Grassroots politics: Councilman Quirk's low-key approach to getting the job done

On Election Day, Tom Quirk, a Democrat, took his 10-year-old daughter, Sofie, to the polls at Catonsville Middle School.

As he looked over the paper ballot, he had her start to mark the oval for Hillary Clinton in the presidential race. He completed it before the ballot was cast.

"I think it could be great for our daughters to have the first woman elected as president," Quirk said. "It's time to break that glass ceiling."

The election of Donald Trump left him shocked but resolute.

"I think it's important we try to come together — Republicans, Democrats and independents — and put the good of the country first," he said.

He and his daughter listened to Clinton's concession speech together. The lesson, he told her, is at the end of the day, you're not always going to win. He stressed to her to do her best and not give up.

"There's always another election out there, another battle," he said. "The pendulum in America swings quite a bit."

Quirk, 47, a native of Irvington, is about halfway through his second term as the councilman for the 1st District, the southwest portion of the county, where he has been battling for better schools, a vibrant business base, equal rights and more since 2010.

He plans to seek a third term on the seven-member County Council where, by most accounts, he is regarded as an effective, behind-the-scenes politician and champion for his district.

"He's true to his word and he's a thoughtful guy," said County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, a fellow Democrat. "I think those are great qualities in a council member."

The road to politics

A graduate of what is now McDaniel College, in Westminster, Quirk triple majored in economics, business administration and political science. He planned to go into political science for a career, but when the federal government was downsizing after he graduated in 1992, he switched gears.

For two years, he had a variety of jobs, including a stint as an intern for Hillary Clinton in the summer of 1993, working on correspondence in the Old Executive Office Building next to the White House.

He became a financial planner in 1994.

Quirk had an interest in running for a spot on the County Council as his way to contribute to the community. He and his family moved to Catonsville from Cockeysville in 2002.

"I think the price you pay as a citizen is to try and give back to the community," he said. "I've been lucky and fortunate in my investment job and so this is just my way of trying to help the area, and I know I can do it."

In his first race, in 2010, Quirk defeated three challengers in the primary and earned 56 percent of the votes cast in the general election, beating Republican Steve Whisler by 3,977 votes.

He replaced S.G. Samuel Moxley, a Democrat who had held the seat since 1994 but did not seek re-election.

In 2014, Quirk ran unopposed in the primary and defeated Republican Albert Nalley with 61 percent of the general election vote.

"Not everyone is going to agree with everything I decide," Quirk said. "But I think the overwhelming vast majority of people think I'm fair and reasonable and look at both sides."

When he ran for his first term, he wanted to improve aging infrastructure and crowding issues in his district's schools.

Many said Quirk will be known for the work he did to secure funding to upgrade schools in his district as part of the county's $1.3 billion Schools for our Future plan, which calls for 15 new schools and 11 additions throughout the county, along with installing air conditioning at schools without central cooling systems.

Quirk, who called the school funding unprecedented, said it's his proudest achievement so far.

"Our whole area is being front-loaded on this billion-dollar plan for schools," he said. "We're lucky our area is getting the vast majority of it upfront."

The funding includes a new Lansdowne Elementary School and an estimated $60 million to $80 million to renovate Lansdowne High School. He sees Lansdowne, Riverview and Baltimore Highlands as areas with upside and potential, along with Woodlawn.

"Finally, we're starting to see major progress happen there," he said. "I think I can continue the progress."

Teal Cary, executive director of the Greater Catonsville Chamber of Commerce, said upgrades in a community can be a catalyst. They have helped draw young families with children to the area. They will spend their money supporting small businesses.

"He's really looking out for the community in the best way that money can be spent," she said.

"He's got a good sense about him, about what's right and wrong," said Bettina Tebo, president of the Arbutus Business and Professional Association. "He tries his best to do the right thing."

Demanding schedule

With two demanding jobs and spending time with his two children — Sofie and 16-year-old Teddy — being a priority, scheduling time can be a juggling act. He blocks his time between his jobs, with a scheduler hired for each.

While he balances his time between jobs and family, it doesn't come without cost. He doesn't see his friends or read books as often as he used to, he said. He used to do century rides on his bicycle, but he no longer has the time to complete them. He's a fan of the Baltimore Orioles and Baltimore Ravens but doesn't watch many of their games.

"If I watch half of one [game], that's a pretty big deal," he said about the Ravens.

Many days, he won't know what he's doing until he looks at his day planner. It's not uncommon for him to have five to seven meetings a day, he said. As a financial planner, he has more than 300 families as clients in 18 states.

"It's definitely a lot of work, but it's work I feel passionate about," he said. "If you do something you really believe in and enjoy, it doesn't feel like work. It feels like helping. It's a big responsibility but it's really humbling."

When he has free time, he enjoys the outdoors, taking advantage of Patapsco Valley State Park and the local trails in Catonsville. As a councilman, he has supported down-zoning more than 400 acres to a neighborhood commons designation — intended to stop development — as a way to preserve open space.

Open space, Quirk said, provides a sense of tranquillity and an escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and helps makes an area more livable and sustainable.

Maureen Sweeney Smith, a member of Catonsville Rails to Trails, a nonprofit that promotes trail building in the community, said a part of Quirk's legacy will be how he looks at the future of the community as a whole, with a progressive attitude.

"A lot of people think he's so pro-development but he's not," she said. "He's very measured with how he makes his decisions. I think he's visionary enough to see what the future could be."

Quirk doesn't see himself as anti-growth, but he does consider himself to be an environmentalist.

"I'm always trying to find that balance," he said.

A bit of controversy surrounded Quirk's last campaign when in 2013, Catonsville developer Stephen Whalen Jr., owner and principal of Whalen Properties, pleaded guilty to five counts of violating campaign finance laws after he withdrew $8,500 from his company's account in 2011 and distributed it to several individuals, who were instructed to deposit it into their own accounts and then write checks to Quirk's campaign committee.

Once Quirk's campaign learned he had reimbursed donors, the checks were sent back, Quirk said.

"I think he [Whalen] admits that it was a stupid mistake and it was unfortunate," Quirk said.

Whalen called the issue a judgment error that Quirk had no knowledge of at the time. Quirk has not accepted any of his campaign contributions since the incident, he said.

Whalen said he is generally impressed with what Quirk has done in the community, describing him as knowledgeable and understanding.

"It would've been easy to say, 'you and I aren't doing business as a result of that,'" Whalen said. "I appreciate that he was gracious enough to give me a second chance."

Quirk said his relationship with the developer is at an arm's length.

"He has a clear vision and agenda, not all of which I agree on, but he's a big investor in the area. He puts his money where his mouth is," Quirk said. "There are very few people like Steve Whalen who are investing at the level he does."

Political landscape

Al Mendelsohn, chairman of the Baltimore County Republican Party, called Quirk a capable administrator for his district.

"His campaigns have never really been nasty, which is a wonderful thing," he said. "It probably comes with the security of being in a safe district."

Mendelsohn said Quirk is not thought of as a spokesman for the county or a county leader.

"He really is kind of invisible on the County Council," he said.

It's a type of remark Quirk has heard before. Many times, that's on purpose. He said he prefers to do much of his work behind the scenes, particularly when he has a disagreement with Kamenetz, the county executive, or his colleagues.

"I think I've been very effective, but I think its because when I have issues I'm not going to go out and grandstand," he said. "I'm not going to put a billion messages on Facebook. I'm going to work behind the scenes to get what I need accomplished."

Quirk said he has great relationships with his fellow council members.

"He has a big heart and he's great to work with," said Councilman Julian Jones, a Democrat, who said he'd like to emulate Quirk's ability to deal with people and his open-mindedness.

Councilman David Marks, a Republican who was first elected to the council the same year as Quirk, said he has grown into the position and doesn't see any weaknesses.

"When you're elected you want to change the world," Marks said. "Then you realize a lot of the reforms you can make have to be incremental. We've all realized that."

Mendelsohn said Quirk is "likely safe" to retain his seat in 2018, but if the district lines change after the 2020 Census, he may find himself in a less Democratic district. Of the county's 546,886 registered voters, about 56 percent are Democrats.

Kamenetz said Quirk has been a productive, mature and thoughtful member of the council.

He pointed out Quirk's passion for social issues. He watched the councilman take the lead on legislation that was approved in 2012 that guaranteed transgender rights in the county "well before that was fashionable."

Both Quirk and Kamenetz said they have a strong relationship.

Quirk said Kamenetz has been a strong ally for southwest Baltimore County and he wouldn't count him out if he ran for governor, describing him as intelligent, calculating and a good politician.

"I think that Governor Hogan is very strong, very formidable," Quirk said. "There's a lot of people in Catonsville who like Governor Hogan. But one thing I've learned with Kevin Kamenetz is he's not somebody I would ever underestimate."

Quirk said he doesn't have ambition for the county executive's seat, as long as he has his full-time job, which he intends to keep "for a long time." In recent years, he's been asked to consider a run for the position and declined.

"I'm not going to give up my business to run for county executive," he said. "County Council is part time, so it allows me to do public service. My full-time job is definitely my financial planning business."

In the meantime, there's plenty he wants to tackle. He wants to revitalize the area at Security Square Mall in Woodlawn as a mixed-use concept, a blend of business, shops and housing. He wants to see community centers pop up at the former Catonsville Elementary School building on Frederick Road and near Western Hills Community Park.

"There's just so much I want to see done, I feel like we've got a ton of momentum in southwest Baltimore County and I want to make sure that continues," he said. "I don't want that to be messed up or thwarted."

Quick takes

Top constituent service requests

"We hear everything," he said. "Literally, our office gets concerns and complaints on literally almost everything." Code enforcement issues, such as properties abandoned or in disrepair. He also get complaints about speeding and drivers not stopping for pedestrians.

Donald Trump as president

"I wish President-elect Trump the best of success. If he succeeds, our country succeeds." Americans, regardless of political affiliation need to put the good for the country first. "It was a tough one," he said. "But at the end of the day, we as a country need to really cherish the peaceful transition of power. I think that President Obama and Trump so far have a very good tone to hopefully start reducing some of the polarization thats happened."

Term limits for the council

"We have term limits every election," he said. "If I'm not doing a good job, believe me, people will vote me out."

Cost of a council campaign

Depending on whether there's a challenger, a campaign costs between $50,000 to $100,000 to run, he said. He said it takes good volunteers to run a successful campaign and gives credit to his campaign manager, Caitlyn Leiter-Mason.

Future political ambitions

"I'm not going to give up my business to run for county executive," he said.

- Jon Bleiweis

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