At a community meeting in the Hereford area of northern Baltimore County, Johnny Olszewski Jr. looks around and counts heads.
Slightly more than 17.
He's not gauging the turnout; it's one of dozens of meetings he's attended around the county as part of his campaign to become the next Baltimore County executive.
For Olszewski, the count is his reminder that the margin between victory and defeat could be within this room.
After a brutal primary in which he narrowly won the Democratic nomination — by 17 votes — Olszewski knows every vote counts, and says he takes none for granted.
It's a theme behind the energy that has him in perpetual campaign mode touting the details of his many proposals — including plans to build new schools, expand free prekindergarten and community college, and make Baltimore County the next jurisdiction to embrace public financing of elections.
"Our campaign has been marked with very specific, detailed policy proposals," says Olszewski, 36.
His opponent, Republican Al Redmer Jr., characterizes Olszewski as an idealist who doesn't have the skills needed to manage a large government. Olszewski doesn't mind part of that label.
"I won't apologize for being idealistic," Olszewski tells the gathering in Hereford. He says he has a "mix of passion and experience" and "can marry that idealism with a record of accomplishment."
For Olszewski, success in November would signal a political comeback. Four years ago he was an incumbent state delegate seeking election to the Maryland Senate. But he lost in a Republican wave that flipped the southeastern part of the county from solidly blue-collar Democrat to the GOP.
Olszewski casts the loss in a positive light, saying that even though he lost by 851 votes (2.8 percent), he performed well in a terrible year for Democrats.
Soon after that defeat, he created a group called A Better Baltimore County and began traveling across the jurisdiction, setting up tables at festivals, listening to voters' concerns and laying the groundwork for his county executive campaign.
He was the first into the race, announcing his candidacy in June 2017.
The son of retired County Councilman John Olszewski Jr., the younger Olszewski got his start in public service early. At age 23, he was appointed to a vacant seat in the House of Delegates and later was elected in his own right.
Even before that, he served as the student member of the county Board of Education while attending Sparrows Point High School.
County Executive Don Mohler — then an area superintendent in the school system — recalls Olszewski's time as the student member of the board, and says the kid from Dundalk displayed talent and drive.
"This was a student who had a keen interest in public policy, particularly education. He was really wise beyond his years," said Mohler, a Democrat. "At the time, you sort of looked at one another and said: 'This is someone we're going to be hearing about as an adult.' "
Mohler, who was named executive after Kevin Kamenetz died in May, has been an enthusiastic supporter of Olszewski's campaign. He appeared at Olszewski's headquarters the night his primary victory was affirmed, and opened his Catonsville home for a meet-and-greet for the candidate.
Mohler says Olszewski would bring a fresh perspective needed in county government.
"I think we are looking at a true next-generation leader," he said.
Olszewski draws on his personal story to make the case that he knows the county and can improve it. He grew up as a "public school kid" who was the first in his family to go to college. He obtained a doctoral degree, taught in public schools and is raising a family in Dundalk's St. Helena neighborhood. He now works as an account executive for a software company.
"I returned home [after college] and became a teacher in the county school system because I wanted to unlock the same potential in others that was unlocked in me through education," Olszewski said. "It's why I ran for office, to reverse the decades of decline that I saw firsthand growing up."
Olszewski is vying to continue nearly a quarter-century of Democratic leadership of the county. Voters elected the past three Democratic county executives to the maximum two terms. A Republican was last in charge in 1994.
Redmer says it's time to end that reign. He says Olszewski is the latest manifestation of the Democratic "political machine" in the county.
Olszewski doesn't denigrate his predecessors, but says he has his own vision.
"While we live in a good county, residents here shouldn't have to settle for just having a good county," Olszewski said. "Instead, we can insist on having a great one."
He is promoting an ambitious — and expensive — platform that focuses on education.
Both he and Redmer have promised to rebuild three aging high schools: Dulaney, Lansdowne and Towson. Olszewski says there are other schools, too, that need replacement or renovation because they are old or overcrowded.
To pay for the work, he wants a 10-year, $2 billion funding plan modeled after one approved several years ago in Baltimore City called 21st Century Schools. In that plan, the city and state contribute a set amount of money each year to the Maryland Stadium Authority, which then finances and manages the construction of new schools in Baltimore.
Olszewski's proposal would depend on getting more state money for school construction, and he thinks he can squeeze additional money out of the county's budget by fixing inefficiencies. The county could finance the projects, or explore using an independent body — such as the Maryland Stadium Authority or the Baltimore County Revenue Authority — to manage the financing.
"We've done $1.3 billion over the last 10 years," Olszewski said, referring to the county's existing Schools for Our Future construction campaign. The effort "has moved the ball," he says, "but there are still really pressing needs."
Olszewski says he applies the "parent test" to his view of school buildings: If he wouldn't be willing to send his 2-year-old daughter, Daria, to any classroom in the county, the work is not done.
He wants to offer universal free prekindergarten in public schools and expand the College Promise program that guarantees no-cost community college to qualified county high school graduates.
He says spending money upfront on education will reap rewards by cultivating adults who earn more — and pay more income taxes. An educated population and desirable schools also raise home values, resulting in more property tax revenue to the county, he says.
Olszewski has also promised an eye-popping 20 percent teacher pay increase, a pledge that he says would be fulfilled over five years. The county already is increasing teacher pay about 2 percent to 3 percent per year.
On another hot topic, Olszewski says he supports the county's agreement with the federal government to improve access to affordable housing.
Redmer, in contrast, has pledged to go to court to fight the agreement, which requires the county to spend millions to entice developers to build low-income housing and to consider passing a law that would ban landlords from turning away tenants who use government assistance to pay their rent, such as Housing Choice vouchers commonly known as Section 8.
"What I refuse to do is waste millions of taxpayer dollars in going to court to fight it," Olszewski said.
He often frames his support of the affordable housing agreement as a fight against discrimination, and as embracing the need to help families. The housing agreement will lead to more affordable homes, spread out into areas that lack affordable housing instead of "already stressed communities."
He calls Redmer's opposition short-sighted and an attempt at "fear-mongering."
Olszewski has shed the "progressive Democrat" label he espoused in the primary, but does advocate progressive policies, including increasing the state's minimum wage and creating a taxpayer-funded campaign finance system.
He's tiptoed around questions about whether he supports Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ben Jealous, who has similar policy ideas but whose campaign has struggled.
Olszewski is instead pitching a message of bipartisanship, saying he can work with both parties to move the county forward.
"I think people believe in fair wages and expanded pre-K and access to jobs and reformed government. … Being for those things is not at odds with being a bipartisan leader, and reaching across the aisle to get things done," he said.
Olszewski points to his tenure in the House of Delegates, where he spent four years leading Baltimore County's contingent of delegates, a group that spans the ideological spectrum from liberal to strongly conservative. Olszewski says he had to persuade delegates with differing perspectives to unite on measures to benefit county residents, and is fond of joking that "even Pat McDonough" — the outspoken, ultra-conservative delegate from Middle River — "has to admit that he voted for me four straight years" to be chairman.
At a recent event at a Mexican restaurant in Owings Mills, Olszewski made his pitch as the audience listened and ate tacos. He laid out his vision and fielded questions on topics such as his past votes against gun control measures, which roads need repairs and whether voting machines can be trusted.
"Personally, I like his progressive positions," said Wendy Belinrood of Reisterstown. She'd seen Olszewski and Redmer at a community forum the evening before, and went to the restaurant event to do more research.
Belinrood wondered whether Olszewski could pull off a win given Redmer's close ties to Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who remains popular in the county.
"He's going to have to moderate," Belinrood said of Olszewski. "It has to go in small steps. Baltimore County is not the most progressive place in the world."
Johnny Olszewski Jr.
Experience: Account executive for a software company. Former state delegate, public school teacher.
Family: Married, one child