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What Johnny O's victory means

Former Del. Johnny Olszewski Jr. won by a tiny margin in the Democratic primary for Baltimore County executive — after counting absentee and provisional ballots and re-counting by hand each and every one of the 87,000 ballots cast, he won by just 17 votes. But the political significance for the county and perhaps the state is enormous. Here are eight takeaways from his victory.

  • Baltimore County has traditionally been the home to centrist or conservative Democrats, but Mr. Olszewski proved there’s an energized progressive wing to the party that can be mobilized around issues like a higher minimum wage, public campaign financing and universal pre-K.
  • The last competitive general election for Baltimore County executive was 2002 — Democrat Jim Smith vs. Republican Doug Riley — but none in recent memory have offered a political contrast on the order of Mr. Olszewski vs. Republican Al Redmer Jr. Mr. Redmer isn’t so conservative as his defeated primary opponent. Del. Patrick McDonough, but he’s clearly to the right of Mr. Olszewski on economic and social issues.
  • Although the late County Executive Kevin Kamenetz became more progressive as his tenure wore on (and as he approached a run for governor), there’s a straight line that can be drawn from the keep-the-trains-running-on-time and keep-taxes-low platform of former County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger through the present. That goes both for policy and the way departments are run. Both Mr. Olszewski and Mr. Redmer offer change.
  • Although this race features two candidates from Baltimore County’s east side (Mr. Olszewski is from Dundalk and Mr. Redmer from Middle River), the vote-rich west side remains the key. Mr. Olszewski practically lived on the Liberty Road corridor during the primary (as did his closest rival, Sen. Jim Brochin). Now we’ll see whether a white, east side progressive can turn out the vote in the county’s growing diverse communities in the kind of numbers he’ll need to overcome Mr. Redmer’s expected strength in other parts of the county.
  • County executives don’t control the schools, but the fight over education in the county will be central to this race. Mr. Olszewski (a former teacher) espouses policies congruent in many ways with the emphasis on educational equity that the district has pursued under former Superintendent Dallas Dance and interim Superintendent Verletta White. Mr. Redmer, by contrast, emphasizes the need for stricter discipline in schools and sides with Gov. Larry Hogan in recent disputes over school governance.
  • Mr. Olszewski’s agenda is going to force a conversation about whether Baltimore County can afford even its basic needs at its current tax rates, much less universal pre-K and free community college. During the primary, he promised to reorder priorities and floated the idea of developer fees, but expect Mr. Redmer to force the issue more than Mr. Olszewski’s fellow Democrats did. Are county residents satisfied with what their current tax dollars can provide? We may find out.
  • Baltimore County is going to have to grapple with its problems of segregation and the lack of affordable housing. Mr. Olszewski fully supports a settlement the Kamenetz administration entered into with the federal government on affordable housing, including a promise to seek legislation preventing discrimination based on whether a prospective renter uses a federal housing voucher. Mr. Redmer has vowed to challenge the settlement in court.
  • Mr. Redmer was the candidate Governor Hogan wanted in this race. The two are closely aligned in style and policy, and there should be significant synergy between the two in turning out voters for the general election. But Mr. Olszewski plays the same role for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous. They are aligned on the issues, and they need the same coalition — progressives, minorities and people aghast at President Donald Trump — to turn out and win. Mr. Jealous needs to blunt Mr. Hogan’s ability to run up the score in Baltimore County, and Mr. Olszewski’s turnout operation should help him. That wouldn’t necessarily have been the case if Mr. Brochin — whose base includes Republican and independent swing voters — had won.

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