Kevin Kamenetz's legacy: Understanding Baltimore County's past, seeing its future

Kevin Kamentz used to joke that when he ran for County Council, he grew a mustache to look older, and when he ran for county executive, he shaved it to look younger. But more than that changed during his two-plus decades of service to Baltimore County. The young, smart and brash councilman from Pikesville became a thoughtful and, at crucial times, courageous leader of a sprawling, diverse county and a strong candidate for governor. His shocking death early Thursday morning leaves a void in the region and sharpens questions about the direction Baltimore County will take.

On the council, Kamenetz was the one who understood the details, knew the law and saw the angles, in both politics and policy. Whether he was serving as the body’s chairman or not, he was the group’s natural leader. In 2010, when he ran for his first term as executive, he ran on his experience and his vision for bringing innovation to a county that was too often mired in a vision of its past self.

He didn’t completely upend Baltimore County politics — he still listed keeping property and income tax rates flat in the first sentence of his accomplishments, and he left in place many of the same managers who had kept the government running predictably and efficiently for years. But he did recognize that the county was a changing place with new needs, and rather than pandering to nostalgia, he challenged his fellow political leaders and his constituents to do the same.

In 2015, after the Freddie Gray riots, a time when fears and anxiety about Baltimore City was so high that the Orioles played a game to an empty stadium, Kamenetz recorded a message urging county residents to return to the city to go to restaurants, museums and movies. He knew he would be pilloried for it by the city-phobic crowd among his constituents — and he was — but he did it anyway.

A year later, his administration completed five years of negotiations with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development on a sweeping affordable housing desegregation agreement. If there was a more politically toxic issue in Baltimore County, it would be hard to find it. A minuscule program to help some city residents move to county neighborhoods in the 1990s had set off a full-scale political revolt, and the county’s increasing diversity in the years since had only hardened those divisions. Yet Kamenetz not only accepted an agreement that the county spend millions to support the construction of affordable housing in neighborhoods that lack it but he championed a proposal to prevent landlords from discriminating against holders of federal housing vouchers. Those who think he did that to further his gubernatorial ambitions are flat wrong — the idea remains anathema in county politics, and it didn't help him at all with what would have needed to be his electoral base. But he believed it was the right thing to do, and he did it whole-heartedly.

Kamenetz’s sharp edges still emerged from time to time. His caught-on-video shout-down of protesters at the site of a new Mays Chapel elementary has become infamous, and he pulled no punches in accusing Gov. Larry Hogan of meddling in county affairs. But his true legacy will be as a thoughtful leader who understood the county’s past but also saw its future. His death leaves a void in the governor’s race but perhaps more crucially underscores the crossroads at which Baltimore County finds itself. It is no longer the sprawling conglomeration of sleepy, homogenous suburbs that it became in the last century but is now an aging and increasingly urbanized place with all the challenges and opportunities that presents. Kevin Kamenetz faced that head-on. Will the county’s next generation of leaders have the courage to do the same?

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