Theodore G. “Ted” Venetoulis, the son of Greek immigrants who steered Baltimore County’s government out of a time of scandal and later worked in TV and publishing, died Wednesday. He was 87.
Venetoulis, a Democrat, was elected Baltimore County executive in 1974 and served one term, before losing the Democratic primary for governor in 1978.
He took control of a county government that had been rocked by scandal. Months earlier, Democratic County Executive Dale Anderson landed in federal prison after being convicted on charges of corruption and tax evasion. And in 1973, Republican Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned from office as part of an investigation into bribes he took going all the way back to his days as Baltimore County executive in the 1960s.
When Venetoulis announced his run for county executive in 1974, he explicitly said he was out to break the Democratic “machine” that supported Anderson and Anderson’s brief successor as county executive, Frederick L. Dewberry.
At the time, Venetoulis was a political strategist and said he chose to run himself after he could not find another candidate who could “offer the people of Baltimore County an alternative to the incumbent machine.”
After failing to win the gubernatorial nomination in 1978, Venetoulis said in an interview that he was proud of his four years leading the county.
“We didn’t fall into the trap of politics and we didn’t set up another machine,” he told a Baltimore Sun reporter.
“Some people may think we brought too much change too fast,” he said, “but do the people want to go back to the old machines and less openness? I’m hard put to feel that they didn’t want the kind of change we brought.”
Current County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. said he was “heartbroken” by the death of a man he considered a friend.
“One of our county’s earliest reformers at a moment when our communities needed it most, I will forever be grateful for the countless ways Ted gave back to our county, our region and our state, as well as for his counsel and encouragement to build upon his own rich legacy,” said Olszewski, a Democrat, in a statement Thursday.
“Baltimore County is a far better place today thanks to his many years of service,” he added.
Venetoulis got involved in politics long before he ran himself, working for politicians and running William Donald Schaefer’s first campaign for mayor of Baltimore more than 50 years ago.
Robert C. Embry Jr., a friend and president of Baltimore’s nonprofit Abell Foundation, said Venetoulis could have gone further in politics if he had stayed in it.
“He was an exceptional public servant,” Embry said. “Honest, empathetic, progressive and he really was a model citizen.”
After leaving elected politics, Venetoulis spent several years in the 1980s working in television, doing political analysis and special reports for WBAL. It was a natural fit: As county executive, Venetoulis earned the nickname “TV Teddy” for his affinity for appearing on television.
Dick Gelfman, a reporter who partnered with Venetoulis at WBAL, said the former politician also was adept at journalism and knowing what worked for a TV audience.
“He was doing the kinds of political analysis that really nobody was doing. Ted was direct, honest. He would say things in simple terms so people would understand it,” Gelfman said.
Venetoulis also had a politics show on WBAL called “Edition 11″ that ran for a few years in the 1980s, Gelfman said.
Venetoulis and Gelfman — who later became well known for his “Get Gelfman” consumer reports on WJZ — eventually became close friends, sharing monthly lunches together. Whenever they were dining out, people would always come up to the table to ask Venetoulis about politics and current events.
Venetoulis often worried about the divisive state of politics and the declining quality of journalism, but he always expressed optimism that things would improve, Gelfman said.
“He always had a positive spin, that things are going to be better,” Gelfman said.
Venetoulis was a regular panelist on “Square Off,” a Sunday public affairs show that ran on WJZ for years and continues as an online show. Host Richard Sher said Venetoulis always came to the set well prepared to talk about the issues of the day from the liberal point of view.
“He ate and slept Democratic politics. His knowledge of politics far surpassed most of the other panelists on the show,” Sher said.
“I think I do what I do on the air well, and I think it’s because I went through the elective process,” Venetoulis said in a Baltimore Sun interview on Election Day in 1986. “I’m in it now the way I like it most, as an interpreter, a teacher.”
Venetoulis was tight with Baltimore’s D’Alesandro political family, including Nancy D’Alesandro Pelosi, currently speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Pelosi said in a statement that Venetoulis was “a revered part of the fabric of our community” and also a warm, kind and brilliant friend.
“Ted was a reformer who believed deeply in making government more open to the people, and his leadership strengthened our democracy by bringing integrity, accountability and innovation to politics,” said Pelosi, a Democrat from California.
Susan Page, the Washington bureau chief for USA TODAY, reached out to Venetoulis when she was doing research for her book, “Madam Speaker: Nancy Pelosi and the Lessons of Power.” She said Venetoulis became an “invaluable and perceptive source” on Pelosi and the D’Alesandros and they stayed in touch.
“To the end, Ted was a happy warrior,” Page wrote in an email. “At a time politics has become so cynical, he remained an antidote.”
Venetoulis also worked in publishing, running community newspapers and magazines. At one time, he owned the Times Publishing Group, which published weekly newspapers including the Towson Times (now owned by Baltimore Sun Media). Venetoulis also bought San Francisco magazine and at one point, made a bid to buy The News American in Baltimore before it stopped printing in 1986.
By the early 1990s, his publishing efforts included the Orioles Gazette, which was printed twice-monthly in baseball season and once a month the rest of the year and had a readership of 30,000.
Venetoulis faced financial problems with his publishing businesses that led him to file for personal bankruptcy in 1993.
He stayed involved in local issues. In 2017, he was tapped to lead a commission that reviewed Baltimore County’s charter and recommend changes.
Baltimore County Councilman David Marks, a Republican who sponsored legislation that created the charter commission, lauded Venetoulis’ work on it.
“Ted Venetoulis approached the charter review with seriousness and in a spirit of bipartisanship, and set in motion a long-overdue evaluation of the mechanics of county government,” Marks said.
For more than a decade, Venetoulis was involved in an unsuccessful effort to purchase The Baltimore Sun from its corporate ownership and turn it into a nonprofit news organization.
He made his pitch for local ownership in a 2020 guest op-ed in The Baltimore Sun.
“If a city loses its professional sports teams, it loses its spirit,” Venetoulis wrote. “If a city loses its newspapers, it loses its soul. We fight to keep our ballclubs. It’s time to fight to keep our newspaper.”
Businessman Stewart Bainum Jr., who sought to buy The Baltimore Sun and later all of parent company Tribune Publishing, said Venetoulis was “the heart and soul” of the effort to bring the newspaper back to local ownership. The two talked multiple times a day during the thick of negotiations, which ultimately failed this spring when the paper was sold to hedge fund Alden Global Capital.
Venetoulis was generous in sharing his Baltimore expertise and connections, which was crucial for Bainum, who hails from Montgomery County. Venetoulis was relentless but overwhelmingly polite in his efforts, Bainum said.
“His persistence kept me on my toes,” Bainum said. “He had an ability to be assertive and confrontative, but in a very respectful way, so you never felt threatened by him.”
Michael Olesker, a former Baltimore Sun columnist and longtime friend, said Venetoulis saw the newspaper deal as a way to help the community.
“He didn’t expect to get any profit out of this, except that he saw this as a gesture of grace for his hometown,” Olesker said. “He was a real Baltimore guy at heart.”
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Olesker said Venetoulis was smart and kind.
“I’ve spent more than half a century writing about Baltimore people, from politics to everything else, and Ted was one of the nicest people I’ve ever known,” Olesker said. “He was eternally optimistic and cheerful, a guy who understood politics from the ground up.”
Venetoulis was born in 1934 and earned a bachelor’s degree from what is now Towson University and master’s degrees from the American University and the Johns Hopkins University.
He served in the Army, was on the board of directors of Columbia Bank Corp. and taught at Goucher College, Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
He was married with three children, according to his state biography.
A cause of death and funeral information was not available Thursday. His wife, Lynn Morrison Venetoulis, posted on social media that a “celebration of Ted’s amazing life” would be planned for the future.
Baltimore Sun reporters Frederick N. Rasmussen and Jacques Kelly and librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.