Democrat Kamenetz plots a course in the wake of GOP gains

Democrat Kamenetz plans to work with GOP: "We fill both Democratic and Republican potholes."

Amid a tide of Republican victories in Maryland, Kevin Kamenetz is one of the Baltimore region's blue survivors.

The Democrat defeated little-known and poorly funded Republican challenger George Harman to win a second term as Baltimore County executive, but he will start that term with a changing landscape all around him — a Republican governor, more Republican elected officials in his county and a ring of Republican-led counties around Baltimore.

The political shift spells more uncertainty for Baltimore's Red Line, a proposed mass transit route from Woodlawn in the county to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in east Baltimore City, and continued emphasis by Kamenetz on economic development. Chief on his agenda are revitalization of downtown Towson, redevelopment of the old Sparrows Point steel mill and working to keep the McCormick spice company's headquarters in the county.

Kamenetz, 56, shrugs off the 2014 trend.

"It happens. There are always cycles in politics," he said. "The pendulum always swings back."

This year, the pendulum swung hard to the political right. Harford, Howard and Anne Arundel counties all elected Republican county executives Tuesday; all five of Carroll County's county commissioners are Republican. Baltimore City remains staunchly Democratic, but its leadership was not up for election.

John Bullock, a Towson University political science professor, said Kamenetz is seen as a Democrat who governs from the center, and his focus on economic growth seems to appeal to both parties. That the GOP couldn't muster a strong challenger to face Kamenetz — when they did so successfully elsewhere — speaks to his stature, Bullock said.

"He's doing a decent job, doing a credible job, and I don't think anyone wanted to step out and challenge him," Bullock said.

The Republican Party didn't concentrate its efforts or dollars trying to unseat Kamenetz. Harman raised less than $16,000 through late October, while Kamenetz started the year with $1 million and had enough money to funnel to other candidates' campaigns. Kamenetz beat Harman 56 percent to 44 percent.

"The focus of the party was to regain the governor's office," said John Fiastro, departing chairman of Baltimore County's Republican Central Committee. Gov.-elect Larry Hogan earned nearly 60 percent of the vote in Baltimore County, a jurisdiction that went for Democrat Gov. Martin O'Malley in 2010.

But along the way, Baltimore County voters also added another GOP member to the County Council — Democrats now hold a slim 4-3 advantage. And in the county's Dundalk area, a traditional stronghold of union Democrats, Republicans scored a clean sweep in both county and state offices.

Todd Crandell, who will represent Dundalk and Essex on the County Council, said Republicans were elected because voters were sick of being nickel-and-dimed by taxes and fees, and were frustrated with the loss of jobs, especially on the east side.

He said good governing isn't about ideology at the local level. "It's really about making the best decisions for the district," he said.

Kamenetz offered a similar analysis, saying of Tuesday's election, "It was very clear there was a lot of voter angst. It's a vote of displeasure with the status quo." He said he survived because of his record as an efficient administrator and his focus on the economy.

"I'm as motivated as [Republicans] are to improve the district," Kamenetz said.

He added that he said he isn't worried about working with more Republicans to advance his agenda for the county. "We fill both Democratic and Republican potholes. We air-condition both Democratic and Republican schools," he said. "It's not effective to get involved in partisan politics at the local level."

But the county executive did criticize Hogan on the campaign trail, and now says he has every intention of pressing the new governor on the county's needs, particularly money for roads and to upgrade the county's aging school facilities.

"That starts with the administration. I want Governor-elect Hogan to be aware of what our needs are," Kamenetz said.

The two share common ground: Both Kamenetz and Hogan have raised questions about the future of the Red Line. Kamenetz is lukewarm to the idea, and Hogan has said he prefers spending transportation money on road projects instead of expensive mass transit.

Kamenetz said plans for the Red Line have become so costly he fears it would usurp all other transportation funding. Hogan made similar comments during the campaign, citing the multibillion-dollar price tags for the Red Line and a proposed Purple Line for the Washington Metro system.

"I appreciate Governor-elect Hogan's alternative strategies for mass transit," Kamenetz said.

The executive said he would rather explore other transit options, such as extending the Metro Subway line to Bayview and creating another spur from downtown Baltimore to the Social Security campus in western Baltimore County. Another alternative, he said, might be to designate a rail line or raised lane for buses or trolleys.

"There is a need for mass transit," Kamenetz said. But, he said, it needs to come at a lower cost.

In his second term, Kamenetz plans to continue to focus on development.

Sparrows Point shut down in 2012, but a new ownership group backed by the local investment firm Redwood Capital has agreed to a multimillion-dollar environmental cleanup, with plans to use the site for industrial uses. Kamenetz said he's been in close contact with the new owners, and said a "national employer" could be announced soon as the first tenant for Sparrows Point. He declined to name who it might be.

In Towson, the county executive has been a cheerleader for several projects in the downtown area, including the recently opened Towson Square and the massive mixed-use Towson Row project.

Kamenetz called Towson Row the centerpiece of a vision to make Towson a "vibrant" urban hub day and night. "I've always been impressed with a town like Bethesda," he said. "Towson can be Bethesda and more."

With three votes on the council — up from two — the Republican Party hopes to have a stronger voice in the county's affairs, said Fiastro. Eventually, the party wants Republican majorities on the council and among the delegates who represent the county in the General Assembly.

"Our goal as a party is to win every seat, but I don't want to be greedy. I'll take majorities," he said.

Bullock said a divided political landscape could actually could play into Kamenetz's favor.

"He's someone who has been building a good resume, leading a county that has good economic growth," Bullock said. If Kamenetz shows he can make progress and appeal to both parties, "it could bode well for him down the road — if he ever looks at a bid for governor."

pwood@baltsun.com

twitter.com/pwoodreporter

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