Vicki Almond says she never pictured herself being where she is now: running to become the first woman to serve as Baltimore County executive.
Growing up with a single mother who struggled financially, Almond went to work as a teenager and took night classes to earn a high school diploma. As an adult, she got involved in her community, but was content for years being a PTA mother and a leader of neighborhood associations.
But eight years ago a desire to do more, and what she calls fortunate timing, led her to run for and win a seat on the Baltimore County Council.
Now she's seeking a promotion. She launched her 2018 campaign for the county's top job Wednesday at Foundry Row in Owings Mills.
"I never planned to do this, but I feel like my journey and timing was right as far as County Council, and I think it's right now for county executive," Almond said. "I'm in a good place to be county executive and to do that job."
The Reisterstown Democrat joins two other Democrats and two Republicans in the race to succeed County Executive Kevin Kamenetz in 2018.
Kamenetz, a Democrat, leaves office next year after serving the maximum two terms. He has joined the large field of Democrats vying to unseat popular Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in 2018.
Both parties are watching the race closely. Party leaders say a strong county executive candidate can generate excitement for gubernatorial hopefuls in the county, a key battlefield in statewide races.
Baltimore County is the third largest jurisdiction in the state, and among the most competitive. The county executive commands a $3.5 billion annual budget.
Almond said her rise from PTA mother to community activist to councilwoman has helped her see county problems from both outside and inside government. Along the way, she said, she's become a leader who can move the county forward.
"After seven and a half years on the council, I think I've really grown. I've learned a lot," she said. "I think I've seen what Baltimore County does really well and I've seen what we can do better."
Almond stresses that she's the only candidate in the race with experience in county government. The others, she notes, all have served in state offices.
She said state officials sometimes look down on county officials.
"People sometimes tease us: 'All you do is fix potholes,' " she said. "Well, yes, we do. That's an important quality-of-life issue," she said.
As county executive, she said, she would find ways to better use the talent of county employees to improve services to county residents, and would continue working on challenges such as feeding hungry children, keeping communities safe and managing development.
She said she wants to do more to fight the opioid epidemic, end elder abuse and better embrace the county's increasing diversity.
Already, Almond is coming under fire from her Democratic opponents, who say she is too tightly tied to developers.
Olszewski noted that Almond's campaign kickoff was a fundraiser at Foundry Row, a retail development on the site of a former Solo Cup factory. The Wegmans-anchored redevelopment project was built "amid a cloud of controversy within the community," the Olszewski campaign said in a statement.
"I am fighting for a Baltimore County where communities are never brushed aside in favor of well-heeled special interests," Olszewski said.
Almond supported a zoning change for the property.
The other Democrat in the race, Brochin, has focused much of his campaign on trying to end what he says is the county's pay-to-play culture, in which developers who give campaign contributions have their projects rubber-stamped by county officials.
Brochin also criticized Almond's choice of venue for her campaign launch.
"Councilwoman Almond's announcement underscores the points I made at my announcement last week, which is that this race is between a candidate who does whatever developers want and even delivers her announcement speech on their property," he said. He said he believes the county "ought to stop unchecked overdevelopment, protect open space and end the way-too-cozy relationship between developers and County Council members."
Almond acknowledges she's made controversial rezoning decisions during her time on the council. When considering proposals, she said, she does her best to find a middle ground that's acceptable to both developers and neighbors.
"I do what is best for the community, for growth, for smart growth," she said.
Almond calls Foundry Row a success story. She says the project has helped lift the surrounding community.
Development — and redevelopment — is an important part of economic growth, she said.
"I don't think you can just not have redevelopment," Almond said.
John Dedie, professor and coordinator of the political science program at the Community College of Baltimore County, said opponents will likely continue to focus on Almond's "perceived close relationship" with developers as the campaign heats up.
But Almond can capitalize on being the only woman in a race full of men, Dedie said.
"There's not a lot of women running for office overall," Dedie said. "Women at times are seen as an outsider, and people might gravitate more to her as a candidate."