The unexpected executive: Don Mohler reflects on tenure with Baltimore County after Kamenetz's death

Don Mohler thought he’d be spending early December helping his friend and boss Kevin Kamenetz pack up his office in Towson to close out an eight-year run as county executive.

Mohler even entertained the notion that he might start 2019 cheering on Kamenetz as Maryland’s new governor.

Things didn’t work out that way.

It’s been six months since Kamenetz died after suffering cardiac arrest while campaigning for governor. His death struck Mohler, his chief of staff, with shock and grief — then thrust him into the role of Baltimore County’s 13th county executive.

“I would have never wanted this to happen,” said Mohler, leaning back in a chair in his office suite in Towson. “But I am so grateful, looking back, that I had this opportunity.”

Mohler, 68, is preparing to end his brief tenure in office. Newly elected executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. will be sworn in Dec. 3.

Mohler, a former social studies teacher and high school principal, became a steward of the county executive’s office — a bridge between the administrations of Kamenetz, a veteran politician, and Olszewski, a relative newcomer.

Mohler was lured by Kamenetz, a Democrat, to become chief of staff after serving as head of communications for the previous administration of Jim Smith.

Eight years later, he took an active role in supporting Olszewski’s run, hosting a campaign event in his Catonsville home and recalling fondly how the candidate, also a Democrat, cut his political teeth as a student member of the county school board.

For Mohler, the journey to becoming county executive started with a 2 a.m. phone call on May 10.

“I’ve got some bad news,” Deputy Fire Chief Paul Lurz told him. “County Executive Kamenetz is in cardiac arrest. He’s on his way to St. Joseph’s Hospital. I think you need to get there now.”

Mohler rushed to the hospital, where Lurz met him in the parking lot. Kamenetz, 60, had died.

Stunned, Mohler went inside to embrace Kamenetz’s wife, Jill, then went to his office in the Historic Courthouse in Towson to begin notifying officials and key county employees. When television trucks showed up, Mohler found himself on air, telling the region his friend had died.

Mohler says he felt Kamenetz’s presence pushing him along. “I could hear him… saying: ‘All right now. Come on, get over it. You’ve got a job to do,’ ” Mohler said.

Two weeks later, the Baltimore County Council voted unanimously to name Mohler county executive, finishing out the remaining months of Kamentez’s term.

“This was Kevin Kamenetz’s right-hand man,” said Councilman Tom Quirk, a Catonsville Democrat who helped engineer the council vote. “I don’t think there was anybody better to make sure a lot of the goals and vision that Kevin Kamenetz had were followed through and implemented.”

Mohler didn’t have time to think about what kind of county executive he wanted to be. The day he was named executive, he attended a viewing for Baltimore County Police Officer Amy Caprio, who was killed while responding to a burglary call in Perry Hall.

The next day was Caprio’s funeral, and two days later came devastating flooding in Catonsville and Oella from the same storm that pummeled Ellicott City’s Main Street, claiming one life.

Navigating that whirlwind gave Mohler confidence, hope and appreciation.

“My takeaway from those first 72 hours was that it made me optimistic about our future, and it made me feel really good about the people in Baltimore County,” he said.

Mohler had made clear he would not be running for the office long-term. He was, in a sense, free to be himself.

In one of his first moves, he supported a bill by Councilwoman Vicki Almond that made it a crime to leave a gun where a child younger than 18 could find it — tougher than the state standard of younger than 16. It easily passed.

He also made a decision to raise water and sewer rates in future years. And when there were calls to reduce bus service to White Marsh Mall after a fight involving young men from Baltimore, Mohler didn’t hesitate to respond.

“It is 2018. Not 1950,” he said in a statement at the time. “We are neighbors with Baltimore City and stand with them. We cannot and should not put a moat around our city partners.”

He cut promotional videos for the county that are posted on social media, and in them projects a homespun persona. In one, he carries a trash can down his driveway to make a pitch for a county app that sends text messages reminding residents of trash and recycling pickup days.

“I would have gotten a very different reaction to those videos had I been running for election in November,” he said.

All the living former county executives reached out to Mohler, each offering the same advice: Don’t be a caretaker; be your own executive.

Former executive Smith, who hired Mohler as his communications director in 2003, praised the job Mohler has done.

“He just picked up right from where Kevin left off and ... moved Baltimore County forward,” said Smith, now a top adviser to Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh. “There was no standstill for the county under Don Mohler.”

David Marks, one of three Republicans on the County Council, said Mohler has lived up to expectations.

“He has communicated very well with all members of the council, and he has personally helped me with a number of projects that were stalled,” Marks said.

Mohler said he has operated with one rule: Do what you think is best for the county.

“I’m going to weigh a lot of advice, but when push comes to shove, it really is the old ‘buck stops here,’ ” Mohler said. “It may or may not always be what’s right, but I’ll sleep like a baby because at least I thought it was right.”

Anthony Marchione, who served as county school superintendent from 1995 to 2000, says he knew that’s what people would get under Mohler.

Marchione went on to become county administrative officer under Smith — and convinced Smith to hire Mohler.

Mohler had a long career in education — he was a teacher and guidance counselor at Lansdowne High School in the 1970s, principal at Catonsville High and Sparrows Point Middle schools in the 1990s and later served in the school system as an area superintendent and director of student support services.

Though he wasn’t trained in public relations, Mohler had a gift for communicating, said Marchione.

“He’s a natural leader, and he has excellent communications skills,” he said. “People just like him. People want to follow him.”

Olszewski called Mohler a “mentor,” and said since the election he has been a source of “advice and strong encouragement as I sort things out.”

“County Executive Mohler has not only been a steady hand when the county needed it, he has left his own mark,” he said.

Mohler will hand off some key issues to Olszewski — including a proposed $78 million financial assistance package for Tradepoint Atlantic, the industrial redevelopment project at the former steel mill site in Sparrows Point. The money, if approved by the council, will help the company build roads, water lines and sewer pipes.

He’ll also hand off plans to develop a section of the county’s website to better share information with citizens — an effort at transparency that Mohler says is close to his heart.

He says one of his regrets is that he wasn’t able to open up the county budget process to more citizen input. Though his tenure didn’t include a budget season — that happens in the spring — Mohler says he could have pushed for more budget transparency under Smith and Kamenetz.

“I own it,” Mohler said. “I was at those tables.”

He’s planning to take the month of December off to spend time with his family and decide what to do next. He said he’s had “a number of offers” but won’t elaborate.

Whatever happens now, Mohler said he’ll look back on his career with Baltimore County and his unexpected time as county executive fondly.

“The people of Baltimore County have been so good to me,” he said.

pwood@baltsun.com

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