Don Mohler reflects on Kevin Kamenetz, Gone Too Soon

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There were two months to go until the election. On May 8, 2018, Kevin Kamenetz had just finished filming 14 hours of television commercials that we were all sure would propel him to the Democratic gubernatorial nomination on June 26. And then two days later on May 10, the phone rang shortly after 2 a.m. When the phone rings at that hour, it is never good news. This time was no different. On the other end of the line was the Deputy Fire Chief with words that I will never forget: “Don, the County Executive is in cardiac arrest. You should get to the hospital now.” Thirty minutes later my friend was gone.

It is not possible to capture the soul and spirit of Kevin Kamenetz in a few hundred words, so with that in mind, I will settle for some glimpses into the life of a man who was at the center of Baltimore County politics and leadership for more than a quarter of a century. But Kevin’s story doesn’t begin with governing or election-night victories. It starts with family.

His love of his wife Jill, and their boys Karson and Dylan, trumped any win he ever had in the courtroom or on the campaign trail. Homework? Not a problem. Kevin was there to help. Bar Mitzvah lessons at Baltimore Hebrew? That was special because it reconnected Kevin to his Jewish roots, so much a part of who he was. And oh, those trips to school each morning. That 20-minute ride from Owings Mills to Gilman was without a doubt his favorite part of the day. And as Jill so eloquently reminded us on the morning we said goodbye, Kevin had just told her that the campaign would soon be over, and he was looking forward to having more time to spend with her and the boys. That was not to be. When you think of Kevin Kamenetz, think of his family first. He did.

The County Executive’s inspiration in his public career can be captured in his favorite quote from Hubert Humphrey. “It was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life - the children; those who are in the twilight of life - the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life - the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” You don’t often hear the former Vice President referred to as an inspirational hero, but for Kevin these words resonated. They captured the essence of what government was supposed to do and what it was supposed to be.

Let’s not sugarcoat it: Kevin Kamenetz was impatient, he could be gruff, and he could get angry. He could make you mad, and he could certainly get mad in return. But as those who knew him best will tell you, that anger never lasted beyond the moment. Have your say. Take your best shot. Move on. That was the Kamenetz way. He had trouble understanding those who held a grudge. “When I was growing up, we used to scream and yell at each other all of the time at the dinner table,” he would say. “Didn’t you?” He was always surprised when someone would respond, “Not really.” But forget all of that. He was the smartest person in the room, and he wanted to get things done. And get them done he did.

Long before security cameras became a common public safety tool, Baltimore County Councilman Kevin Kamenetz introduced and passed legislation in 2005 mandating such cameras at shopping centers in the County. As he would do throughout his career, Kevin saw things that others had yet to see, and he was bound and determined to act on that vision. Those cameras have now become a vital component of a comprehensive public safety strategy. Kevin would delight in telling you that he knew that all along.

When a task force in Baltimore County recommended that the county move slowly on police worn body cameras and let other jurisdictions across the nation move forward first, County Executive Kamenetz rejected that recommendation. He knew that accepting that approach was the politically safe thing to do, but his gut told him that it was also the wrong thing to do. With Kevin Kamenetz, his gut was almost always right. He had great respect for the Baltimore County Police Department, and he believed that the cameras would improve the behavior of citizens and more often than not show that County officers were doing their jobs and doing them well. That is exactly what has happened. There is Kevin with that vision thing again.

As we would often remind people, Kevin’s grandfather fled Tsarist Russia to come to the United States. He never forgot that. The County Executive had a deep and unwavering belief that the immigrant story was THE American story. He believed that our diversity was our strength, and he was going to fight to protect those who were suddenly feeling like “others” in their own land. He was not about to have Baltimore County police officers serve as immigration agents. He did not believe it was their role, and he believed that it endangered public safety. His Executive Order made that clear. Good politics in the midst of a gubernatorial campaign? Probably not. Did Kevin Kamenetz care about that? Nope. Just do what is right.

He also believed that families struggling to make ends meet should be able to live in quality, safe and affordable housing. (See Humphrey quote above.) The County Executive knew that the concentration of poverty was destructive for the County, particularly for children. Was it popular to fight for affordable housing in Baltimore County? Not hardly. Was it the right thing to do? You bet. Case closed.

And we saved his proudest accomplishment for last. Kevin Kamenetz will forever be known as the Education County Executive. In 2011, he created the Schools for our Future program, investing $1.6 billion in school construction. It was the single largest investment in schools in the history of Baltimore County. The result: 16 new schools, 12 new additions, and wait for it…….. reducing the number of schools without air conditioning in the County from 90 to 2. It is a record of accomplishment unmatched in the nation. Thousands of students and teachers lives have been changed because Kevin Kamenetz gave a damn.

Would Kevin Kamenetz have become the 63rd governor of Maryland? We’ll never know, but it would have sure been fun to find out. We lost a good man on May 10. Godspeed my friend.

Don Mohler served as the 13th Baltimore County Executive, completing the final seven months of Kevin Kamenetz’s term of office.

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