Kevin Kamenetz's death will dramatically shake up Maryland governor's race

Erin Cox
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Before he died of cardiac arrest early Thursday morning, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz was a formidable and leading contender in the crowded Democratic primary race for governor.

His unexpected death upsets the political landscape of the race, shaking up what was a seven-way contest of major candidates hoping to take on popular Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.

“This dramatically alters the race,” said Todd Eberly, a political scientist at St. Mary’s College. “His supporters are going to be looking for another option, and that could boost one or more of the second-tier candidates. There’s a solid quarter now of the electorate that’s going to be looking for another choice.”

Kamenetz consistently polled among the top three candidates and had raised more money than anyone else in the field.

This week, his campaign had reserved more than $1 million worth of airtime in the Baltimore and Washington markets — the first Democratic candidate with the resources to do that. He was the race’s dominant political force in the Baltimore region, a battleground area crucial to winning the primary election less than seven weeks away.

“He’s a husband and father first. It’s also undeniable he was a major political figure and fixture in the state,” said Mileah Kromer, a political science professor and pollster at Goucher College.

“His absence will shake up the race,” Kromer said. “He had a serious record for any candidate to run on. That, of course, is a loss. That is a loss to the Democratic Party and a loss to the voters of Maryland.”

Baltimore County police said Kamenetz, 60, woke with chest pains at home at 2 a.m. and was pronounced dead less than 90 minutes later at a Towson hospital.

Kamenetz spent the evening before he died at a gubernatorial forum in Bowie, the second in two days. A third forum scheduled for Thursday night was converted to a tribute to Kamenetz’s nearly 25 years in public service.

The two-term county executive’s sudden death left his campaign team stunned, grieving and groping for the next step.

“We really don’t know how to put it into words,” campaign spokesman Sean Naron said. “Right now, we’re focused on the fact he was the father to two teenage sons.”

Under election law, it’s up to Kamenetz’s running mate, Valerie Ervin, to decide whether to run in his place or choose another candidate, said Jared DeMarinis, director of candidacy for the Maryland Board of Elections.

Ervin has until May 17 — 40 days before the June 26 primary — to make a decision. She released a statement saying she was “heartbroken” over the loss.

The campaign declined to answer questions about plans.

Kamenetz’s political rivals — he enjoyed a friendly rapport with many of them — canceled campaign events, suspended television advertising and issued statements praising his toughness and long record of public service. The major Democratic candidates in the race are Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, former NAACP chief Ben Jealous, state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno of Montgomery County, tech entrepreneur Alec Ross, lawyer Jim Shea and Krish Vignarajah, a former aide to first lady Michelle Obama.

Campaigns for each declined to publicly discuss how Kamenetz’s death affected their strategies, but political experts said it will undeniably reshuffle the race. Voters who supported Kamenetz because of his ties to the Baltimore region, his experience as an executive or his willingness to attack the popular GOP governor will now need to give other candidates a second look, analysts and some campaigns said.

This is the first time in state history that a major candidate for governor has died so close to an election, according to John T. Willis, a former secretary of state, Maryland political historian and executive in residence at the University of Baltimore.

Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, the front-runner in the race, released a statement saying, “Today is a tragic day in Maryland.

“I am stunned by this news as I had just watched hours earlier Kevin passionately and eloquently share his goals, vision, and ideas for the state of Maryland,” Baker said. “As much as Kevin was advocating for what was best for Baltimore County, he was also always looking out for all Marylanders.”

Hogan, a frequent political sparring partner and critic of Kamenetz, tweeted his condolences early Thursday. An hour later, he honored his former rival by ordering flags flown at half-staff until after sundown on the day of Kamenetz’s burial. A funeral will be held Friday afternoon at the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation at 7401 Park Heights Ave. in Northwest Baltimore.

"He was a dedicated public servant in Baltimore County for more than two decades, and we join with the citizens of Baltimore County and all Marylanders in mourning,” Hogan said in a statement. "In the difficult days to come, we will provide any support we possibly can to the Kamenetz family and the citizens of Baltimore County."

Hogan’s campaign staff declined to comment on how Kamenetz’s death changes the race.

“This is absolutely the last moment that political considerations should be taken into account,” Hogan campaign spokesman Doug Mayer said. “The governor is focused on sending love and thoughts to the county executive’s family in this time of incredible grief.”

Jealous recalled on Twitter that he was often seated beside Kamenetz at the many forums they’ve attended over the past year.

“I’ll always remember him for the grace and good humor he showed each of his fellow candidates as we’d line up backstage waiting to for the event to begin,” Jealous wrote. “He dedicated his life to public service, to making a difference, and he helped move Maryland forward.”

From hours together on the campaign trail, candidates forged friendly relationships, Madaleno said.

“Though rivals for the Democratic nomination, we’ve gotten to know each other well over the past year plus, finding a shared sense of wit and humor, as well as a deep love of family and our great state,” Madaleno said. “Kevin’s story of growing up in Lochearn, working at his father’s drug store and ultimately rising to become Baltimore County executive is a classic tale of Maryland grit and determination. His knowledge and dedication to all Marylanders will be sorely missed.”

Ross, who is from Baltimore, suspended plans to air television ads until after Friday’s funeral.

Shea, another Baltimore candidate, canceled plans to go door knocking Thursday. “Kevin Kamenetz’s passing is a tremendous loss for Maryland,” said Shea, who has worked in Democratic politics for decades. “He was a dedicated public servant, and I considered him a friend. My heart goes out to Jill and his family, along with his many friends and staff.”

Vignarajah, who grew up in Baltimore County,, said she was “deeply saddened” by Kamenetz’s death.

“Everyone’s lives in Baltimore County — and beyond — are better because of his tireless leadership. From improving schools to protecting Dreamers, Kevin worked tirelessly for all of us and his passing is a loss to all of Maryland.”

ecox@baltsun.com

twitter.com/ErinatTheSun

An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the location of Kamenetz's funeral. It will be in Northwest Baltimore. The Sun regrets the error.
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