In the week before his death on May 10, 60-year-old Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz broke ground for a new elem- entary school in Dundalk, observed Fallen Heroes Day at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens, announced a new residential drug-treatment facility in Owings Mills, welcomed urban farming to Sparrows Point, visited senior centers in honor of Older Americans Month and signed an executive order to mandate that only healthy foods be available in county-controlled vending machines.
The blur of events was a representative sampling of the signature issues Kamenetz promoted during his decades as a county councilman and county executive: education, public safety, drug treatment, economic revitalization, senior welfare and healthy living.
It’s also a window into Kamenetz’s busy schedule and a reflection of his dedication to the county where he has deep roots: growing up in Lochearn, marrying, starting a family, settling in Owings Mills and building his successful political career.
In a February JT column decrying President Trump’s executive order banning travel from majority-Muslim countries, Kamenetz traced those roots back to his immigrant grandfather, who came to the United States from Russia in 1905 to escape czarist persecution. David Kamenetz settled in Jewish Baltimore and became a tailor, married and raised four children.
“Grandpa taught us to love this country’s opportunities,” Kamenetz wrote. “He taught us by example that if we worked hard in America, we could achieve our goals. We believed him because we knew that when he first arrived, he had less than a dollar in his pocket, a lot of hope and knew not a word of English.”
After Kamenetz’s sudden death from cardiac arrest, Jewish Baltimore fondly remembered the grandson of immigrants who worked his way up from helping out at his father’s Overlea drugstore and going to county public schools to attending the Gilman School, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Baltimore Law School.
After working as a prosecutor for the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office, Kamenetz was elected to Baltimore County’s District 2 council seat in 1994, serving four terms representing a diverse district that then included Randallstown and Pikesville.
[pullquote]“Grandpa taught us to love this country’s opportunities. He taught us by example that if we worked hard in America, we could achieve our goals.” — Kevin Kamenetz[/pullquote]
He then ran a successful campaign for county executive in 2010, following the departure of two-term county executive James T. Smith. As a young mustachioed county councilman, Kamenetz could often seem serious and at times gruff, but when elected county executive, he seemed to blossom and become more gregarious and content in his countywide role.
Kamenetz was in his second term and ramping up a campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, hoping to take on Republican incumbent Larry Hogan, when he died. There were just 48 days to go till Maryland’s primary.
At his funeral service, his wife Jill said Kamenetz was a loving and dedicated husband and father, who made sure to remember birthdays and anniversaries even when he was busy. And friend Rob Hoffman recalled Kamenetz making time in his hectic schedule to take his two boys to school.
But Jill Kamenetz said this past year was a rough one for the county executive, serving his second term while running for statewide office. She said the couple rarely saw each other, that he wasn’t sleeping or eating well and was looking tired.
“Just last week, I said to him, ‘Kevin, this campaign is killing you,’” she said at the May 11 service at their home synagogue, Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. But he was determined, she said. “He was in this to win it. He was driven and he loved what he was doing.”
“We are in a state of shock at our sudden, unimaginable loss. Kevin was my closest friend and the smartest person I’ve ever met,” Jill said later in a public statement. “He was absolutely devoted to our boys and me. He dedicated his life to public service because he believed passionately that government can and should make a positive difference in people’s lives, especially children and those who are most vulnerable.”
About 1,000 people attended the funeral service, including family, friends, colleagues and a host of city, county and state politicians from both sides of the aisle.
[pullquote]“We are in a state of shock at our sudden, unimaginable loss. Kevin was my closest friend and the smartest person I’ve ever met.” — Jill Kamenetz[/pullquote]
Like many others, U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin said he and his wife were shocked and heartbroken upon hearing the news, remembering Kamenetz “first and foremost” as a “family man.”
“This room is full of government officials, people who work in government. Democrats, Republicans, local, state and federal, all part of his other family, and on behalf of that other family, we lost a beloved member,” Cardin said at the service. “He lived his entire life in Baltimore County. He understood the county and its people. He was effective in dealing with the challenges of the past to chart a bright future for the people of Baltimore.”
Charles Klein, a friend from the Young Democrats club and his former campaign treasurer, said Kamenetz stuck to his beliefs.
“Once he made a decision, even when he knew it wasn’t popular, he would be convinced that he was right, and act immediately,” Klein recalled. “Some called this brash. But I called him brave.”
“His dedication to service will be missed by all of Maryland,” he added. “The results of hard decades of service will live on in Baltimore County and beyond in the state of Maryland.”
That sentiment was echoed by others in the Baltimore Jewish community, even those who didn’t always agree with Kamenetz’s politics and policies.
“For me, it’s personal, because he was my son’s roommate at Hopkins and I watched him grow up and develop into a really outstanding public servant and good father, good husband,” said former Baltimore City Councilwoman Rochelle “Rikki” Spector. “He was determined to do what he thought was right. He didn’t focus on public opinion and he didn’t focus on the political side of an issue.”
Spector didn’t always agree with him, she said, “but always I trusted his integrity and his bright, good thinking ability. He was a bright star that went out too soon. I think every Jewish mother and every mother that’s lost a son identifies with this wonderful young man and family. I just hope that his good name will be a comfort to Jill and to the boys.”
Spector’s son, Bruce, was Kamenetz’s roommate at Johns Hopkins in the mid-1970s.
“I was a senior, he was a sophomore,” Bruce said. “He was a wonderful guy. I am just so devastated. I feel so bad for his wife and kids. He was exceedingly bright. He was very interested in understanding all sides of an argument. He was just very deep, he was very thoughtful and very outgoing. Very funny, and just a nice guy.”
Bruce lauded Kamenetz’s work as a county councilman and county executive for helping county economic growth, while keeping costs in line.
Pikesville resident Ruth Goldstein didn’t always agree with Kamenetz, but she said politics weren’t important at a time like this. “It’s a tragedy for him and for his family, and his death reminds me of the fragility of human life. Sixty is way too young.”
“He was a worthy adversary and we always shook hands and he always had a hug and a smile for me,” Goldstein added. “We weren’t always on the same side of every issue, but I really respected enormously his staunchly progressive, Democratic positions that he championed over the last couple years. The executive order for immigrants in Baltimore County and his support for the Home Act — there were a lot of things that I really admired.”
David Carp of Pikesville echoed the sentiments of many in the days following Kamenetz’s death: “My thoughts and prayers go out to his entire family and the Baltimore community,” he said. “And right now I think we are all his whole family.”
Jewish community mourns
Kamenetz was a lifelong member of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, where Senior Rabbi Andrew Busch said he was a thoughtful and helpful leader.
“Kevin was very proud of having grown up in Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. He talked about it quite openly in settings far afield from the congregation,” Busch said. “In the decade I’ve been the rabbi here, if there was ever a question we had, he was quick to respond and help give us guidance.”
“It’s a tremendous loss to all of the communities that Kevin cared about, which is both the community he grew up in here in Baltimore and also the county and the state and all the other communities that make it up,” Busch added. “He was a committed, caring leader and community member.”
At The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, president Marc B. Terrill said Kamenetz’s legacy would endure.
“Kevin’s passing is incredibly shocking, tragic and so profoundly sad,” Terrill said. “He had accomplished so much as a family man, community builder, politician and leader. Kevin Kamenetz’s legacy will be felt for many years but the tragedy of this loss is incalculable.”
Howard Libit, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, called Kamenetz a “passionate and dedicated public servant,” noting that Kamenetz was committed to advocating on behalf of Baltimore County, the city and the state. He recalled Kamenetz urging Baltimore County residents to patronize Baltimore City restaurants and businesses in the wake of the unrest in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray.
“It was really important for him to see not just Baltimore County succeed, but Baltimore City and the region succeed,” Libit said.
During his work at the BJC, Libit said he appreciated Kamenetz’s support of anti- BDS legislation in the General Assembly and his support of the faith community when county synagogues and other religious institutions were impacted by a new stormwater fee a few years ago. But beyond the civic and political, Libit remembered Kamenetz as warm, personal and funny. He recalled Kamenetz taking a selfie with Libit’s daughter after a chance meeting at Rodgers Forge Elementary School.
“He texted it to me and I’ve kept that photo,” Libit said. “That was a memory that I wanted to have of him.”
[pullquote]“It was really important for him to see not just Baltimore County succeed, but Baltimore City and the region succeed.” — Howard Libit, executive director, Baltimore Jewish Council[/pullquote]
‘He loved Baltimore County’
The morning of May 10 was difficult for Vicki Almond, who was elected to the county council seat Kamenetz left behind when he moved into the county executive’s office. Almond has known Kamenetz since her community activist days.
“He was always willing to talk to me,” she said. “He was willing to hear me out. I could be pretty opinionated about things. We had some lively discussions and obviously we didn’t agree all the time, but I usually had his ear and I was always grateful for that.”
Almond said Kamenetz was a great supporter of the Main Street projects in Reisterstown and Pikesville and would always show up when invited to events in the 2nd District when Almond joined the council. And although Almond and the council often butted heads with Kamenetz, she said there was always mutual respect.
Almond, who is running for county executive in the upcoming 2018 election, suspended campaign activities for a few days out of respect for Kamenetz and his family, “to take the time to mourn and to remember all he did for Baltimore County,” she said. “I know he loved Baltimore County and he loved his family. I would say that unequivocally.”
In a November 2017 interview with the JT about the governor’s race, Kamenetz said his ambition to be governor was just an extension of all of his years in public service.
“I used to think that being assistant state’s attorney was the greatest job I’ve ever had, because I could achieve good things and help people,” Kamenetz said. “Now I say that the greatest job I have in politics is being county executive because I can achieve great things and help people. Now I want to be governor because I really want to achieve great things and help even more people.”
Kamenetz is survived by Jill and their two sons, Karson and Dylan. Contributions in his memory may be sent to the American Cancer Society, 405 Williams Court, Suite 120, Baltimore, MD 21220 or the Baltimore Humane Society, 1601 Nicodemus Road, Reisterstown, MD 21136.