Dominoes are falling around Maryland. Of the ten lawmakers that Marylanders sent to Congress, four are leaving their seats.

U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin announced his retirement, as did Reps. John Sarbanes and Dutch Ruppersberger. Rep. David Trone isn’t running for reelection because he’s running for Cardin’s Senate seat.

Just as Cardin’s retirement is creating another vacuum as Trone runs for the Senate seat, Ruppersberger’s retirement could create a follow-on vacancy as others attempt to climb the political ladder.

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. is running to replace Ruppersberger, who announced his retirement in late January. Five other Democrats and three Republicans are also running to serve a district covering most of Baltimore and Carroll counties and a piece of Baltimore City.

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Olszewski starts the race as the clear front-runner, having already successfully appealed to district voters and able to raise the cash needed for a federal campaign.

If he ends up heading to Congress, Olszewski will have to vacate his position as county executive with two years left on his term. So what happens to the office of the Baltimore County executive if Olszewski leaves for Congress?

Under the county charter, if the county executive cannot do his or her job, the county administrative officer becomes acting county executive.

That’s what happened in 2018 when Kevin Kamenetz, who was running for governor, died from cardiac arrest. Shortly after, Don Mohler was appointed as county executive for the remainder of the term in a unanimous vote by the County Council.

Former Baltimore County Executive Don Mohler at his official portrait unveiling in November 2018. Mohler was appointed to be the county executive after Kevin Kamenetz died during his campaign for governor. (Courtesy photo/Baltimore County Government)

“It was an honor of a lifetime to serve in that role,” said Mohler, who was county executive for about six months.

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If Olszewski were to win election to Congress and vacate the county executive position, Mohler said, whoever replaces him should not feel like they’re just a placeholder.

“You can’t think of yourself as an interim or an acting, because you’re not. You are from that moment [the council votes to appoint you], the county executive,” Mohler said.

Unlike the emergency when Kamenetz died, Olszewski’s absence would be anticipated and planned for. That gives the County Council space to prepare to choose a replacement executive before Olszewski leaves.

In the meantime, Olszewski said he’ll still work to deliver on promises and doing all we can to improve the lives of our residents — regardless of ZIP code.”

He added that it would be “critical” for the next Baltimore County executive to “build on the foundational and transformative reforms we’ve put in place to open our government like never before, to further embed principles of equity and suitability into the culture of governing, and to embrace data and innovation so that we can keep building a better Baltimore County for decades to come.”

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What council members are saying

The only guarantees about who the County Council would appoint are those that are laid out in the charter. The person will have to be a Democrat, since Olszewski is a Democrat.

The person will have to be at least 25 years old, a qualified voter in Baltimore County and a resident of the county for at least five years. It requires a simple majority of four votes for the council, which is split between four Democrats and three Republicans, to appoint a new county executive.

The Banner heard from five of the seven County Council members, and all but one were tight-lipped when it came to offering names.

Pat Young, Democrat: Young, who served in the Maryland House of Delegates from 2015-2022 before being elected to the council to represent Catonsville and southwest Baltimore County, said the council is cognizant of the scenario where they have to appoint a replacement.

“There’s time to figure out who an appropriate steward of the county would be for two years to fill in,” he said.

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Israel “Izzy” Patoka speaks, framed to the left of a person’s shadowed and blurry head.
Baltimore County Councilman Israel “Izzy” Patoka speaks during a town hall in September 2023. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Izzy Patoka, Democrat: Patoka is the current chairman of the council and represents Pikesville and surrounding neighborhoods. He said he’s taking a “proactive role” in determining who to appoint to the executive position, starting by checking with the council’s attorney about the requirements.

“It takes a lot of thought. There are certain things that you can put on cruise control for a period of time. There are certain events that might happen in a county the size of Baltimore County that we may not be able to put on cruise control,” Patoka said, citing unexpected crises like the COVID-19 pandemic or a crunched budget.

Julian Jones, Democrat: Jones has been chair of the council four times, and served three of those terms consecutively. He said he’s not given the idea of an appointment too much thought.

He said he’s “trying not to get too far ahead of my skis” and that right now, he’s spending his time focused on trying to do a good job.

But, Jones, who represents western Baltimore County communities, said, it would have to be somebody competent and someone who could “provide a certain level of continuity.”

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David Marks, Republican: Marks, the council’s longest-serving member, said the question is “certainly on everyone’s minds.”

He said there’s a very good question as to whether Baltimore County should start running special elections in the case of vacancies like this. For now though, Marks said, it’s “no secret” the council is beginning to discuss who to appoint.

“But the key is someone who is going to have good relationships in Annapolis and do a good job for the citizens of the county,” Marks said.

Baltimore County Councilman David Marks, a Republican, and Democratic council chair Julian Jones stand in the County Council chambers before a budget announcement in April 2022.
Baltimore County Councilman David Marks, a Republican, and Democratic Councilman Julian Jones, who was then the council chair, stand in the County Council chambers in April 2022. (Taylor DeVille/The Baltimore Banner)

Democratic Councilman Mike Ertel, who represents the Towson area, did not respond to requests for comment. Republican Councilman Wade Kach, whose district includes Cockeysville, could not be reached for comment.

Doug Anderson, a staff member for Republican Councilman Todd Crandell of Dundalk, said in an email he’s “not sure there’s much to talk about for a process.”

What names are in consideration?

Marks was the only member of the council who would share names of people he thought might be interested in the appointment. He said it’s his “personal opinion” that Patoka and Jones would be interested in the position, and that he’s heard state Sen. Katherine Klausmeier’s name mentioned in conversations about the appointment.

“I think she has expressed interest,” Marks said.

Jones said he appreciated Marks mentioning his name, but that he wants to stay focused on the job he’s doing. “If there’s a vacancy that’s another conversation,” Jones said.

Patoka said he’d be flattered if his colleagues on the council had faith in him to be the county executive.

“Having said that, I understand the dynamics and the thought process they’ll each be going through over the months to come,” he said.

In an emailed statement, Klausmeier’s chief of staff, Jennifer Staley, said the senator “is focused on the ongoing 2024 Legislative Session” and did not have any further comment at this time.

Olszewski a strong favorite

Democrats are heavily favored to win the 2nd Congressional District, according to Cook Political Report ratings.

Olszewski is facing state Del. Harry Bhandari, Sia Kyriakakos, Sharron Reed-Burns, Jessica Sjoberg and Clint Spellman, Jr. in the Democratic primary.

Radio host and conservative activist Kim Klacik entered the race on the Republican side, calling it a “competitive” district that a Republican could flip. John Thormann and Dave Wallace are also Republican candidates.

“For Kim Klacik, or any Republican to win, they’re not only going to have to get independents but appeal to some Democrats, too,” said Roger Hartley, dean of the College of Public Affairs at the University of Baltimore. “That’s going to be difficult.”

Hartley said Olszewski is matched “extremely well” for the district.

Maryland’s 2nd Congressional District has been in Democratic hands since Ruppersberger took office in 2003. He won the seat with 54% of the vote in the 2002 election.

This article has been updated to clarify how Don Mohler became county executive following the death of Kevin Kamenetz.