Last week, more than 80 people filled Wilson Hall at North Oaks retirement community in Pikesville for a Baltimore County Executive candidates forum with Johnny Olszewski Jr. and Al Redmer Jr., including 100-year-old Margie Warres, who attended the Oct. 15 event in her wheelchair because she wants to stay involved and engaged in North Oaks activities.
For 36 years, Warres ran Central Scholarship, a nonprofit that provides scholarships and interest-free loans to qualified students. Warres said after the forum that she is “always interested in education,” so she was happy to hear that at least one of the candidates supports funding for free community college tuition.
Education was just one of the many topics Olszewski and Redmer addressed at the forum, which was organized by resident Marty Waxman, 89, and moderated by his daughter Michelle Waxman Johnson, vice president of Central Scholarship in Owings Mills and chair of the board of the Elijah Cummings Youth Program.
In the June primary election, turnout at North Oaks was about 43 percent, with Democrats turning out at almost twice the rate of Republican voters, 46 to 26 percent. Democratic voters chose candidate Jim Brochin over Olszewski and Vicki Almond, in that order, while North Oaks Republicans chose Pat McDonough over Redmer. So, residents wanted a closer look at the two who prevailed countywide to go head-to-head in the general election — Olszewski and Redmer.
The two Eastern Baltimore Countians have been drumming up name recognition on the northwest side, and among the Jewish community, where former two-term County Executive Kevin Kamenetz was a lifelong resident with a quarter century in county politics. Kamenetz died in May of cardiac arrest in the run-up to the governor’s primary contest.
At the North Oaks forum, Olszewski and Redmer were put through their paces with a series of resident questions from moderator Johnson touching on the city/county divide, transportation, education, poverty and free community college tuition.
Although Redmer and Olszewski both present themselves as affable, experienced and easygoing non-partisans, they differ in their opinion of the county. Both spent two terms as delegates in the Maryland legislature. Olszewski was elected when he was 23 and served from 2006 to 2015. He also taught in the Baltimore County public school system for seven years. He points to his government and education experience as good background for the county executive position.
Redmer served from 1991 to 2003, after which he served as Maryland state insurance commissioner, then worked in private sector insurance, returning to the commissioner post under Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration, where he is currently serving. He points to his government and business background as good experience for the county executive position.
Redmer, 62, often relates stories of rising crime and declining quality of life under a county administration he says has failed to invest in basic infrastructure, with a budget that’s been spent and its “credit cards maxed out.” Olszewski, 36, talks about living in “a good county” that he wants to help make “a great county.”
Both say a working city-county partnership is key to keeping the Baltimore metro region vital and making it a safer, more prosperous and desirable place to live. Redmer says Baltimore County has “no long-term plans to deal with anything,” and the county does “not do a real good job of communicating” with citizens, with internal government communications, or external communications with business partners, or other jurisdictions like Baltimore City.
“So, we have significant issues in Baltimore County that need to be addressed, whether it’s crime, quality- of-life issues, transportation issues, and part of that has to do with communicating and collaborating with Baltimore City,” Redmer said. “I think there needs to be an advocacy there. One of the challenges we have is that Baltimore City has a lot of resource issues.”
Redmer pointed to Hogan’s violent crime “strike force” that the governor announced in June to start closer collaboration of federal and local police for information sharing.
Olszewski said he is a “big believer that the city and Baltimore County have to be strong regional partners … we both have incredible assets that we all recognize,” Olszewski said. “In addition to supporting arts and cultural institutions in the city, I believe we should be a strong partner in places like transportation, in economic development and public safety.”
If the county doesn’t help boost the safety of the city, or appreciate the economic capacity of Baltimore City, or if transportation isn’t viewed regionally, he said, “we are failing all of our residents.”
Transportation priorities for Olszewski include a countywide “circulator bus” plan, a stand-alone county department of transportation and a “holistic” approach to make neighborhoods more walkable and bikeable.
“We are looking at investing in ‘smart transit,’ although recognizing that there should be a partnership with the state and the federal government to make sure that transit is happening and that we can’t do it alone,” Olszewski said.
More transit-oriented development, a county circulator and leveraging state dollars are part of Redmer’s transportation platform, as well as listening to residents on what each community’s transportation needs are.
“But we also need to create technology,” Redmer said. “We all know that the driverless car is coming, the improved technology already exists. And there is technology that exists that allows the roadway to communicate with cars, so we can better time traffic signals and those kinds of things.”
While both candidates agree that county public school infrastructure needs to be improved and new schools need to be built, Olszewski supports universal pre-K and free community college, where Redmer says the county can’t afford them, calling for more vocational training instead of free college tuition.
Sy Baida, 91, sat quietly in the back corner of the auditorium, declaring afterward that “they both made good presentations. And I just have to think about who I’m going to vote for.”
Eighty-eight-year-old Beverly Stappler said she’s been interested in politics and candidates all her life, “what they have to say, what they don’t say and what they should say,” she said, and laughed.
Stappler said one of Baltimore County’s problems is having not raised taxes to cover its many expenses.
“As opposed to Baltimore City that has raised it as much as they possibly can,” she said. “They’re going to have to raise taxes in Baltimore County if they’re going to fix the schools and fix the roads and do the things that Baltimore County should be doing for their residents.”
Heiman Cohen, 93 and a former lawyer, was pleased with the forum. “This is one of the most successful activities since I’ve been here. You are to be congratulated,” he told Marty Waxman after the forum ended and people were heading out of Wilson Hall.
“My two key issues are education and recreation,” he added. “I was involved with Essex community college for a number of years and I’m very strongly in favor of community college education.”
Waxman is president of the North Oaks chapter of Maryland Continuing Care Residents Association that advocates for the state’s continuing care population. He said he goes to the trouble of organizing political forums for residents “because I want to draw a crowd like this.”
“When we go to Annapolis and talk to the delegates, the senators, the department of the aging, I want them to know we represent somebody,” he said. “And it’s the same thing on the county level. We have a voting constituency — so pay attention to us.”