Loyalty, remapping focus of council race

Redistricting efforts, support of Townsend issues for Dundalk seat

August 21, 2002|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

In Dundalk, the proud and gritty waterfront enclave built on a century of steel and ships, voters are evaluating the two candidates for the Baltimore County Council more on their sense of hometown loyalty than on political issues that settle most elections.

The race centers on a controversial legislative redistricting and lack of popularity of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

No Republicans have filed for the seat, so the Democratic primary Sept. 10 will decide who will represent Dundalk on the County Council.

In one corner, from the Battle Grove Democratic Club of Dundalk, is Baltimore County Councilman John "Johnny O" Olszewski Sr., who is seeking his second term.

In the other corner, his opponent, an independent community activist and businesswoman, Debi Golden.

The heavily Democratic, blue-collar Dundalk has in past elections been friendly to incumbents. But in this race, no one is certain about the outcome.

"There are some in Dundalk who would vote for Stalin if he were a Democrat," said Dundalk resident Thomas Toporovich, who served as secretary to the County Council for more than two decades.

"But this race is very interesting," Toporovich said. "At first, many people thought Debi Golden was just a long shot. ... Now they see her almost even money.

"Olszewski," Toporovich said, "has coat-tailed on Glendening and Townsend, and in Dundalk, KKT [Townsend] is not very popular."

And while issues such as education, crime and economic development concern voters, the larger topic is one of perceived betrayal by a politician who some say could have done more.

Golden and other critics said Olszewski made feeble efforts to work against Gov. Parris N. Glendening's redistricting plan, which carved Dundalk, an east-side community with a century of rich history, into four separate districts.

Those critics also say Townsend ignored letters from Dundalk leaders concerned about redistricting and did nothing to stop it. Olszewski is criticized for aligning himself with Townsend, whose favor he has courted for several years.

"Johnny O supported Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and her boss, the governor, on the legislative redistricting plan that would have eradicated this historic community," said Golden. "Johnny O tried to play both sides but it didn't work. People were, and are, paying attention."

But Olszewski said, "My opponent had nothing to do with the redistricting issue. ... I was very much involved and fought it. She's way off."

Olszewski said he was a plaintiff in one of the suits filed against the redistricting and that he attended several court hearings on the issue.

And, he said, he has helped direct funding into the area for projects such as a new soccer stadium in North Point Village and a streetscape plan for Dundalk Avenue.

Golden, 41, co-owner with her husband, Gene, of Golden Signs Co. in Dundalk, has tapped into a network of community associations through her association with the Greater Dundalk Alliance and Dundalk Renaissance Corp., a nonprofit group trying to bring redevelopment dollars and projects to Dundalk.

"Housing and economic development are important issues, but the redistricting attempt by the governor ... really brought people out," Golden said.

Olszewski, Golden said, is a strong supporter of Townsend and through that relationship has "let his own district down" by not being vocal or visible enough to help defeat Glendening's redistricting plan, which was reversed in June by the Maryland Court of Appeals.

Such talk brings Olszewski to a slow boil.

To some, Olszewski is a blue-collar kid who made good in local politics. He paid his political dues in the Battle Grove Democratic Club. He is 42, married, and works as an auditor for an automobile processing company.

"My opponent had absolutely nothing to do with the defeat of redistricting," he said. "It was her husband, not her, who fought it."

Gene Golden was one of the organizers of a rally in Dundalk's Heritage Park in June to protest Glendening's plan - two days before the Maryland Court of Appeals reversed it.

Under a shade tree at the rally, Debi Golden was signing up voters to work against the governor's plan. And she helped organize the first public meeting in the spring against redistricting at Dundalk Middle School - attended by hundreds of residents - and also helped distribute signs and fliers.

"For him to say that I haven't been involved from the very beginning shows precisely how out of touch he is," Debi Golden said.

But Democrats who support Olszewski, like Jean Jung, a former county school board member, think the incumbent "has done an excellent job. There is some feeling out there about redistricting, but I thought Johnny was involved appropriately."

Some say Dundalk's Fourth of July parade, however, provides a foreshadowing. When Townsend marched by the parade's spectators, few cheered.

"If Johnny continues to support her," said Hazel Kroen, who raised her family in Dundalk, "that could be the difference in this election."

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