Highlights from Baltimore County executive Kevin Kamenetz's career. (Baltimore Sun staff video)
In the spring of 2015, a few weeks after the Freddie Gray fires and looting that sent the Maryland National Guard to West Baltimore, I took the No. 8 bus to Towson for a talk with Kevin Kamenetz about the city's troubles. I was surprised and encouraged by what I heard.
I had considered Kamenetz to be a classic, middle-of-the-cul-de-sac suburban Democrat, more cautious about policy than he had to be. Shortly after he became Baltimore County executive in 2011, he had scoffed at the idea of the more affluent county supporting its namesake city in any way.
But five years later, I found Kamenetz to be a thoughtful, pragmatic progressive, acutely aware of the city's problems and concerned that similar issues — tensions with police, for starters — could come to Baltimore County. As a government executive, he had viewed the mess in Penn-North as a teaching moment.
"We are just one bullet away from being a Ferguson," he said, referring to the police shooting of an unarmed black man in suburban St. Louis County, Mo., eight months before the death of Freddie Gray from injuries sustained in police custody.
In the aftermath of the April 2015 troubles in Baltimore, there had been a lot of talk about addressing poverty, high unemployment, blight and the lack of decent, affordable housing. Along with police excessive force, those problems had existed in Baltimore for decades. Now, suddenly, eyes everywhere seemed to be wide open to them.
This year marks two decades since two important events in the efforts to get Baltimoreans to face hard truths about Baltimore — David Rusk's warning that a city in decline could pull the whole metropolitan region down and the filing of a major class-action lawsuit to end decades of segregative housing policy that left the city with a disproportionate share of the region's poor.
Something else had just happened: Harvard researchers, led by an economist named Raj Chetty, released the results of a comprehensive study on poverty and social mobility. They found that a government-supported program to move families out of high-poverty neighborhoods to low-poverty neighborhoods in cities and suburbs — a program that even liberal politicians had refused to defend — showed huge benefits: The children in those families had much better life outcomes in terms of jobs and income, education and marriage than children who remained behind.
The researchers, examining 20 years of data on millions of U.S. households, rated Baltimore just about the worst place in the nation in getting poor children to a better life as adults. Kids from our poorest neighborhoods faced terrible prospects for upward mobility.
I wanted to talk to Kevin Kamenetz about all this.
He was six months into his second term as county executive and chair of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, the nonprofit body that brings mayors and county executives together to address regional problems.
I saw Baltimore's problems as the region's problems and wondered if there could be a bipartisan, city-suburban, public-private effort to address the deep-seated issues that surfaced with April's rioting.
That's when Kamenetz mentioned being "one bullet away," and he was frank about what needed to happen: The county police had to have body cameras. The police leadership, already making progress on racial and gender diversity in the force, needed to double down on those efforts. He wanted county officers to be even more engaged in the communities they serve.
And Kamenetz had more to say about housing, acknowledging the county's long and shameful history of discrimination and resistance to public housing.
In the 1990s, the county's eastsiders fought off the program that Raj Chetty had found successful elsewhere in the country. In 2013, a county councilwoman was able to block a development of affordable, rent-to-own houses for working-poor families in Rosedale.
Kamenetz, well aware of this history and the prospect of the county being sued over it, struck an agreement with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to make room for city and county families who need affordable places to live and access to better schools. The county agreed to spend $30 million over a decade to help the private and nonprofit sectors build 1,000 homes for low-income, minority families in neighborhoods that do not have high concentrations of poverty.
Kevin Kamenetz, the pragmatic politician, stayed away from the public announcement of that agreement, but the progressive Kevin Kamenetz supported it. He also wanted to prohibit landlords from discriminating against people who use federal housing vouchers to pay rent.
He supported the city after the riots, asking county residents to visit Baltimore and patronize its restaurants. He refused to demand that the city pay the county $257,000 for police help in restoring order.
Kamenetz put big money into the county schools. He got the redevelopment of Sparrows Point rolling. But he also faced up to the thornier issues of police-community relations and affordable housing. And he was an optimist who recognized that the county — all of Maryland, for that matter — will be better off when Baltimore is. "This is a very challenging time for our region," he said last year, "when neighbors need to support each other."
That's something we seldom hear from political leaders around here. Kevin Kamenetz's death leaves a large void in the cause of city-county relations, the promise in regionalism, progressive government and honorable service to the common good.