Earlier this month, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz delivered his final budget message to the County Council. He reflected on his 24 years in office, 16 years on the council, and the last eight years as county executive.
“Over the decades, I probably met with every single resident at least once,” Kamenetz said. “Or maybe it just feels that way.”
Kamenetz said each had a story to share, a problem to be solved. In an interview later he recalled Hubert Humphrey, the former senator from Minnesota who served as Lyndon Johnson’s vice president. Humphrey said the moral test of government is how it treats children, the elderly, the sick, the disabled, the needy.
“And I always remember those words,” Kamenetz said. “I thought, yeah, that’s the purpose of government.”
Kamenetz is one of two candidates in the crowded field for the Democratic nomination for governor who has actually run a government. The other is Prince Georges County Executive Rushern Baker.
Kamenetz believes his life has prepared him to be Maryland's next governor.
Kamenetz grew up in Lochearn, the youngest of five children. His father, a pharmacist, owned Kaye’s Pharmacy on Belair Road in Overlea. It was a port in the storm during the Jim Crow era for African Americans. Evelyn Chatmon, who grew up there, remembers walking nearby when a car full of white boys pulled up beside her.
“And they started harassing me,” Chatmon said. “So I started back the other way. I crossed the street and went in Kaye’s Pharmacy.”
Doc K, as he was called, had already hired Chatmon’s brother despite threats from customers that they would take their business elsewhere. Chatmon ran into Kamenetz years later, when he was on the county council, and told him his father had been a hero in her community.
Chatmon said Kamenetz reminds her of his father.
“He’s just a good man,” Chatmon said. “He’s smart as he can be. And he believes in diversity. You can see that.”
Kamenetz got involved in politics early. When he was a sophomore at The Gilman School, he worked on Maine Senator Ed Muskie’s 1972 presidential campaign for a term paper. Then, two years later he volunteered for Ted Venetoulis’s campaign for Baltimore County Executive. One of his jobs was to drive Venetoulis around.
Over coffee at the Towson Diner, Venetoulis said he remembers the teenage volunteer.
“He was kind of quiet, and did his work and was a safe driver, let me put it that way,” Venetoulis said.
Kamenetz graduated from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Baltimore law school and became an assistant state’s attorney in 1982. It was a job he said he loved.
Kamenetz said, “I was young. I was single. I carried a badge. I put away the bad guys. I played with the cops.”
Kamenetz said it also taught him to exercise authority wisely.
He left that job after five years and joined a law firm. But he continued to dabble in politics, and in 1994 won a race for the second district county council seat representing communities like Liberty Road, Woodlawn and Pikesville.
He held that seat for 16 years before winning the county executive race in 2010. Venetoulis said he saw Kamenetz grow while in office.
“You get to know just about everything,” Venetoulis said. “There isn’t anything someone can bring to you that you haven’t experienced or had to deal with when you’re in public life that long.”
Now at the end of his second term, Kamenetz can’t run again because of term limits. But if he could, Kamenetz said he probably would have run for a third term.
Councilman David Marks, a Republican, credited Kamenetz for running the county in a fiscally responsible way. And he said others underestimate Kamenetz.
“I think he’s very smart,” Marks said. “I think he is very disciplined. And he’s very strategic."
But Marks also said Kamenetz has self-inflicted wounds, like when he decided to move the Towson fire station to a public park and when he yelled at protesters at the Mays Chapel Elementary School groundbreaking in 2013.
Venetoulis said Kamenetz has a reputation for being argumentative.
“I think it’s because he does know more about things than other people and not have the patience to hear them through,” Venetoulis said. “And that’s a mistake.”
Kamenetz said he is a “tell it like it is” guy who wants to get things done.
“Sometimes that’s a fast pace,” Kamnetz said. “I guess people have got to keep up with me sometimes.”
In the race for governor Kamenetz said he is running on his record: no tax rate increases during his years as County Executive, body cameras for police, protecting undocumented immigrants in the county, smart technology that’s improving the delivery of county services, the revitalization of Sparrows Point, Towson and Owings Mills, and renaming Robert E. Lee Park a couple of years before the white supremacists demonstration in Charlottesville, VA.
As for his greatest achievement while in office, Kamenetz pointed to the $1.3 billion dollar program to renovate and replace 90 old schools. Academics aside, Kamenetz said a new school can help revitalize less-affluent neighborhoods. For example, Lansdowne is getting a new elementary school.
“It’s also going to give people reasons to want to move to Lansdowne which, if you think about it from the big picture, is a great investment for the county,” Kamenetz said.
Democratic Councilman Tom Quirk commends Kamenetz’s school building program, but he worries the executive is leaving the county holding the bag on how to pay for his promises in the years ahead.
Quirk said, “The next county executive and the next county council will really be forced with some significant challenges. How do we continue to pay for a lot of these commitments.”
Kamenetz dismissed those concerns, pointing out that the county has a triple A bond rating.
Governor Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot regularly criticized Kamenetz for moving too slowly to air condition schools and refusing to use less expensive window units. Kamenetz said that would have been a waste of money.
Democratic State Senator Jim Brochin, who is running to replace Kamenetz as county executive, said that sour relationship likely has cost the county.
“I just think Kevin’s played politics way too much with them and taken a shot at the governor and the comptroller every chance he can get.”
Kamenetz said it was Hogan who was attacking him, because the governor sees him as his strongest potential opponent.
“And I get that. I’ll take that as a badge of honor.”
A Goucher poll released this week gives Hogan a 17 point lead over Kamenetz in a theoretical head-to-head matchup.
Kamenetz has been married to his wife Jill for nearly 20 years. They have two teenage sons.