate is "an interesting mix with a progressive core," Kromer said, "but you also have parts of the county that are as red as anywhere."

Olszewski is the first to enter what's expected to be a competitive Democratic primary. County Councilwoman Vicki Almond and state Sen. Jim Brochin have both said they are weighing whether to run.

The three Democrats — Almond, Brochin and Olszewski — each reported significant sums of cash in their campaign accounts during their last reports in January and have been making the rounds visiting community meetings and knocking on doors.

"I'm excited about this campaign. It's going to be a grassroots effort that speaks to what's possible in this county," Olszewski said in an interview.

No Republicans have officially announced, but outspoken state Del. Pat McDonough said he's planning to run, with a campaign kickoff likely in the fall. State Insurance Commissioner Al Redmer is also considered by many as a possible GOP candidate for the executive seat. Redmer said this week he's not a candidate but hasn't ruled it out. "Never say never," he said.

Baltimore County has drawn interest from political observers who see it as a swing county for statewide races. Democrats hold a registration advantage among voters over Republicans, 56 percent to 26 percent, with 16 percent unaffiliated.

That exact margin — 56 percent — is what Kamenetz received in his 2014 re-election against Republican challenger George Harman, a Reisterstown community leader.

The county's Democratic party voters range from Bernie Sanders-supporting progressives to centrists. Republicans range from staunch supporters of President Donald Trump to moderates in the vein of Hogan.

Both the county executive's race and the gubernatorial race will draw attention and money to Baltimore County this election season, Kromer said. Baltimore County is the only local jurisdiction in the Baltimore metro area with an open seat for the top executive.

"It's populous, it's open and it's divided — and that's what makes it interesting," Kromer said.

Surrounding suburban jurisdictions — Howard, Anne Arundel, Carroll and Harford counties — are all under Republican leadership, though Baltimore city remains a Democratic stronghold.

Since the office of Baltimore County executive was created in 1956, it's been held by Democrats most of the time. The Republican county executives have been Roger Hayden from 1990 to 1994 and Spiro Agnew from 1962 to 1966.

Olszewski has been unofficially campaigning for more than a year, having started a group called A Better Baltimore County that gives him entree into parades and festivals. He said he's visited community groups and churches and has knocked on 3,000 doors — especially in Democrat-rich western Baltimore County.

Olszewski said his top priority is education, and he's promoting ideas to offer universal pre-kindergarten, expand free breakfasts and lunches and make the Community College of Baltimore County tuition-free.

He said he also wants to continue the county's plan to upgrade public school buildings. A former teacher at Patapsco High School in Dundalk, he said he saw first-hand the challenges of teaching in a school without air conditioning.

"I know what it's like to teach in those. I know what it's like to have kids try to learn, and you can't," he said.

Olszewski, who works for a software company, said he'd work to connect residents with job opportunities and wants to expand public-private partnerships as a tool for economic growth.

He said he also wants to make the county government more responsive and open. He advocates a smartphone app for residents to lodge complaints, and promises to hold cabinet meetings in each part of the county annually. He also supports public campaign financing for county candidates — and notes that Hogan won in 2014 using the state public financing program.

"It's good enough for the state. It's good enough for other counties. It should at least be an option here in the county," he said.

Olszewski said he'll draw on nine years of experience in the House of Delegates as county executive, leveraging the relationships he built in Annapolis to help the county.

"I'm proud of being a progressive on a lot of really important issues," he said, pointing to his work in the House of Delegates in support of legalizing same-sex marriages, allowing workers to earn paid sick leave and raising wages for government contractors.

His father, John Olszewski Sr., served four terms on the Baltimore County Council before retiring from politics in 2014. Olszewski said his father has been supportive but doesn't have an official role in the campaign.

Olszewski and his wife, Marisa, are parents to a toddler daughter. A graduate of Sparrows Point High School, the candidate holds a master's degree in political leadership from George Washington University and a bachelor's degree in political science and American studies from Goucher College. He is finishing his doctoral degree in public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County with plans to graduate in the winter.

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Johnny Olszewski Jr.

Democratic candidate for Baltimore County executive.

Residence: Dundalk.

Age: 34.

Experience: Former public school teacher; nine years in House of Delegates, including four years as chairman of Baltimore County Delegation.

Education: Sparrows Point High School; bachelor's degree, Goucher College; master's degree, George Washington University; working on doctoral degree in public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Career: Works for software company SAS.

Family: Wife, one daughter.

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