Kevin Kamenetz softens edges on Baltimore County campaign trail

Baltimore County executive candidate Kevin Kamenetz visited the Perry Hall- White Marsh Fair recently, being as amiable and neighborly as he could. You do these things in campaign season, especially when you're the sort of guy who might need to work on that part of your persona.

So Kamenetz made some friendly chitchat with folks on a bright Saturday afternoon about schools and traffic and flashed a gap-toothed smile, crouching to hand a few kids a purple campaign balloon and a necklace. It's what any candidate would do, but with Kamenetz, it seems part of a bigger project, an evolution.

By all accounts the 52-year-old lawyer from Owings Mills overachieves in his command of policy, but over the years has received guidance to work on his patience, humility and listening.

In the heat of a race, Kamenetz won't exactly acknowledge a need for improvement. He'll go this far: "I demand a lot of myself. I want others to have the same level of competence."

He allows also that his marriage to the former Jill Hoffberger 10 years ago, and the birth of two sons, ages 9 and 6, have changed things. It's not exactly "mellowing," he says. He calls it "a broadening of perspective. ... Having a wife and children is God's Ritalin. It evens you out."

In the 16th year of his political career, four-term County Councilman Kamenetz is in a tough contest for the Democratic nomination. His principal opponent, fellow Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, might have less money, less TV ad time, and by many accounts less command of policy details, but his genial personality has won him many friends in the 28 years he's been in politics.

Bartenfelder, a farmer from Fullerton, gets about three sentences out in the time it takes Kamenetz to speak a chapter about his ideas for better schools, budget management, safe neighborhoods and economic development. Bartenfelder is running hard, too, all the while maintaining an affable, easygoing persona.

Few would call Kamenetz easygoing. His friends say he's smart and hardworking, thoughtful, caring and decisive. Those who don't like him as much don't challenge that, but say he can be arrogant, taking credit for things the whole council does and making sure you know what he knows, and that he knows more than you.

One of his supporters, fellow County Council member John Olszewski Sr., has been introducing Kamenetz, the west-sider, around his territory on the east side, getting him talking with working-class people. He figures Kamenetz is the best man for the job of running the $2.56 billion operation that is Baltimore County government.

Olszewski, a big man with a brush mustache, sits in a booth at the Boulevard Diner in Dundalk and says that Kamenetz is "evolving."

At council work sessions, Olszewski said, listening to Kamenetz question people who were there with business before the county, hearing him phrase and rephrase a question until he got a clear answer, "I felt I was in a court of law."

On the one hand, that's a good thing, Olszewski said, because you need confidence to ask hard questions, "you need someone who's going to be tough and aggressive at times, when people aren't giving you the right answers." On the other hand, he said, he has offered Kamenetz some advice about the line between confident and cocky: "You're the smartest person on this council, but sometimes you come over the wrong way."

Eight years ago, the last time the seat was open, Kamenetz thought about a run for executive. But his first son had just been born, and he figured the time wasn't right. James T. Smith Jr., a Democrat, was elected and served two terms. With the departure of the term-limited Smith rolling around, Kamenetz figured the time is now.

That decision to delay gave him eight more years to build on his reputation as the council's most industrious student on issues. He's one of the most prolific in introducing legislation, filing bills that affect not only his own district, but the whole county.

It seems he's been gearing up for some role as a community fixer for much of his life.

Kamenetz grew up in Lochearn, just outside the Baltimore City line, on a street of brick homes where his eldest brother, Rodger Kamenetz, says he was "like the mayor of the neighborhood. … He was in and out of everybody's house. He knew everybody."

Rodger remembers his brother holding backyard "fairs" to raise money for muscular dystrophy and other causes, riding through the neighborhood on his bicycle getting out the word, trying to drum up a crowd. As a kid, he says, his brother was handing out fliers as a boy for a guy running for County Council.

"He's the one who wants to do something," says Rodger, a writer and retired professor of philosophy and English who lives in New Orleans. "That's probably him in a nutshell. ... He has a lot of identification with his neighborhood. He kind of viewed it as an extension of his family. ... He has a huge identification with Baltimore County."

The youngest of five children of Irvin and Miriam Kamenetz, Kevin is the only one of the siblings who has stayed in Baltimore County.

Kevin Kamenetz likes to tell about Kaye's Pharmacy, the drugstore his father owned, where he worked "from the time I was old enough to reach the cash register standing on a box."

Kaye's stands to this day on Belair Road in Overlea, hardly an affluent area. A 2005 Baltimore Sun obituary for his father — "Doc Kaye," as neighbors called him — reported that he kept the store open 365 days a year, and was in the habit of extending credit to those who needed medicine or household items.

There, Kamenetz says, he developed a "keen appreciation for a working-class neighborhood. I learned a lot of important lessons working in my father's store."

He worked there from his time at Campfield Elementary School to the Gilman School, to the Johns Hopkins University and through his graduation from the University of Baltimore School of Law.

At Gilman — he says his parents decided he needed a more rigorous education than public school could provide — he was a middle-class kid in a bastion of Baltimore's elite. But he had company in the Class of 1975 in Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the future congressman and governor who showed up from Arbutus with a reputation as a fine football prospect.

Kamenetz and Ehrlich were not buddies, as Ehrlich was the athlete and Kamenetz was in the political club, along with Gerry L. Brewster, son of a U.S. senator and future member of the Maryland House of Delegates.

Former Gilman teacher Nick Schloeder is in as good a position as anyone to talk about the Kamenetz evolution. He not only had Kamenetz as a student in his government and politics classes in the 1970s, but 20 years later he worked with Kamenetz the county councilman when Schloeder was on the staff of County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger.

As a student, Schloeder says, Kamenetz was "very bright, a hard worker" with a good sense of humor. Later, he could say the same of Councilman Kamenetz, finding that his command of budget details rivaled those of the county's tough-minded budget director and administrative officer, Fred Homan.

Still, there were times when Schloeder says he had to gently pull Kamenetz aside. At times, the councilman seemed too hard on anyone who seemed less prepared than he was, including his fellow legislators.

"I did counsel him that the purpose of being a council member is to solve problems and get things done," said Schloeder. "You don't want to get people antagonized by your personality so that it would stand in the way of achieving the goals that you have."

Schloeder said Kamenetz has softened the edge in the last few years. While other Gilman students were personalizing their class graduation yearbook pages with quotes from Matthew Arnold, Gandhi, King Lear and the "Kung Fu" TV series, the young Kamenetz quoted Sen. Robert F. Kennedy: "Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: To tame the savageness of man and to make gentle the life of this world."

An older Kamenetz has been trying to tame his own harsh impulses in an effort to make more gentle the life of Baltimore County. The election could take one measure of his success.

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

Kevin Kamenetz

Resides: Owings Mills

Age: 52

County councilman since: 1994

Occupation: Attorney

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