Josh Kurtz: The First 107 Days

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Chief executives in government frequently spend their first several months in office overshadowed by their predecessors.

President Obama is the obvious example. Twenty-six months into his term he isn’t just cleaning up the messes George W. Bush left behind. His agenda largely – though not entirely – is a reaction to Bush’s.

Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker (D) is another obvious example. He has also had messes to clean up. But as long as the trials and tribulations of Jack and Leslie Johnson remain on the front page, you get the sense that Baker could stand naked in the middle of the street and not get the attention he deserves.

In Baltimore County, Kevin Kamenetz (D), the new county executive, doesn’t quite have to escape from the shadow of his predecessor, Jim Smith (D). But he has broken from Smith in notable ways, stylistically and substantively.

We’ll focus today on Baker and Kamenetz, newcomers in the constellation of Maryland political stars. We’re a little late for the “first hundred days in office” treatment. They’re both at Day 107 now. We’ve given them an extra seven for good luck.

Kamenetz by far has had the easier row to hoe. He didn’t have to confront any immediate crises when he was sworn in.

Kamenetz didn’t replace anyone mired in scandal. The county’s finances, while shaky in these perilous economic times, are not in free fall. He has found legislators in Towson and Annapolis remarkably cooperative so far.

Without anyone completely realizing it, Kamenetz seems to have created a new template for winning elections – and governing – in Baltimore County. His Democratic primary contest last year with Joe Bartenfelder, then his colleague on the County Council, seemed at first glance like a classic battle between the east county and the west county. And in countywide (and statewide) elections, east county pooh-bahs like Mike Collins and “Johnny O” and Tommy Bromwell (before he went to prison) always expected to have their rings kissed.

In 2010, Kamenetz largely skipped that ritual (though Collins and Johnny O, Councilman John Olszewski Sr., did endorse him). Instead, he focused on his home base of Owings Mills/Pikesville, ever-more-powerful African-American communities, and the growing professional classes in and around Towson, to win the primary comfortably over eastsider Bartenfelder.

And he has largely governed in the same way, paying the closest attention to the people who brung him to the dance. His biggest economic development initiatives to date have been in Pikesville, along Liberty Road, and in Woodlawn. (This has coincided with a conscious decision to double the number of minorities serving in high level county government positions.) Let other Maryland pols wring their hands over the future of Sparrows Point. Kamenetz has barely mentioned it so far.

Remember too that Smith spent his last year or two as county executive contemplating running for state Senate in a district that borders Harford County. So he seemed to focus a lot of attention on that neck of the woods. Kamenetz clearly doesn’t feel the need to. It’s a Republican area and not densely populated.

At the same time that he’s offered a different way of governing, Kamenetz has surprised many people – county council members and state lawmakers alike – with his inclusiveness and willingness to reach out. The council, like the county, can be a pretty parochial place, and before Kamenetz started upping his profile in advance of his run for county executive, a lot of people didn’t know what to make of the hard-charging, ambitious guy from Owings Mills who seemed like Baltimore County’s answer to Doug Gansler. But he’s being collaborative, traveling to Annapolis regularly to brief the delegation, and winning overwhelming support there for his legislation to increase business and liquor licensing fees for the first time since 1920.

Kamenetz hasn’t really changed. He’s still hard-charging and ambitious – and that’s a stark contrast from Smith, a genial, comfortable in his own skin ex-judge. But it’ll be fascinating to watch where he wants to go and how he plans to get there – and what it means for Baltimore County, the region, and the politics of the entire state. One early thing to watch: Whether he sticks with his suggestion that, to accommodate population shifts and to balance class sizes, 4th and 5th graders should move into middle schools.

Down the road in Prince George’s County, Baker is facing a vastly different set of circumstances. The bribery scandals involving the Johnsons have shattered the county’s reputation – or rather, reinforced it, as a place where you have to pay to play. Baker comes to the county executive’s office with a Boy Scout’s image, but reforming county government and rehabilitating its reputation will take an awful lot of work.

On top of that, Baker faced a murder wave during his first few weeks in office. And he inherited a financial mess. The county school district is enacting debilitating budget cuts at a time when county schools need so much more help. There’s a hiring freeze in county government, and dispirited public employees haven’t seen a raise in years.

Baker knows that Prince George’s is going to have to grow its way out of its problems, that business development is the key to its rebirth. So he has moved steadily to shore up the county’s economic competitiveness in the most competitive region in Maryland, hiring pros like David Iannucci for his economic development team and establishing a $50 million fund to lure businesses to Prince George’s.

Baker isn’t the first county executive in Prince George’s to signal that the county is open for business. His challenge is making sure companies know that there’s a different way of doing business there now.

Do County Council members and people in the county’s Annapolis delegation get the message? Have they bought into it?

Clearly, some have. Baker has strong relationships with a range of players in the State House, and he’s got allies in the delegation and in the council. But Jack Johnson also has allies in both places (not to mention his spouse in the council), people who have benefited from their relationship with him and his crowd and who eye Baker’s big broom with skepticism – if not outright hostility. Already Baker has had to scale back the ethics reform package he is trying to push through in Annapolis – and the enthusiastic support he enjoys from the Washington Post’s editorial board is at best a mixed blessing in many Prince George’s political precincts.

Baker’s vision for his county is laudable. But he ought to reach out to the U.N. – because you know he’s going to encounter a lot of land mines as he marches forward.

With Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) term limited, with Doug Gansler and Peter Franchot almost certain to seek his job, 2014 is going to be a year of transition in Maryland politics, an exciting time in which almost anything can happen. Whether Baker and Kamenetz are running for re-election then and influencing the statewide landscape or whether they’ll be seeking to move up the political ladder themselves is anybody’s guess. Either way, they will be major players – and important to keep an eye on.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Team of Rivals?

Rob Garagiola’s Political Highway

Blame the Teachers!

The Nine Lives of the ICC

The Incredible Shrinking City

Paying the Fare

Republican Rising Stars

Only 2,114 Days Till Election Day 2016

An Old Timer Holds Forth on Annapolis

Maryland's Moment?

Happy New War

Nobody Asked Me, but…

To the Mooney...

Can Baker Cook Up Real Change?

Preppies at the Gate

Marylanders (Still) on the National Stage

We Don’t Know Jack: Fallout from Johnson Arrest Could be Far-reaching

After Ehrlich

Tomorrow Never Knows

To Be Frank (Part 2)

The More Things Change....

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

Polls Apart

Van Hollen's Burden

Not Rhee-a-listic

Tomorrow’s Headlines Today!

20th Century Comes to Baltimore County

Primary Colors

Murphy the Smurf

A Gene for Public Service

No Agnew Here

The Full Montgomery

Shock and Tawes

Uly's Gold

Death and Deadlines

Bad News for Democrats From Washington to Washington County

Mr. Smith Goes ... Where?

End of the Line for Vallario?

Mission: Control

Post Plays Favorites

Red Storm Rising

Michael & Me

Wanted: Fresh Blood


Black and Blue?


Take Me Back to Old Virginny

The Political Lives of Peter Franchot

Bob and Weave

How to Make Prince George's County King

Kane is Able

To Be Frank

Gay Rights and Political Wrongs?

The Washington Post Goes to War

Snow Job

Unsolicited Advice for Ehrlich — Wait Till 2014

The Early Bird Gets the Worm?

Wayne's World May Be Another Planet

Miller Time Comes Early

Owings Owes an Explanation
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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.