Reflections on Kevin Kamenetz from a reporter who covered him in Baltimore County

Kevin Kamenetz and I never saw eye-to-eye.

That’s natural, of course, for an elected official and the beat reporter who covers him. If we became fast friends, could I have accurately and skeptically covered him?

Still, I often can manage to strike a rapport with my sources and interview subjects.

But with Kevin Kamenetz, I met my match.

Kamenetz was smart, determined and always, always on message. His guard was always up, as if he didn’t want to get caught saying something off-message or off the cuff.

In interviews, I often ask open-ended questions in hopes of getting my subjects talking about the topic at hand the way they might talk to a friend. Not with Kevin Kamenetz. That never worked with him. He’d respond: “Well, do you have a question?” So I’d try again with a direct question.

For nearly four years, Kamenetz and I would have these kind of interviews. I did appreciate his directness. I never had to worry if I understood his point of view or position on an issue. I always knew where he stood.

But I always sought to crack that tough shell. There must be more to Kevin Kamenetz than the serious, determined politician, I thought.

Finally, this spring, I felt that maybe I was getting somewhere.

I met up with Kamenetz and his running mate, Valerie Ervin, at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center at National Harbor early one morning to observe them cleaning hotel rooms — it was part of the deal for them to win a labor endorsement.

Kamenetz attacked the challenge with the same serious determination he attacked politics. He didn’t laugh at himself once as he wrestled with unruly bedsheets or stretched to clean the far corners of the bathroom mirrors. I’m not sure that he liked having his staff and a reporter watching him.

At one point we were alone in one of the hotel rooms where Kamenetz was vacuuming. He said to me: “What do you think the online trolls will say about this? Finally he has a job he can handle?”

A joke! An irritated joke, but a joke nonetheless.

“Actually,” he said, thinking it through further. “They probably think I can’t handle even this.”

I replied: “Don’t you know? Never read the comments. It’s not worth it.”

He resumed vacuuming.

Then last week, Kamenetz came to The Baltimore Sun building for an interview with me for a profile I was writing about his candidacy. We spent an hour talking — the longest interview we’ve had.

We covered territory that we’d gone over plenty of times before, about his upbringing, his career, his vision for the state. He repeated his campaign-trail quips about growing a mustache to look older then shaving it to look younger, how a sick person wants to see a career doctor, not an untrained doctor. I even laughed at one line that I hadn’t heard in awhile: Baltimore County is like Maryland in miniature, he said, “I think the only thing we don't have are mountains, but I’m looking for that.”

But most insightful of all was when Kamenetz told me about visiting museums with his mom. He was the youngest child and got dragged places, including the Walters and the Baltimore Museum of Art.

I seized on this to ask a question that wasn’t on my list. I asked Kamenetz if he had a favorite artist or style of art.

“No,” he said. “My game is going to the museum and looking at an object or a piece of art and guessing the title.”

“Oh yeah?” I replied. “I’m going to have to try that next time I go.”

“It's interesting,” Kamenetz said. “It forces you to kind of study it and try to figure out what the artist was trying to do or say.”

“And see if you’re right,” I said.

“Yeah.”

I spent almost four years observing Kevin Kamenetz and trying to figure out what was going on in his head, much like he did with artists.

And this is the best that I can figure: For Kevin Kamenetz, even the fun stuff — looking at art — was about competition and winning.

Perhaps that’s how he remained relevant for 24 years in Maryland politics. He never let up on his efforts to win — whether it was to get the County Council to do something he wanted, whether it was winning re-election, whether he was doing battle again and again with Gov. Larry Hogan.

And when Kevin Kamenetz died, he was in the midst of trying to win what he wanted most of all: the governorship.

Pamela Wood is a Baltimore Sun reporter who covers Baltimore County government.

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