Al Redmer Jr. has been a fixture in Annapolis for decades — he served 13 years in the House of Delegates and was twice appointed by governors to be Maryland's insurance commissioner.
Yet he's never strayed from his roots in Baltimore County, where he grew up in Perry Hall, graduated from Perry Hall High School and served as president of the neighborhood's community association. He lived in his childhood home until 2006, when he and his wife finally packed up and moved — to Middle River.
As he campaigns to be the next county executive, the Republican says he's passionate about the potential to help residents of his home county. And he sees the job as a fitting cap for his career.
"I'm not running for county executive to become governor or something down the road," Redmer says. "This is a way that I can top off a life of public service."
Those themes — experience and service, plus a dose of business acumen — are at the heart of Redmer's campaign. He believes he's uniquely qualified to solve problems he says are facing the state's third largest jurisdiction: Not enough money to rebuild aging schools. Deteriorating neighborhoods. Too many bureaucratic hurdles, and too much acrimony and cronyism.
Redmer, 62, thinks Baltimore County could use his leadership style.
"I just felt that I had the background, the experience, the skill set to go in and help change — I hate to say it — but change Baltimore County for the better."
He chuckles, acknowledging that he's borrowed a line from his political ally, Gov. Larry Hogan.
It's no accident Redmer channels Hogan as he talks about his campaign. He consulted the governor, a longtime friend, before deciding to run, and frequently tells prospective voters: "If you like Larry Hogan, I'm your guy."
GOP leaders believe Redmer has the best shot in years to break Democrats' 24-year hold on the Baltimore County executive's seat.
Al Mendelsohn, chairman of the Baltimore County Republican Party, says voters are seeing positive leadership from other Republicans — not just Hogan, but Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh and Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman — and want the same for Baltimore County.
"They know that we need to change, and Al Redmer is a great answer to that need," Mendelsohn said.
Republicans have a staggering registration disadvantage in Baltimore County: 61 percent of voters are Democrats, 28 percent are Republicans and 11 percent are unaffiliated or belong to third parties, according to state elections data.
Yet Redmer believes the stars are aligning in his favor. He says that when weighing his odds for success, he anticipated Democrats would have a hard-fought and expensive primary, and that proved to be true. Johnny Olszewski Jr. won the Democratic nomination by just 17 votes over state Del. Jim Brochin, with County Councilwoman Vicki Almond not far behind.
In the wake of that battle, "I was able to determine that while it's still difficult, there would at least be a pathway to winning," Redmer said.
He's bolstered by the fact that Hogan won the county in 2014 with 59 percent of the vote and remains popular there. As Hogan himself vies for a second term, the two have teamed up in Baltimore County. The governor was the featured speaker at Redmer's campaign kickoff, has appeared in campaign ads and is a constant voice of support.
"Al is a proven leader who will hold the line on taxes, reduce wasteful government spending, protect the environment and get tough on repeat violent criminals," Hogan said in a statement. "I'm confident he will bring the reforms we've implemented on the state level to the county."
Redmer spent much of his private business career in the insurance industry, and was elected four times to the House of Delegates. He resigned from the House in 2003 when then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, appointed him state insurance commissioner. Redmer left state government to work for a private health insurance firm, then Hogan brought him back as insurance commissioner in 2014.
Redmer says he has experience and realistic ideas to improve the county. Olszewski, he says, has made campaign promises that are unrealistic and expensive, and would increase the county's tax burden.
"I know how to go into a large organization — because I have — and set expectations and standards, create accountability and drive organizational results," Redmer said. "That's what I do."
He says the county has a long list of expensive projects to tackle — including the need to replace substandard school buildings and upgrade roads and water infrastructure — and is maxing out its ability to borrow money for the work.
Redmer has pledged not to raise taxes, and is proposing a "multi-year plan" to pay for such projects, saying he can satisfy bond rating agencies whose decisions determine the interest rates the county pays on debt.
Among the most vexing challenges will be dealing with renovation or replacement of three aging high schools: Towson, Lansdowne and Dulaney. Both Redmer and Olszewski have pledged to replace all of them.
Building a new school can easily top $100 million, and Redmer has proposed a new way to pay for it. He wants to explore having a private builder construct a school, then lease it back to the county for 40 to 50 years with an option to buy. The county would make lease payments and maintain the facility.
Under that scenario, he says, the county wouldn't have to borrow money upfront for the construction, potentially enabling more schools to get underway faster.
He acknowledges it's unknown if state funding — which fuels a big chunk of school construction costs — could be used for such a lease-to-own scenario. "I believe that it is something that should be evaluated," he said.
Redmer also says he'll challenge a 2016 agreement the county government made with federal housing officials over affordable housing. The county agreed to spend millions to help developers build affordable housing and to consider a law to prohibit landlords from denying prospective tenants solely because they rely on government rent assistance, such as Housing Choice vouchers commonly called Section 8.
Olszsewski has said Redmer's pledge to challenge the agreement is pandering to fear about city woes migrating to the county.
But Redmer said landlords shouldn't be forced to accept Section 8 "whether they want to do business with the federal government or not," and said he believes the agreement with the feds will lead to an expansion of Section 8 in the county. At a Towson debate this month with building and real estate industry officials, he instead touted a plan to make new development more affordable to builders and entice them to take on small-scale "infill" projects in older neighborhoods.
"We need to have more affordable housing in Baltimore County, but to take Section 8 and spread it around to other areas is not necessarily the answer," he said.
Redmer also says he would hire more police officers and equip them better, put more effort into boosting existing businesses and focus on improving the government's basic services.
Redmer believes his relationship with Hogan can translate into more state dollars for projects such as schools. He notes that Hogan and the late County Executive Kevin Kamenetz had an antagonistic relationship.
"Can you imagine a Baltimore County where the county executive has been a close, personal friend of the governor's for 25 years, has worked on his cabinet with a productive, professional relationship?" Redmer asked.
"I would hope and expect that we're going to see additional love and support from Governor Hogan than we've received in the past," he said. "Not just because he loves Al Redmer, in part because we've got critical needs that need to be addressed."
Redmer has gained support from unions representing county police officers, firefighters, sheriff's deputies and school principals and supervisors. The teachers union and the main union for general government employees are supporting Olszewski.
Redmer points to his leadership of the Maryland Insurance Administration, the state agency that regulates insurance, as proof he can guide county government. That experience is also the source of a knock against him — that following Tropical Storm Isabel, which devastated several waterfront communities in 2003, many county homeowners were disappointed with the state response and angry when insurance companies wouldn't pay their claims.
For Redmer, it's a personal issue. He says many of the problems were related to a national flood insurance program. He's adamant that his agency and its staff worked hard to help as many people as possible during a difficult time.
Redmer's supporters say his mix of fiscal conservatism and management experience sounds good.
Rob Feigley thinks Redmer will boost struggling eastside communities. Feigley, a Dundalk native and chemical engineer who lives in Fort Howard, joined the candidate at a busy Dundalk intersection to wave signs during a recent rush hour.
"I've watched over the last 15 or 20 years this town go downhill a lot," Feigley said. He believes Redmer understands that "we feel we've been neglected by the county government."
Feigley said Olszewski seems too tied to previous Democratic leadership. The county needs a change, he said.
"In Maryland and Baltimore County, it's been the same-old, same-old too long," he said. "The Democratic Party has been far too entrenched."
Al Redmer Jr.
Home: Middle River
Experience: Maryland insurance commissioner. Former state delegate and House of Delegates minority leader.
Family: Married, three children, two stepchildren, five grandchildren, two step-grandchildren