Baltimore County Executive Don Mohler reflects on his brief and unexpected tenure leading the state's third-largest county. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun video)
Don Mohler comes across as a Baltimore County good old boy, an aw-shucks Catonsvillian who wouldn’t have looked or sounded at all out of place in the halls of Towson’s old courthouse decades ago. But in his unexpected seven-month stint as Baltimore County executive, he has provided something more than a reassuring presence to residents reeling from the sudden death of his predecessor, boss and friend, Kevin Kamenetz. He was a steady hand, to be sure, but he also served as an example of how Baltimore County can emerge from a sleepy past to make the hard decisions that will lead toward a better, more inclusive future.
Mr. Mohler emerged as the consensus choice to serve out the remainder of Mr. Kamenetz’s term only after the County Council wised up to the reality that elevating one of its own members (in particular, Councilwoman Vicki Almond, who was running in the Democratic primary for executive at the time) would have left a sour taste in voters’ mouths. Mr. Mohler was broadly acceptable to all sides, had no personal political ambition himself and unquestionably qualified, given his 16 years as either a spokesman or chief of staff to Kamenetz and his predecessor, James T. Smith Jr., as well as 30 years in the school system. He could both keep the trains running on time and offer a comforting familiarity to county residents.
But over the years, Mr. Mohler had clearly developed an appreciation for political courage of the sort that is too often in short supply in Baltimore County, a place where politicians have historically been rewarded for keeping things (chiefly, the property tax rate) the same, not pushing for change. Particularly in his early days, Kamenetz had been a shrewd and calculating politician, but as his time as executive wore on, he became more outspoken on right but potentially unpopular causes. During that evolution, Mr. Mohler was by his side, whether the issue was helping Baltimore City after the 2015 unrest, fostering the development of affordable housing or equipping county police officers with body cameras.
That willingness to take risks if it means doing the right thing proved important during Mr. Mohler’s brief tenure as executive, which will end Monday when John A. Olszewski Jr. is sworn in. Hours after the council selected him to fill Kamenetz’s term, Mr. Mohler was at the viewing for Amy Caprio, the Baltimore County police officer who had been killed in the line of duty, allegedly by a Baltimore City teen who along with friends had stolen a car and driven to Perry Hall to commit burglaries. Had he sought to cast blame rather than foster healing, that situation could have gotten much uglier than it did. Similarly, when some council members proposed limiting bus service to the White Marsh mall after a large fight among teens there, Mr. Mohler stood against reactionary politics and reminded county residents that we can’t wall off Baltimore City.
When he worked for Messrs. Smith and Kamenetz, Mr. Mohler was never out for himself, and he stayed that way as county executive. He pushed through the largest water and sewer rate increase the county has seen in years to accelerate upgrades of crumbing infrastructure rather than take a more modest (and politically popular) course and hand a bigger bill to his successor. He negotiated an infrastructure assistance package for the Tradepoint Atlantic development at Sparrows Point — about half of what Tradepoint initially requested — but instead of rushing to sign it himself, he left the final choice to the new executive and council, while at the same time heaping praise on Kamenetz.
For all his years around county government, Don Mohler was no politician. He never ran for office, and we think it’s a safe bet that he never will. Maybe that’s why he wasn't afraid to tell the truth, avoid small-mindedness and do what he thought was right. Still, we suspect Mr. Mohler will be the rare Baltimore County executive who leaves office at least as popular as he was when he came in. Baltimore County's actual politicians could learn a thing or two from that.