Kevin Kamenetz softens edges on Baltimore County campaign trail

Master of policy looks to bolster friendly side

  • Kevin Kamenetz, a candidate for Baltimore County executive, talks with Kandy McFarland of Perry Hall at the Perry Hall-White Marsh Town Fair.
Kevin Kamenetz, a candidate for Baltimore County executive,… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
August 27, 2010|By Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore County executive candidate Kevin Kamenetz visited the Perry Hall- White Marsh Fair recently, being as amiable and neighborly as he could. You do these things in campaign season, especially when you're the sort of guy who might need to work on that part of your persona.

So Kamenetz made some friendly chitchat with folks on a bright Saturday afternoon about schools and traffic and flashed a gap-toothed smile, crouching to hand a few kids a purple campaign balloon and a necklace. It's what any candidate would do, but with Kamenetz, it seems part of a bigger project, an evolution.

By all accounts the 52-year-old lawyer from Owings Mills overachieves in his command of policy, but over the years has received guidance to work on his patience, humility and listening.

In the heat of a race, Kamenetz won't exactly acknowledge a need for improvement. He'll go this far: "I demand a lot of myself. I want others to have the same level of competence."

He allows also that his marriage to the former Jill Hoffberger 10 years ago, and the birth of two sons, ages 9 and 6, have changed things. It's not exactly "mellowing," he says. He calls it "a broadening of perspective. ... Having a wife and children is God's Ritalin. It evens you out."

In the 16th year of his political career, four-term County Councilman Kamenetz is in a tough contest for the Democratic nomination. His principal opponent, fellow Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, might have less money, less TV ad time, and by many accounts less command of policy details, but his genial personality has won him many friends in the 28 years he's been in politics.

Bartenfelder, a farmer from Fullerton, gets about three sentences out in the time it takes Kamenetz to speak a chapter about his ideas for better schools, budget management, safe neighborhoods and economic development. Bartenfelder is running hard, too, all the while maintaining an affable, easygoing persona.

Few would call Kamenetz easygoing. His friends say he's smart and hardworking, thoughtful, caring and decisive. Those who don't like him as much don't challenge that, but say he can be arrogant, taking credit for things the whole council does and making sure you know what he knows, and that he knows more than you.

One of his supporters, fellow County Council member John Olszewski Sr., has been introducing Kamenetz, the west-sider, around his territory on the east side, getting him talking with working-class people. He figures Kamenetz is the best man for the job of running the $2.56 billion operation that is Baltimore County government.

Olszewski, a big man with a brush mustache, sits in a booth at the Boulevard Diner in Dundalk and says that Kamenetz is "evolving."

At council work sessions, Olszewski said, listening to Kamenetz question people who were there with business before the county, hearing him phrase and rephrase a question until he got a clear answer, "I felt I was in a court of law."

On the one hand, that's a good thing, Olszewski said, because you need confidence to ask hard questions, "you need someone who's going to be tough and aggressive at times, when people aren't giving you the right answers." On the other hand, he said, he has offered Kamenetz some advice about the line between confident and cocky: "You're the smartest person on this council, but sometimes you come over the wrong way."

Eight years ago, the last time the seat was open, Kamenetz thought about a run for executive. But his first son had just been born, and he figured the time wasn't right. James T. Smith Jr., a Democrat, was elected and served two terms. With the departure of the term-limited Smith rolling around, Kamenetz figured the time is now.

That decision to delay gave him eight more years to build on his reputation as the council's most industrious student on issues. He's one of the most prolific in introducing legislation, filing bills that affect not only his own district, but the whole county.

It seems he's been gearing up for some role as a community fixer for much of his life.

Kamenetz grew up in Lochearn, just outside the Baltimore City line, on a street of brick homes where his eldest brother, Rodger Kamenetz, says he was "like the mayor of the neighborhood. … He was in and out of everybody's house. He knew everybody."

Rodger remembers his brother holding backyard "fairs" to raise money for muscular dystrophy and other causes, riding through the neighborhood on his bicycle getting out the word, trying to drum up a crowd. As a kid, he says, his brother was handing out fliers as a boy for a guy running for County Council.

"He's the one who wants to do something," says Rodger, a writer and retired professor of philosophy and English who lives in New Orleans. "That's probably him in a nutshell. ... He has a lot of identification with his neighborhood. He kind of viewed it as an extension of his family. ... He has a huge identification with Baltimore County."

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