Dundalk's political changing of guard New era expected as Olszewski joins Balto. County Council

November 09, 1998|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Democratic Baltimore County Councilman Louis L. DePazzo, once Dundalk's political hero, was fading. His off-color language had grown more obnoxious, his blustery style had become a tattered cliche. For years, he had been endorsing Republican candidates even as he frequently crossed his constituents.

"Lou eventually flew too close to the sun," said Tom Baldwin, president of Battle Grove Democratic Club. "Time had come to cut the cancer off Dundalk. Lou DePazzo had to go."

He went, losing in the primary election to John "Johnny O" Olszewski, a 38-year-old upstart from the ranks of Battle Grove's leadership who went on to run unopposed last week and win the 7th District council seat.

Now, some east siders are looking to Olszewski to help erase a lingering negative stereotype of Dundalk, a community steeped in the nation's steel and shipbuilding past but hit hard by the loss of tens of thousands of solid blue-collar jobs.

"For years, DePazzo perpetuated that image of Dundalk -- redneck, narrow-minded, illogical," said Jean Jung, an activist and Dundalk resident for nearly 40 years. "He was a genius at walking into a group and capitalizing on people's fears.

"When he was frightening people in Dundalk with the Moving to Opportunity issue, the elderly sold their homes, frightened their entire neighborhood was being invaded," Jung said. "DePazzo's negativism finally caught up with him."

Moving to Opportunity was a plan to move poor families into suburban neighborhoods.

Olszewski, the father of three, will represent about 60,000 constituents, a diverse group from poor families to residents with expensive waterfront homes on Millers Island. Land-use issues and the revitalization of older neighborhoods will dominate the political agenda.

Olszewski and the council's other newcomer, Towson Republican Wayne M. Skinner, will be sworn in at the Dec. 7 meeting.

Putting in the work

Olszewski's climb to the County Council was testimony to his work in the community and at Battle Grove, one of the nation's oldest political clubs with a membership of about 700.

The club was founded in 1933 and chartered 10 years later, two buildings on a corner lot on New Battle Grove Road. Since then, the organization's leadership has been visited by virtually every Democratic county politician seeking the club's blessing and support.

Olszewski did the morning wave to motorists, campaigned door to door and went to the $15 fund-raisers and the $100-a-plate soiree before the general election. His workers also planted 1,000 signs in the community.

Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall Democrat, describes Olszewski as a "very ambitious guy who ran for all the right reasons, to make a difference in his district."

After his primary victory, Olszewski met with top county officials such as Robert L. Hannon, economic development chief; John L. Weber III, recreation and parks director; and County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger.

"Some folks thought I would be uncomfortable in Towson," Olszewski said. But, he added somewhat in jest, "I managed a Kmart -- the 'Blue Light Specials' and presiding over that pandemonium prepared me for anything."

Eastwood roots

Olszewski was born and raised in Eastwood with five brothers and three sisters. His father, who retired from Continental Can Co. and then drove a cab and cut hair, died from diabetes-related illnesses. His mother ran the busy household and occasionally separated the brothers when they fought in the close confines of the bedroom they shared.

"Dad gave me my strength and balance, mom was my moral compass," Olszewski said.

"My father always told me there was a lot of value in paying your dues, no matter what job you were doing."

Olszewski and his neighborhood pals played stickball and later organized sports such as baseball, basketball and soccer. "Losing didn't bother me. I just examined what went wrong and tried to correct it."

Olszewski took his love of sports into the county recreation leagues and began coaching. Between games and rec council meetings, he became a familiar face in Dundalk.

Today, Olszewski and his family live in the shadow of the Sparrows Point steel mill, the site of an early disappointment.

"Nearly everybody tried to get a job at the Point," he recalled. dTC "Shortly after I graduated from high school, I spent the entire night waiting for the Point's employment office to open. When the office opened, me and the others who had camped out all night ran [to the office] and the guy in charge refused to give us applications because we ran. It was unbelievable."

Olszewski landed his job with Kmart instead. Later he worked for a sheet metal company and, 19 years ago, signed on with a company that installed parts in autos when they were brought by ship into the Dundalk port.

He now works "on this side of the tunnel" for Crown Auto Processing Services Inc., preparing cars for delivery to auto dealerships.

'Johnny O'

As a politician, Dundalk's new councilman knows that voters struggle to remember and pronounce his name (Ol-CHEF-ski). During the campaign, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend stumbled over his name as she introduced Olszewski at an Edgemere political event.

"My name certainly isn't a household word. That's why we were successful with 'Johnny O,' " he said.

Unlike his predecessor, Olszewski is deliberate and nonconfrontational.

"I'm not going to set any speed records, but I'm going to proceed slowly, listen and bring people closer to the council," he said.

"I'm hard to provoke," he added. "I let someone else do the worrying and take my time deciding on an issue. When it's time, I will be heard."

Pub Date: 11/09/98

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