Baltimore County Executive, Democratic candidate for governor Kevin Kamenetz dies

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Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz is interviewed by reporter Pam Wood as part of a gubernatorial candidate profile series. He is running for governor of Maryland in 2018. (Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz — a Democratic candidate for governor and a fixture in state and local politics for nearly a quarter century — died Thursday morning of cardiac arrest, officials said.

Baltimore County police issued a statement saying that Kamenetz, 60, had been transported by ambulance early this morning to University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center where he was declared dead of a cardiac arrest.

“Kamenetz was at his home in Owings Mills, asleep, when he awoke at about 2 a.m. and complained of feeling ill,” police said in a statement. “He was transported by the Garrison Fire Station’s Medic 19 to St. Joseph, where doctors pronounced him deceased at 3:22 a.m.”

The news stunned his friend, colleagues and Maryland’s political establishment.

“I am just sitting in my office numb,” said Don Mohler, his longtime aide.

The two-term county executive is survived by his wife, Jill, and the couple’s two sons.

Kamenetz’s running mate, Valerie Ervin, was shocked to learn of the news early this morning.

“I can’t even believe this happened,” Ervin said.

According to county regulations, The County Council will have to vote on a replacement for Kamenetz to serve the remainder of his term. Before a replacement can be appointed, the county’s administrative officer, Fred Homan, serves as acting county executive.

In his 24 years as a councilman and executive in Baltimore County, Kamenetz achieved a list of accomplishments — renovating aging schools, revitalizing downtown Towson, and never raising taxes — that made him one of the leading candidates in the June 26 Democratic primary election for governor.

His death will upend the political calculations in the race for governor both for Democratsand for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. For now, politicians across the state were still learning of the shocking news of the death of a hard-charging candidate and executive.

In a statement the governor said: “The First Lady and I are shocked and grieved by the sudden passing of Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. Our prayers go out to his family and many loved ones this morning.”

A rival Democratic candidate, Ben Jealous, echoed the sentiments.

“I’m incredibly saddened to learn of the passing of Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz,” Jealous said in a statement. “He dedicated his life to public service, to making a difference and he helped to move Maryland forward. My sincerest thoughts and prayers are with Jill and their two sons.”

Jealous said in a tweet he and Kamenetz were usually seated next to each other at forums because seating was alphabetical.

“I’ll always remember him for the grace and good humor he showed each of his fellow candidates as we’d line up backstage waiting to for the event to begin,” he tweeted.

Alec Ross, another rival candidate, said he, too, was shocked at the news of Kamenetz’s death.

“I’m shocked and saddened by the passing of Kevin Kamenetz,” he posted on Twitter. “My family sends our deepest condolences to Jill, his kids, and the people of Baltimore county.”

In a recent interview with The Baltimore Sun, Kamenetz made no apologies for his leadership style.

“I’ll accept whatever criticism is out there. That comes with the job,” Kamenetz said. “The real answer is the results. We’re getting things done and we’re not raising taxes, and I think we’ve got a host of solid accomplishments that will serve this county well for the next generation. That’s the bottom line.”

Kamenetz had been building to his gubernatorial run for years, even if he didn’t realize his political career would take him this far.

He grew up in Lochearn, the son of a pharmacist. Kamenetz often talked about learning from his father’s example while working the cash register at the pharmacy.

The family talked about current events at the dinner table, and Kamenetz became an early student of politics. As a student at the Gilman School, Kamenetz was in the political club and named “class politico” for the Class of 1975.

For a class assignment, he volunteered for Hubert Humphrey’s unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1972. Kamenetz could still recite a famous Humphrey quote from 1977: “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those in the shadows of life — the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

“I found it inspiring,” Kamenetz said. “That is the purpose of government. Those are the goals I’ve always tried to achieve when making decisions.”

He was also among the legion of politicians who invoke the late William Donald Schaefer, the hard-charging Democratic Baltimore mayor and governor famous for attention to detail and a sense of urgency.

“I fully appreciate his perspective of, ‘Do it now,’” Kamenetz said. “I’ve kind of modified it to say, ‘Let’s get it done.’ I embrace that mantle.”

So, too, has his counterpart in Baltimore, Mayor Catherine Pugh, who was saddened to learn of Kamenetz’s death.

“He’s been a friend and a supporter who always gave good advice. He will be missed as a leader in our state. My condolences to Jill and the family,” Pugh said.

“He was a great supporter of the city,” the mayor added. “He always promoted Baltimore in a positive way, encouraging people to visit and support the venues in the city.”

Don Mohler, who has been Kamenetz’s chief of staff and has known him for 20 years, said county government is “stunned.”

“All of us are stunned,” he said. “It’s a terrible shock.”

So was Kamenetz’s campaign staff.

“It’s shocking to say at the very least. We really don’t know how to put it into words. Right now, we’re focused on the fact he was the father to two teenaged sons,” Kamenetz campaign spokesman Sean Naron said.

County Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican, frequently disagreed with Kamenetz on policy issues but said he had great respect for him.

“My service on the Council coincided with his tenure as Executive,” Marks said. “While I did not always agree with him, County Executive Kamenetz was a strong and smart leader who provided 24 years of service to Baltimore County. My prayers are with his family during this difficult time.”

Kamenetz described himself in the recent interview at The Baltimore Sun’s offices as impatient and direct, saying public service demands such urgency.

“It’s who I’ve always been,” he said. “I have always been the person who will look you in the eye and tell you the truth. I think that’s what we need from our elected officials. I’m also the guy who gets things done.”

On the campaign trail, as he tried to set himself apart from a crowded field of other Democratic candidates, Kamenetz embraced this aspect of his personality.

One of Kamenetz’s first lines had been a pledge to “look you in the eye and tell you the truth.”

Speaking before about two dozen Democrats at the Linthicum Library this spring, a man in the audience asked about exempting military pensions from income tax.

Where some candidates might have tried to appease the questioner, Kamenetz gave the man an unpopular answer, but one he believed in. Kamenetz said it’s not wise for the state to go down a path of telling some people that they don’t have to pay taxes. If someone pays less, then that means someone else has to pay more, he said.

“I kind of view this as we’re all in this together,” Kamenetz said.

As another example of when it was necessary to be direct, Kamenetz often talked about the disappointing closure of the Sparrows Point steel mill in 2012 putting 2,000 people out of work.

“I had to look those steel workers in the eyes and tell them the truth,” Kamenetz said. “Steel wasn’t coming back.”

Kamenetz led a study to explore options for other uses for the property. And now Tradepoint Atlantic is remaking the old steel mill into an industrial campus with shipping, logistics and e-commerce companies setting up shop.

U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger credited Kamenetz with having a bigger vision for the old steel mill than others.

“I was one of those who fought continually for steel,” Ruppersberger said. “Kevin looked into the future and said, ‘Steel isn’t coming back.’ And instead he refocused the county’s efforts to finding new uses for the site.”

Ruppersberger, himself a former Baltimore County executive, said it’s that kind of vision and determination that made Kamenetz the best choice to lead the state.

“I want the same honest and forward-thinking leadership in the state of Maryland,” Ruppersberger said.

Kamenetz, a former prosecutor, often attacked his job as a lawyer would. He had a strong command of public policy and was always prepared with facts to make his case.

Only rarely did he let his guard down. One of those times was in 2013, when protesters disrupted a groundbreaking ceremony for Mays Chapel Elementary School in Timonium.

As the protesters tried to drown out the county executive’s remarks, Kamenetz turned to them, pointing his finger and shouting: “It’s my job to talk, your job to listen right now.”

And while some saw Kamenetz as impatient, Rev. Alvin Gwynn said he had found him to be thoughtful and engaging.

“When he ran for county executive, he came and talked with me for an hour-and-a-half, two hours,” said Gwynn, pastor of Friendship Baptist Church in Baltimore.

The two discussed the intertwined histories of Baltimore’s black and Jewish communities. Gwynn impressed upon Kamenetz the importance of reaching out to African-Americans in the city. He praised Kamenetz for following through and showing a genuine care for the city as he governed the neighboring county.

“He’s a straight-up good guy,” Gwynn said of Kamenetz. “He doesn’t make a lot of noise, but he gets things done … Short on talk, long on work.”

Kamentz has applied his work ethic on the campaign trail, spending evenings and weekends at forums and meet-and-greets while still running Maryland’s third-largest county.

Last month, the campaign trail led Kamenetz to a hotel room at the Gaylord National Resort and Conference Center, where he found himself struggling with a pillow case as he and Ervin worked alongside hotel employees.

Housekeeper Karen Allen had showed Kamenetz how to tuck the ends of the pillow case so it would have a nice, secure edge. But Kamenetz just couldn’t manage to replicate it.

“I don’t know how you did it,” Kamenetz said, puzzled by the deceptively difficult task. “Show me?”

So Allen showed him again, and he tried again until he got it right.

“I can tell you: I was sweating,” Kamenetz said later.

The two candidates secured a valuable endorsement from Unite Here Local 25, a union that represents hotel workers.

Kamenetz had also been relishing the chance to try to unseat Hogan. The two already have battled on issues as diverse as the pace of installing air conditioning in schools and whether the county should pay for midge eradication in Back River.

“When you have a track record, it gives you a sense of a person’s priorities — where they’ve been, what they’ve done, what they’ve tried to accomplish,” he said in the interview. “It’s having that track record of experience and success, but also having that bold and thoughtful leadership for the future.”

Via Baltimore Sun

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Baltimore County Executive, Democratic candidate for governor Kevin Kamenetz dies. Gone too soon. Rest in peace. (RIP).

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