One Crazy Night in Baltimore County

Wherein your intrepid correspondent tries to hit three big political events taking place at the same time Wednesday night – and misses every speech.

By Josh Kurtz

When the political gods scheduled three major fundraisers for the exact same hour in Baltimore County Wednesday night – at 6 p.m. – our course was clear: We were going to hit them all or die in the attempt.

If there’s one thing Republicans and Democrats can agree on, it’s that Baltimore County will be key to their fortunes in the 2018 gubernatorial election. Both parties are also looking at competitive primaries and general elections there for county executive and other key offices.

So Wednesday seemed like a good time to set off, with a GPS and prayers for traffic karma, and take the political temperature of the Superbowl of Maryland counties. It didn’t quite turn out as we’d planned, but we gained plenty of political insight just the same – and saw some old friends along the way. Here’s some of what we heard and learned:

6:09 p.m. The Lodge, Catonsville. Fundraiser for former Del. John Olszewski Jr. (D), a likely candidate for county executive. Person we’ve known forever who we chatted with as soon as we arrived: Fundraiser and strategist Colleen Martin-Lauer.

Though traffic was whizzing by on busy Frederick Road, time seems to have stopped in the dimly-lit Fraternal Order of Police Maryland State Troopers Lodge 69. The crowd trickled in slowly.

Eric Gally, the State House lobbyist, said he had been invited to several fundraisers that night but chose Johnny O’s.

“Baltimore traffic – I’m gonna go with an old friend,” Gally said, adding that it was the best fundraiser food he’d encountered since the events for former Baltimore County Del. Jimmy Malone (D).

Tucker Cavanagh, Olszewski’s new campaign manager, said the timing of the evening’s program would depend to a large extent on traffic and how it was impacting attendance.

Olszewski, 34, is a diminished rising star who is trying to get his Mojo back after losing a bid for state Senate in 2014. He worked hard and did nothing wrong that election cycle, and still he was carried out to sea by the Republican tidal wave that hit eastern Baltimore County.

Republicans effectively used a particularly cutting line against Olszewski, campaigning against “the three O’s” – Obama, O’Malley and Olszewski. But they should have said four O’s, because Olszewski had the added weight of the 16-year tenure of his father, then-Baltimore County Councilman John Olszewski Sr. (D), around his neck.

The elder Johnny O. was prominent at his son’s fundraiser Wednesday, working the tables and inviting everyone to another fundraiser for Junior – on July 31 at Row Boat Willie’s, the tiki bar on Miller’s Island. “We’ll have 250 people there,” he said.

Johnny O. Sr., a thick-necked high school graduate, is blue-collar Dundalk through and through. The younger O, though he too is a Dundalk guy, is a thoughtful former school teacher who works for a software company and is finishing up his Ph.D. He’s also long and lean, a visual contrast to his father.

Yet his east county roots could serve him well in the Democratic primary, where his competition is shaping up to be County Councilwoman Vicki Almond, who represents Reisterstown and Owings Mills, among other communities, and state Sen. Jim Brochin, whose district begins in Towson and extends all the way to Pennsylvania. There were plenty of east county types at Wednesday’s fundraiser, but it was a diverse crowd that revealed the candidate’s potential.

In a race against Brochin, who is 53, and Almond, who is in her mid-60’s, Olszewski’s youth is also part of his appeal. As we spoke, he scooped up his adorable 18-month-old daughter, Daria Josephine, who was literally bouncing off the guests, and said, “I see [the election] through her eyes. It’s about the future – and the future of the county.”

Olszewski vowed to work to modernize the county’s schools and said, “Your education shouldn’t be determined by your zip code.” He also said he’d be “traveling around the Beltway” in the weeks ahead, touting the “new energy and new vision” he’d bring to county government.

Another political scion, former Del. Jon Cardin (D), was there to lend support. Cardin is a constituent of Almond’s and thinks highly of her, but asserts Olszewski, his former colleague in Annapolis, “has the pedigree to be an executive.”

“He’s got a coolness factor, he’s got the intellect,” Cardin added. “He’s the whole package.”

As we nervously eyed the clock, thinking about the rest of the evening, Baltimore County Del. Pat Young (D), a Johnny O. Jr. contemporary, quieted the crowd and began explaining where his district is in relation to the Patapsco River. That seemed like our cue to leave – except for the fact that we’d have to traipse past the entire crowd to the front of the room to make our exit. Luckily, there was a back door and we slipped through the kitchen, with visions of the Ambassador Hotel on June 5, 1968 in our heads.

6:55 p.m. Back in the car. Odometer: 26,307 miles. GPS: 27 minutes to our next destination.

A few minutes into our frenetic drive, on Old Frederick Road, we passed a large, cardboard cutout Snoopy on someone’s lawn, sitting atop his doghouse. The accompanying sign admonished motorists to mind the 25-mile-an-hour speed limit. Guiltily, we slowed down to 30 and tuned in to the Orioles-Nats game on the radio.

The trip was smooth, except for a short backup on the Beltway near Woodlawn, but not without its oddities. When we hit U.S. 40, the GPS voice called it, “Baltimore National Peek.” And we always get nervous on Interstate 795 – feels like we’re speeding to the edge of the Earth. When we parked the car, it was the bottom of the 1st inning. No score.

7:26 p.m. Irvine Nature Center, Owings Mills. Fundraiser for Almond. Person we’ve known forever who we chatted with as soon as we arrived: Public affairs whiz Ann Beegle.

But before we could get to the big outdoor tent behind the nature center, where the fundraiser was taking place, we had to walk a fair distance on the long and winding road, passing Lexuses, Audis, a Jaguar and a Benz along the way. When we got to the top of the hill, Almond had just finished speaking, of course. Mandee Heinl, her aide, stood in front of the tent, studying her phone, ticking off the number of guests: 309, 310, 311, 312.

This, too, was a diverse crowd, though considerably more well-heeled – and more “establishment.” Almond, one of the very few women running for high office in Maryland this election cycle, is wisely trying to take advantage of that fact. She wore a red suit jacket, and all the members of her campaign’s women’s committee – at least one from each County Council district – did the same.

“It’s an amazing turnout,” Almond told us.

Like Olszewski, Almond did not formally declare herself a candidate for county executive on Wednesday night. Instead, according to fundraiser attendees, she spoke about “the journey,” and about the community.

Almond told us her campaign theme, in a nutshell, would be: Baltimore County is great, let’s work together to make it even better.

“I have a lot of good ideas about moving Baltimore County forward, for creating a creative and innovative workforce, an efficient, effective and responsive government,” she said.

Heinl said the councilwoman has six more fundraisers scheduled between now and July 1. The ambitious goal is to raise $2 million for the campaign.

We took the time to say hi to Del. Shelly Hettleman (D) – who had also been at Johnny O’s event. She told us she is not taking sides in the county executive primary, for now.

Of course, we had to run. But we made a mental note to come back and visit the nature center’s bioretention habitat.

8:11 p.m. Back in the car. Odometer: 26,323 miles. GPS: 21 minutes to our next destination.

For the next 20 minutes, with the light fading, we discovered some of the most beautiful, forested areas we had ever seen in Maryland. Breathtaking stately homes also caught our eye.

We had no idea where we were.

At one point, we found ourselves on something called Broadway Road, which was funny, since it wasn’t broad and was barely a road (we grew up on Broadway in New York City, so we know from which we speak). On the radio, the O’s were leading the Nats, 3-0 in the top of the 4th. We switched to the Wizards-Celtics game. The Round Wood shopping center in Mays Chapel appeared suddenly like a beacon, out of nowhere. When we got to our destination, it was Celtics 38, Wizards 23 in the 2nd quarter.

8:33 p.m. Maryland State Fairgrounds, Timonium. Baltimore County Republican Party Spring Bash and Bull Roast. People weve known forever who we chatted with as soon as we arrived: Former Del. Don Murphy and Gloria Murphy.

Gov. Larry Hogan (R) was the big attraction, and we missed him, of course. In fact, we barely got there in time to see the big Hogan-Rutherford campaign bus backing out of the cavernous 4-H hall, leaving exhaust fumes behind.

But we did see an almost-governor, Ellen Sauerbrey, still going strong at age 79 and clad in a lemon yellow suit, next to the stage, pulling raffle ticket winners out of a bowl. We recalled the time, in 1997, that she showed up gamely at the Takoma Park Folk Festival, where the chances of meeting a single Republican voter was probably zero. We wondered then – and we still do – if some staffer suffered the consequences.

The Republicans still on hand, who were happy with the turnout and bullish about their chances for making gains in 2018, said Hogan was brief and grateful in his speech. Without us asking, Baltimore County GOP Chairman Al Mendelsohn unfolded a piece of paper from his pocket and started reading us his own speech, which we had also missed.

“The road to Annapolis runs through Baltimore County,” he read.

Got it.

Republicans could face their own tough primary for county executive next year. Del. Pat McDonough, a bombastic conservative, has already declared his candidacy, and was working the room aggressively. Former Del. Al Redmer, now serving as Hogan’s insurance commissioner, may also run. He was also on hand – though not campaigning overtly.

“You’ve got two fine candidates there,” Mendelsohn told us. “They certainly both have their own approaches to people. But they both have their appeal.”

Yet there’s no escaping this political reality, encapsulated in a conversation we had with two Republican stalwarts. When we told them that we had just come from fundraisers for Olszewski and Almond, one gave two thumbs down. “You’ll be voting for one of them if McDonough is our nominee,” the other said. His companion frowned but did not disagree.

McDonough is a divisive figure who could complicate Hogan’s efforts to run up another big score in Baltimore County. The governor pointedly did not endorse McDonough when he ran against Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D) last year.

A Redmer-McDonough primary, however, would pit the best hair in Maryland politics against the worst.

Asked if he worried about the national political dynamic hurting local Republican candidates in 2018, Mendelsohn shrugged. “You’re like a ship captain,” he said – you can only do so much preparation for a smooth voyage, but if you encounter stormy seas, you adjust accordingly.

As the crowd thinned out, Del. Christian Miele (R), a rising star who is likely to run for state Senate next year, jumped on stage, settled himself behind the drum kit, and joined the band as they ripped through several oldies. When he jumped off, he said, laughing, to no one in particular: “Hash-tag Drumming Delegate.”

It was time to go.

9:54 p.m. Back in the car. Odometer: 26,334 miles. GPS: One hour to home. Celtics 93, Wizards 76, 4th quarter.

We had a great time on Wednesday night and we learned a lot. It’s all about the journey, as they say. We can’t wait to get back to Baltimore County soon for more political intel-gathering. Until then, give our regards to Broadway Road.

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