From most angles, Baltimore County executive candidate Kenneth C. Holt resembles another, more famous Republican who also rode horses, looked at ease in blue jeans, and preached lean government and free enterprise. Holt doesn't dwell on the Ronald Reagan parallel, but he's hardly averse to the idea.
"I've heard it a lot," said Holt, an investments executive who raises black Angus beef cattle on a historic 120-acre estate in Kingsville. "Ronald Reagan and I have a lot of similarities. Our speech — we're relatively soft-spoken — our general philosophy of government."
The 59-year-old with a youthful head of brown hair and a gently weathered, outdoorsy complexion will need whatever Reaganesque appeal he can muster in his general election battle against his better-known and more experienced Democratic opponent, Kevin Kamenetz. The 52-year-old lawyer from Owings Mills has served on the County Council since 1994, building a reputation as one of the panel's masters of public policy.
Holt served one term in the Maryland House of Delegates, lost a bid for the state Senate and later helped the administration of former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. shape its slots and horse racing industry proposals. Outside of voluntary work on two commissions, he has no experience in county government, but he means to make virtues of both his outsider status and his connections to Ehrlich, the Baltimore County native who is staging a rematch this year with Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley.
The executive race is the latest turn in the public arena for a man who found his enthusiasm for politics as a teenager in the 1960s, continued the pursuit working on Capitol Hill after college and was spurred to more community activism by a family trauma in the 1980s. A Democrat in his youth, Holt came to his Republicanism by virtue of timing and opportunity.
Holt's campaign signs are often posted next to those of Ehrlich's, who won the county in both of his previous gubernatorial campaigns. Some of the campaign signs spell Holt's name in script that mimics the classic Coca-Cola logo, with the motto: "New and Refreshing."
The slogan marks Holt's bet on an anti-incumbent mood in the county. He's arguing against Kamenetz and others who credit the current Democratic administration of County Executive James T. Smith Jr. for avoiding employee layoffs and furloughs, not raising the property tax rate and sustaining Triple-A status with three bond-rating agencies.
"Clearly, it's my opinion that the status quo of 16 years needs to be changed," Holt said, referring to Kamenetz's tenure on the council. "In my opinion, it's what people are desperately seeking."
He said the county, a $2.56 billion operation, can do better in cutting costs and cultivating private sector jobs. He has not specified exactly how he would do that, except to say that he would expand the Department of Economic Development four- or five-fold — it now has 20 employees — and "conduct a professional analysis, bring in a management consultant" to review county operations.
"I'm confident we could wring 3 to 5 percent minimally in cost savings out of government," said Holt. He mentions the possibility of saving on electricity and fuel, and using technology to streamline certain county operations.
Holt set a tough tone the day after the primary, hours before Kamenetz had even declared victory over Joseph Bartenfelder, a fellow member of the County Council, whom Kamenetz topped 52 percent to 44 percent. In an interview the morning of Sept. 15, Holt said Kamenetz ran an "ugly campaign based on attack ads and false statements. … There's no place for this in a time of economic crisis."
The remarks showed the combative side of a man known more for a genial, moderate style. The senior vice president with Morgan Stanley Smith Barney is apparently not one to raise his voice or seek confrontation.
Members of both parties who served with him in the House, where he represented District 6 in four legislative sessions from 1995 to 1998, remember Holt as a thoughtful, mild-mannered and helpful colleague.
Del. James E. Proctor Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat who served with Holt on the Appropriations Committee, said Holt was always helpful with questions involving his full-time profession in finance, but he wasn't apt to show off.
"There are people who try to show how important they are or how smart they are in their other life," said Proctor. "Ken was not like that."
Former delegate and District Court Judge Richard A. Palumbo, another Prince George's Democrat who was on the Appropriations Committee, called Holt "absolutely wonderful" as a colleague.
"When I dealt with him, it was really nonpartisan," Palumbo said, recalling Holt's work to expand opportunities for community college students to transfer to the University of Maryland, College Park. "It was always person to person. He doesn't bully anyone. He's a gentleman with a capital 'G.'"
Republican Anthony J. O'Donnell of Southern Maryland, the current Minority Leader, joined the House with Holt in 1995. Holt would approach the work "in a deliberate manner, not in a confrontational manner," O'Donnell said, recalling how he helped push for a state tax cut, and was very "business-oriented."
Indeed, Holt got high marks from Maryland Business for Responsive Government, earning a 92 percent overall rating for his four sessions. On the other hand, despite his frequent efforts leading local litter cleanups in his neighborhood, the League of Conservation Voters ranked him in the teens for his environmental voting record, slightly below the average for House Republicans and well below Democrats.
Change in party
Holt seems to have joined the GOP more as a matter of timing than ideological conviction. Like Reagan, he was a Democrat before he joined the Republican Party.
His parents were Republicans, but Holt was drawn to the left as a young man. The family moved from St. Louis, where Holt was born, to Yonkers, N.Y., then Greenwich, Conn., where Holt grew up in the 1960s.
Holt said his family became friends with people who were close to the Kennedys, and he felt the influence of the "Kennedy mystique," and recalled being "inspired by Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement."
After graduating from the University of Maryland, Holt worked for about a year for two Democratic congressmen, then combined his enthusiasms for politics and horses by spending the next few years working as a lobbyist for two horse industry associations.
That experience helped him get started in his own business, shuttling from the United States to Europe arranging auctions of competitive horses.
In 1986, he was recently married to his wife, Mary, and living next to his maternal grandfather's white pre-Civil War house on what remained of the historic Mount Peru estate.
Late that year, the idyllic setting in eastern Baltimore County became an unlikely crime scene, as the house was broken into by men who shot and killed the owner, Harry U. Riepe. It was Holt who found his 89-year-old grandfather dead on the second floor of the house where he and his wife now live.
Holt doesn't claim that the trauma changed the direction of his life, but he said the event probably spurred the community activities he had already begun. He said he felt "I had to go forward and do things to improve the community and help. Sometimes tragedy and salvation run in the same currents."
His decision to run for office in 1994 led him to the Republicans, as he found that party more eager to have him as a candidate. He remembered talking with Congresswoman Helen Delich Bentley and with then-state Delegate Ehrlich.
In winning the seat in the House of Delegates, Holt was believed to be the first Republican to represent the 6th District. He lost a bid to unseat state Sen. Michael J. Collins in 1998 but continued working with the Ehrlich administration.
Holt had enjoyed his time in the legislature and said, "I had always had an interest in returning to public service" — for the right job and at the right time.
In 2009, with a potentially divisive Democratic primary shaping up to succeed the term-limited Jim Smith, Holt said he "decided this was the best race for me to run."