Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz says he has been preparing for this moment his entire political career.
From Johns Hopkins University undergraduate to the University of Baltimore School of Law to Baltimore City assistant state’s attorney to Baltimore County councilman to county executive, Kamenetz has moved deliberately, always building credentials for the next step.
Now, he’s seeking a promotion to the governor’s mansion. And with the June 26 primary inching closer, Kamenetz has leapt into full campaign mode.
“We need a governor who has the passion and the energy to lead this state and not simply settle for standing still,” said Kamenetz, who is Jewish, in a recent interview with JT. “As county executive, I’ve gotten real results.”
Kamenetz, 59, a lifelong Baltimore County resident, is one of nine candidates vying for the Democratic nomination in the primary, the winner of which will challenge Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.
The other candidates are Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker; former NAACP president and CEO Ben Jealous; state Sen. Richard Madaleno; policy consultant Maya Rockeymoore Cummings; tech entrepreneur Alec Ross; attorney Jim Shea; former Michelle Obama policy director Krishanti Vignarajah; and teacher Ralph Jaffe.
Hogan and Kamenetz have butted heads frequently on a number of hot-button issues. They have offered contrasting views on the decision to start school after Labor Day, state budget priorities and immigration policies, among others.
Kamenetz says he sees the governor’s job not as just another steppingstone, but as a challenge that his experience leading Maryland’s third-largest jurisdiction since 2010 makes him the best candidate.
“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,” said Kamenetz, who will leave office next year after serving the maximum two terms. “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.”
From his childhood years in Lochearn, Kamenetz says he has had a burning desire to put the needs of others before himself.
Politics, he realized, was his ticket to make that happen.
“We’re the sum of our parts, and this has always been an important part of my life. It certainly guides who I am today,” said Kamenetz, who resides in Owings Mills with his wife, Jill, and their sons, Karson, 16, and Dylan, 13. “Jill and I want to make sure that our children have even better opportunities than we did growing up.”
He says it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he’s a lifelong Democrat, considering his family’s roots.
His grandfather, David, escaped czarist persecution in his native Zhager (now part of Russia) in 1906 and immigrated to United States. At the time of his arrival, David had “less than $1 in his pocket, did not know a word of English but had a suitcase full of hopes and dreams,” Kamenetz said.
As the Kamenetz family became ingrained in the fabric of Jewish Baltimore, tzedakah was a value that was passed on to future generations, he said.
“My grandfather [who was Orthodox] came to view America as the greatest place on earth,” said Kamenetz, who worships at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. “I think we as Jews have an obligation to make sure others have those same opportunities that we have been granted.”
The youngest of five children, Kamenetz spent his days after school working at his father’s corner drugstore in the blue-collar Overlea neighborhood. Working alongside his father and four siblings, he said, he learned the value of hard work, personal responsibility and persistence and understood that to be successful in politics, he needed to embody those traits.
Inklings of a career in politics for Kamenetz started when he was president of the politics club at Gilman School. He did not follow in his father’s footsteps as a pharmacist, “much to my father’s disappointment, I suspect,” he said, grinning.
A lawyer by trade, Kamenetz got his start in politics in 1979 when he worked on then-Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schafer’s re-election campaign. Over the years, he said, he has gotten to know every governor since the late Marvin Mandel, Maryland’s first and only Jewish governor, and has observed each to see how they’ve lead.
For Kamenetz, “the best mark of a man, woman or government is how they treat those who are less fortunate. That’s something I have really carried with me.”
In a time of divide and intransigent politics, Kamenetz is banking on policy, pragmatism and what he calls a successful track record as county executive to become Maryland’s 63rd governor.
On the campaign trail, he points to his experience in public office and as a lawyer as two of his biggest selling points. Kamenetz has traveled throughout the state, visiting all 24 jurisdictions in his role as president of the Maryland Association of Counties.
“I’ve run now in nine consecutive elections, and fortunately, the voters have chosen me each time,” Kamenetz said. “They have confidence in my abilities. I intend to win a 10th time.”
Kamenetz officially launched his long-anticipated campaign in September. He lists creating jobs, improving schools and protecting the environment — all without raising taxes — among his proudest accomplishments.
As county executive, he helped launch a $1.3 billion program to pave the way for the construction of new school buildings and the renovation and installation of air conditioning in others. He facilitated a deal to redevelop the former Bethlehem Steel site in Sparrows Point into a global port and distribution center, which, he says, will create 17,000 jobs. He also devoted county resources to construct a public library branch and community college campus at the Owings Mills Metro Centre.
If elected, Kamenetz said, he would govern with a similar approach at the state level.
“I’m going to be the hardest-working governor this state has ever seen,” Kamenetz said. “[I’m] going to roll up my sleeves and do the hard work to get real results.”
For now, however, Kamenetz needs to outwork his primary opponents if he wants to secure the Democratic nomination.
According to a Goucher College poll released in September, just 17 percent of the 324 Democrats surveyed from Sept. 14 to Sept. 18 said they would consider voting for Kamenetz, and 72 percent said they didn’t know enough to answer. If the election were held tomorrow, 8 percent would vote for him.
But Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, said Kamenetz has some benefits working in his favor.
For one, he has navigated a politically divided county electorate that is 56 percent Democrat, 26 percent Republican and 16 percent independent. He was re-elected for a second term as county executive in 2014 with 56 percent of the vote even as nearly 60 percent of county voters chose Hogan for governor.
“Kamenetz has a record to run on,” Kromer said. “That’s a bonus. It’ll be up to him to see how he can translate his record to the statewide audience.”
And any primary candidate will have plenty to do to catch up with Hogan, who enjoys high favorability.
In a hypothetical matchup between Hogan and Kamenetz, a nonpartisan poll conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy found that Hogan would win by 13 percentage points. Prince George’s County Executive Baker was the only Democrat who polled higher than Kamenetz at 7 percentage points. The poll, which was released last month, surveyed 625 registered voters and had a 4 percentage-point margin of error.
With Hogan having more than $5 million on hand, Kromer said Democratic challengers will need significant resources to compete for the primary and have a chance at unseating the popular incumbent. Kamenetz has wasted no time in that department, leading all primary challengers with more than $1.6 million in his campaign account as of the most recent filing period in January.
“I would say one of his biggest strengths compared to the rest of the field is that he knows how to raise money,” Kromer said of Kamenetz. “He has demonstrated [that] repeatedly.”
Kamenetz has also received a boost from the endorsement of state Del. Dana Stein (D-District 11). In throwing his support behind Kamenetz, Stein touted the county executive on environmental, fiscal and school issues. The three other District 11 representatives, Dels. Dan Morhaim and Shelly Hettleman and state Sen. Bobby Zirkin, said they have not yet decided whom to endorse.
The Baltimore County Democratic Central Committee will wait until the primary winner emerges, chairwoman Tara Ebersole said, which is consistent with the national committee’s policy.
“What I can say is that we really appreciate how spirited the race has been so far between all the candidates and that they have refrained from name-calling one another,” Ebersole said. “We hope that continues as the race progresses.”
An Alternative to Hogan
In his pitch to voters, Kamenetz said Maryland is more progressive than Hogan is allowing it to be and that safeguarding the state’s progressive values should be a top priority.
“As county executive, I have a moral obligation to stand up for Maryland values,” Kamenetz said. “I don’t think Larry Hogan does that, but you can bet that I will make sure as governor, hate is not a Maryland value.”
For example, Kamenetz pointed to Hogan’s vocal opposition of the Maryland Trust Act that would have limited state law enforcement’s cooperation with federal immigration authorities. The bill died in the Senate last legislative session after winning approval in the House of Delegates.
Kamenetz drew comparisons between Hogan’s failure to support the Trust Act and President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, including an executive order impacting people from Muslim-majority countries. In response, Kamenetz issued an executive order in April stating that Baltimore County police officers and county employees not ask the people they stop about their immigration status or enforce federal immigration law.
“When the [Maryland] General Assembly wanted to pass reasonable protections for our neighbors, Gov. Hogan dismissed it as absurd and outrageous,” Kamenetz said. “I’ve drawn upon my background as a practicing Jew to stand up to Donald Trump’s hateful agenda.”
Hannah Marr, a spokeswoman for Hogan, characterized such criticism as empty rhetoric.
“Gov. Hogan was elected to change the status quo in Annapolis and give the people of Maryland a true voice in state government,” Marr wrote in an email. “In general, he hasn’t spent much time thinking about [his challengers]. … The governor is 100 percent focused on running the state and working as hard as he can on behalf of the people of Maryland, not on partisan politics.”
Staunch criticism of Trump has become a key tactic for Kamenetz and other Democratic candidates against Hogan in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 2 to 1. But Hogan has openly distanced himself from Trump since last year’s presidential race and opted not to endorse or vote for the Republican.
Instead, the governor has focused on his own list of accomplishments, which Marr says includes a strong commitment to the Jewish community.
Just last month, Hogan issued an executive order aimed at foiling the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, requiring all firms with state contracts to promise they will not boycott Israel. Hogan, a Roman Catholic, also completed a cultural and trade mission to Israel in September 2016 that he hopes continues to benefit the state. In addition, he created BOOST, called Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today, which provided state-funded scholarships to the families of more than 700 Jewish low-income private school students last year.
“The governor has been a proud supporter of Maryland’s Jewish community,” Marr wrote.
While Kamenetz also supports anti-BDS measures, he blasted Hogan for not applying enough pressure to the legislature in last year’s General Assembly session to pass a measure to be signed into law. As governor, Kamenetz said, he would have made it one of his top priorities.
“I’m happy that the governor signed an executive order, but I just don’t understand why he didn’t stand up when we needed votes in the General Assembly to get this bill passed,” Kamenetz said. “Once again, it’s another example where Larry Hogan has to take a poll first before taking a stand.”
Bill Fox, 75, is co-founder of the Baltimore chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition. Speaking on his own behalf, Fox said, he doesn’t agree politically with Kamenetz on many issues, but he appreciates the job he has done as county executive. Still, Fox added, he doesn’t believe Kamenetz has the background voters crave from a governor, which he feels Hogan does.
“He’s a businessman, and politics is a lot like running a business,” Fox said of Hogan. “He has brought that approach to his position, which is a lot more effective than coming at it as a lawyer, doctor or social activist.”
Kamenetz disagreed. He said it’s time for a change.
“I’m good at what I do,” Kamenetz said. “I’m someone who won’t make empty promises, which is what I have done as county executive and will do as governor. That’s who I am.”
The other candidates:
Job experience: Prince George’s County executive
Platform: job creation, crime reduction, education
Job experience: Former NAACP president and CEO
Platform: health care, job creation, criminal justice, education, environment, immigration protections, civil rights
Job experience: state senator, District 18
Platform: economic development, education, environment, transportation, LGBT rights
Maya Rockeymoore Cummings
Job experience: policy consultant
Platform: education, economic development, health care, small business growth
Job experience: startup adviser
Platform: education, election reform, child care, computer science education
Job experience: attorney
Platform: climate change action, education, civil rights, health care, job creation, public safety
Job experience: former policy director for Michelle Obama
Platform: paid family leave, universal pre-kindergarten, education