Kevin Kamenetz's sudden death ends steady rise in Baltimore County, Maryland politics

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz spent nearly three decades building a close-knit family, a successful legal career and a formidable political machine — all from the comfort of his native Baltimore County.

And for the past year, Kamenetz had taken his no-nonsense brand of Democratic politics on the road, traversing the state to amass a $2 million war chest to finance his bid to be Maryland’s next governor.

Then — suddenly — he was gone.

At around 2 a.m. Thursday, Kamenetz awoke at his Owings Mills home with chest pains, drove with his wife to a nearby fire station and collapsed. Less than 90 minutes later he was pronounced dead of cardiac arrest at a hospital in Towson, the seat of his political power and a chief benefactor of his pro-development policies.

The death of the 60-year-old immediately reshaped the political landscape in Baltimore County and Maryland.

“It’s just shocking,” said former Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith, echoing the dazed sentiment shared throughout the state’s political community.

Kamenetz’s family — his wife, Jill, their teenage sons, Karson and Dylan, and his four siblings — began preparing for his funeral at 2 p.m. Friday at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.

In Towson, administration officials worked through their grief to assure the county’s 832,000 residents that regulations provide for a clear succession plan: Veteran County Administrative Officer Fred Homan is now acting county executive until the seven-member County Council chooses someone to serve the last seven months of Kamenetz’s second term.

And with less than seven weeks before the June 26 Democratic primary election for governor, Kamenetz’s running mate, Valerie Ervin, learned she had until next Thursday to decide whether to run in his place or choose another candidate. It’s a decision complicated by Kamenetz’s success as a candidate: The well-funded campaign has already reserved more than $1 million in airtime for commercials.

Kamenetz was one of seven Democrats competing for the party’s gubernatorial nomination, and the most prominent from the Baltimore area. On Thursday, politicians set competition aside to express their shock, to extend condolences to Kamenetz’s family and to heap praise on their colleague. A Democratic gubernatorial forum scheduled for Thursday evening at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County was canceled and turned into a vigil for Kamenetz.

“He dedicated his life to public service, to making a difference and he helped to move Maryland forward,” said Ben Jealous, a rival in the Democratic primary.

Gov. Larry Hogan — the Republican whom Kamenetz hoped to challenge — ordered flags flown at half-staff and expressed his sorrow for the passing of a Democrat who never shied from a fight, whether with a political rival or an ally.

“He was a dedicated public servant in Baltimore County for more than two decades, and we join with the citizens of Baltimore County and all Marylanders in mourning,” Hogan said in a statement.

In his 24 years as a Baltimore County councilman and executive, Kamenetz amassed an array of accomplishments — renovating aging schools, revitalizing downtown Towson and never raising taxes — that made him a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination.

Critics described him as arrogant, and said he was more beholden to developers than to his constituents — particularly in Towson, where rapid development rejuvenated its downtown, but did little to expand open space. County residents complained to council members that Kamenetz and his top aides routinely dismissed their concerns.

Kamenetz made no apologies for a leadership style that some found abrasive but that others said was decisive.

“I’ll accept whatever criticism is out there. That comes with the job,” Kamenetz told The Baltimore Sun last week. “The real answer is the results. We’re getting things done and we’re not raising taxes, and I think we’ve got a host of solid accomplishments that will serve this county well for the next generation. That’s the bottom line.”

The youngest of five children of Irvin and Miriam Kamenetz, he grew up in Lochearn, where he worked the cash register for his father’s pharmacy. The family discussed current events around the dinner table, he said, sparking his passion for politics.

At the Gilman School, Kamenetz was in the political club and named “class politico” for the Class of 1975.

For a class assignment, he volunteered for Hubert Humphrey’s unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1972. In his recent interview, Kamenetz quoted Humphrey: “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those in the shadows of life — the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

“I found it inspiring,” Kamenetz said. “That is the purpose of government. Those are the goals I’ve always tried to achieve when making decisions.”

Gilman gave him his first taste of future Maryland politics. Also in the Class of 1975 was Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the future Republican congressman and Maryland governor.

The two disagreed on just about every issue over five decades, Ehrlich said Thursday, but “we never had an ill sense between us.”

“There was never any bitterness, any partisanship, mostly laughs,” Ehrlich said. “It was the way it was supposed to be.”

After Gilman, Kamenetz studied at the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Baltimore School of Law, and then Kamenetz began his career as a prosecutor in Baltimore. He also served on the Baltimore County Democratic Central Committee in the years before he was elected in 1994 to the Baltimore County Council. He represented the district that encompasses Pikesville and Owings Mills, where he made his home with his wife of 18 years.

When Smith was county executive from 2002 to 2010, he said, Kamenetz was the “go-to guy” on the council.

“He was the person I would go to first on the council to get his take on what we wanted to do,” Smith said.

Kamenetz served four terms on the council before succeeding Smith in 2010 as Baltimore County’s 12th county executive. He was re-elected in 2014 to his final term.

“He has worked diligently and hard for the citizens of Baltimore County for a long time,” Smith said.

Kamenetz described himself as impatient and direct. He said public service demands such urgency.

“I have always been the person who will look you in the eye and tell you the truth,” Kamenetz said. “That’s what we need from our elected officials.

“I’m also the guy who gets things done.”

Kamenetz said his style served him well when the painful closure of the Sparrows Point steel mill in 2012 put 2,000 people out of work.

“I had to look those steel workers in the eyes and tell them the truth: Steel wasn’t coming back,” he said.

Kamenetz had led a study to explore options for other uses for the property. Now Tradepoint Atlantic is remaking the old steel mill into an industrial campus with shipping, logistics and e-commerce companies setting up shop.

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, himself a former prosecutor and county executive, praised Kamenetz for tackling the issue head-on by exploring new options.

“He refocused the county’s efforts to finding new uses for the site,” Ruppersberger said.

Ruppersberger said Kamenetz was “exceptionally smart, extremely principled and always did what he felt was in the best interest of his community.”

Kamenetz often attacked his job as a lawyer would. He had a strong command of public policy and was known for his preparation.

Only rarely did he publicly let his emotions overtake him.

In one well-known episode in 2013, Kamenetz erupted at protesters who had disrupted a groundbreaking ceremony for Mays Chapel Elementary School in Timonium.

He turned to the protesters, pointed his finger and shouted: “It’s my job to talk, your job to listen right now.”

Some saw Kamenetz as impatient. The Rev. Alvin Gwynn, pastor of Friendship Baptist Church in Baltimore, said he was thoughtful and engaging.

“When he ran for county executive, he came and talked with me for an hour and a half, two hours,” Gwynn said.

The two discussed the intertwined histories of Baltimore’s black and Jewish communities. Gwynn impressed upon Kamenetz the importance of reaching out to African-Americans in the city. He praised Kamenetz for following through and showing genuine care for the city as he governed the county.

Kamenetz, he said, was “short on talk, long on work.”

Kamentz applied his work ethic on the campaign trail, spending evenings and weekends at forums and meet-and-greets while running Maryland’s third-largest county. He spent the evening before he died at a gubernatorial forum in Bowie, his second campaign event in two days.

Despite what Smith called a “serious” approach to his work and his dedication to his family, Kamenetz also had a lighter side — as when he barreled into the waters off Miami Beach Park in a promotional video for the county’s recreational areas.

Last month, the campaign trail led Kamenetz to a hotel room at the Gaylord National Resort and Conference Center. Kamenetz and his running mate, Valerie Ervin, tried to clean rooms alongside hotel employees. Kamenetz admitted to being perplexed by how to properly tuck a tight pillowcases.

“I was sweating,” Kamenetz said. He secured the endorsement of the union that represents hotel workers.

Kamenetz had been relishing the chance to use the endorsement and others in his attempt to defeat Hogan.

“When you have a track record, it gives you a sense of a person’s priorities — where they’ve been, what they’ve done, what they’ve tried to accomplish,” Kamenetz said. “It’s having that track record of experience and success, but also having that bold and thoughtful leadership for the future.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Erin Cox and Andrew Green contributed to this article.

ddonovan@baltsun.com

twitter.com/dougdonovan

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