Roughly Speaking Dan Rodricks: Commentary and conversation on life in Baltimore, Maryland and the USA

Back at Chestnut Ridge, Jill Kamenetz votes for 'the smartest guy I ever knew'

She went out in the rain to her polling station in Baltimore County and voted for the smartest man she ever knew. On a day whose approach she had dreaded, Jill Kamenetz voted for her late husband for governor of Maryland. She skipped past Larry Hogan, the Republican incumbent, and Ben Jealous, his Democratic challenger, and wrote Kevin Kamenetz’s name on the ballot.

“You did that with love,” I said.

“I did,” she answered. “And respect.”

Thousands of Americans faced obstacles in voting on Tuesday, but not in the way Jill Kamenetz did. Her voting station is the Chestnut Ridge Volunteer Fire Company, a place she’ll always associate with her husband. It’s where they took their sons, Karson and Dylan, for snowballs in summer. Every election day, she and Kevin voted there together. And Chestnut Ridge is where, last May, Kevin Kamenetz, the Baltimore County executive and a Democratic candidate for governor, drove after waking up at his home with pain in his chest. Two volunteers tried to save his life. So did a medic team from the Garrison Fire Station. Kamenetz died from cardiac arrest shortly after 3 a.m. at St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson.

Before Tuesday, Jill Kamenetz had not been back to the fire station since the terrible morning of May 10.

When she awoke, she thought about her husband and how November 6 might have been the day he was elected governor. She thought about going to the polls with Karson, 17, but decided to go alone.

“That must have been tough,” I said.

“It was,” she said. “It’s the last place we were together. But if there is one thing that I have learned through this, it’s that I’m tougher than I ever thought I could be.”

Kevin Kamenetz died in the final stretch of the Democratic primary campaign. A second-term county executive who had devoted more than a third of his 60 years to government and public service, he was an astute, no-nonsense politician who moved to the left of center as he prepared to challenge a Republican governor.

We will never know what might have happened had he caught Jealous in the primary and been given the chance to take on Hogan in the general. But clearly, Kevin Kamenetz would have given Maryland voters something they did not get in a Democratic nominee this year — an experienced public official who had successfully managed a large and changing county, who had command of facts and policy, who mixed the practical with the progressive.

“He was the smartest guy I ever knew,” Jill Kamenetz says. “And Kevin wanted to do good, he really did. That’s what drove him.”

Kevin Kamenetz’s example of devotion to good government at the local level stands in staggering contrast to what the Trump administration represents — subversion of the various functions of government at its highest levels with willful neglect, incompetence and chaos. The people who currently lead the federal government appear to have no interest in seeing it serve the general welfare.

Kamenetz, by contrast, gave career politicians a decent name. “His goal was problem-solving, often creatively, rather than roiling the waters to advance personal objectives,” wrote Barry Rascovar in his Political Maryland column. “Baltimore County is a much more livable and secure community because of his near quarter-century of labor on the county’s behalf.”

Kamenetz might have lacked charisma and affability, but his wife was working on that. She accompanied her husband to dozens of events and gatherings — “I was the party girl,” she says — and she served as his personal-skills coach and unofficial campaign consultant. “He would stand like this in a room full of people,” Jill Kamenetz says, crossing her arms across her chest. “I would whack him and say, ‘Undo that. You don’t stand like that and talk to people.’ ”

As much as she enjoyed the social aspects of Maryland politics, the campaign for governor was different, much more demanding. Jill Kamenetz spoke at the funeral about the physical toll running for governor while running Baltimore County had taken on her husband. It was killing him, she said.

“But ... he wouldn't have it any other way. He was in this to win it. He was driven, he loved what he was doing.”

She found letters from his elementary school teachers encouraging Kevin to run for office one day. He loved politics and government.

In 2014, when he won a second term as county executive, Kamenetz assumed it would be his last four years in public life. But Hogan scored an upset victory the same night. Within minutes, Jill Kamenetz says, her husband decided that he would run for governor against him in four years.

Jill Kamenetz had predicted a Hogan win in 2014, but she believed that her husband would unseat him on Election Day 2018. “This was supposed to be his day,” she said, and wrote Kevin’s name on the ballot.

drodricks@baltsun.com

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