For most of his first term in office, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski has focused on correcting historic wrongs that have defined the county’s history: housing discrimination, disparate policing of Black communities and a dearth of resources that have left low-income families, especially non-English speakers, struggling to access social services.
Those issues are front-and-center in Olszewski’s reelection bid, buoyed by a national movement to reform longstanding systems that treat people of color inequitably. With half of Baltimore County residents now Black, Asian, Hispanic or Latino, Indigenous or multiracial, according to 2020 U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the need to become more representative is striking.
The difference between the incumbent’s record and the platform of his Republican election challenger, well-known conservative hardliner former Del. Pat McDonough, could not be clearer.
McDonough’s website affirms that his top priority, if elected, is “to fix what Johnny Olszewski and his administration have ruined.”
A ‘sharp contrast’ of priorities
McDonough, 79, is undaunted by political observers’ estimations that his odds of success are slim in a county that’s elected a Democratic county executive every cycle since 1994; the radio talk show host and producer is banking on what he hopes is enough dissatisfaction with the current administration to drive home a victory.
“I will never allow Baltimore County to be a failure like Baltimore City,” he said in an interview.
The Essex resident, who represented Baltimore and Harford counties in the state legislature from 2003 to 2019, has campaigned on promises to restrict immigration into Baltimore County; put a moratorium on low-income housing; oust Baltimore County Police Chief Melissa Hyatt; wrest control of county schools from the superintendent and Board of Education of Baltimore County; and weed out any corruption “in partnership” with the county’s inspector general.
Olszewski, meanwhile, said he wants to carry through initiatives he began over the last four years to improve affordable housing access; replace and restore aged school infrastructure; make operations more sustainable and efficient through new technology; invest more in economic development and public safety in underserved communities like Essex; and provide more resources for underserved residents.
“We’ve been able to deliver on those things, and so many more, in ways that draw in people of different political parties,” Olszewski, 40, said. “It’s taking good ideas, no matter where they come from, and finding solutions that everyone to get behind.”
In last year’s budget, Olszewski funded the county’s first immigrant affairs outreach coordinator position to work directly with immigrant residents who now are an estimated 13% of the county population, according to latest census figures, but who have lacked the centralized resources that other large jurisdictions provide.
“We are addressing everything from language barriers to food insecurity to soccer field access,” Olszewski said. “It’s so important that we draw in our immigrant neighbors, that we partner with our new Americans; it is really an opportunity to progress.”
McDonough, on the other hand, wants to repeal an order issued in 2017 by the late prior county executive Kevin Kamenetz that prohibits police from questioning people over immigration status and restricting cooperation between local law enforcement and federal authorities in extradition. As a delegate in 2017, he trumpeted false claims that the “swarm of illegal immigrants” cost the state $1 billion per year.
Sanctuary policies like the county’s, McDonough said, have encouraged “cartel networks” to come to the region. He fears the same will happen if Maryland voters approve legalizing adult-use marijuana in November.
On the campaign trail, Olszewski, a Dundalk native and former state delegate, promotes creating the county’s first Department of Housing and Community Development to broaden access to shelter and housing for transient and low-income residents after years of prior administrations’ resistance to fostering public housing development.
Under pressure to comply with judicially-enforced requirements of a federal agreement, Olszewski rallied the County Council in 2019 to pass controversial legislation preventing landlords from denying applicants who use federal vouchers; similar council legislation introduced by Kamenetz’ administration in 2016 was voted down.
McDonough, on the other hand, has pledged to pit county lawyers against federal authorities to fight the county’s obligations under a 2016 agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which settled a discrimination lawsuit that alleged county housing policies perpetuated segregation by discriminating against African Americans, families with children and residents with disabilities.
“Housing should be under control of the people of Baltimore County; not a judge,” McDonough told listeners during a candidate forum the Essex-Middle River Civic Council hosted at Our Lady of Mount Carmel School in Essex.
At the same time, McDonough said he’d suspend “affordable Section 8 housing” building applications that the county must approve in wealthier census tracts, which he said “spreads the misery around” the county.
“I’m not saying it’s [affordable housing is] evil,” McDonough said. “It has flaws and problems that need to be attended to, that are impacting and affecting the stability and quality of life in my neighborhoods.”
“There are two weapons I’m going to use on a regular basis; executive orders and litigation,” he said. “A great deal more than normal.”
Described as “Trump before Trump” by one Community College of Baltimore County political science professor, McDonough has for years blown the dog whistle on social programs and policies aimed at deconcentrating poverty.
He’s demanded state police intervene to control “roving mobs of black youths” in the Inner Harbor and has said that “affordable housing and the transference of poverty from Baltimore City to Baltimore County has had an impact on our taxpayers and the quality of life in our neighborhoods.”
In an interview, Olszewski said his progressive platform stands “in pretty sharp contrast to McDonough,” who champions “firebrand, scorched earth policies that really seek to divide people rather than bring them together.”
McDonough balks at notions that his rhetoric and platform are predicated on racism.
“The fact that I want neighborhoods and housing to be stable — are they attacking me as that’s racist?” he said in an interview. “If you think that has something to do with identity politics and dividing people, you have a problem.”
McDonough would turn the housing department’s focus toward creation of a local homeownership fund to enable residents to secure a 4% mortgage rate over 35 years, in a public-private partnership with financial institutions. If McDonough has his way, he’ll partner with Jay-Z and Will Smith, who he hopes will become investors in a startup to help people build credit and obtain homes.
Baltimore County says it’s helped 3,000 households buy a home by footing the bill for closing costs and down payments between 2017 and 2020 and helped another 3,100 households avoid eviction amid the pandemic.
On crime, Olszewski’s critics say the county isn’t doing enough to bolster public safety a year after Baltimore County suffered its deadliest year on record, with 54 people killed in a year marked by a mass shooting and deadly incidents involving people experiencing mental health crises.
The county’s second deadliest year was 2019, when 49 people died in homicides. Homicides this year are down significantly compared to the same time frame last year.
McDonough said Olszewski is soft on crime, but he believes Democratic State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger is an effective prosecutor. Olszewski said the county’s top lawyer “has a strong record of combatting, particularly, violent crime,” and has endorsed Shellenberger for reelection as he seeks a fifth term against Republican former administrative judge James Haynes.
McDonough blames Olszewski’s bipartisan police reforms restricting use of force and chokeholds, which the Republican vows to repeal, and the county executive’s appointee Police Chief Hyatt — who received a “no confidence” vote by rank-and-file members of the police union — for plunging police morale and stretching thin a police department beleaguered by staff shortages, which have stressed law enforcement agencies nationwide.
McDonough said he would establish “special programs” to incentivize retired officers to rejoin county police ranks and draft a “police officer bill of rights” after Maryland lawmakers repealed the statewide version last year.
He wants Shellenberger, “who I should have some influence over,” McDonough said, to criminally charge minors who engage in weapon-related incidents or assaults in schools.
Olszewski, whose youngest brother is a county police officer, funded the police department at $238 million this year, a 4.3% increase over last year.
In the $4.8 billion budget, Olszewski beefed up hiring bonuses to new police recruits and referral bonuses, and plans to again raise police salaries. He’s committed tens of millions to upgrading aging police buildings, including a new training facility, headquarters and a new Wilkens Precinct station in the southwestern suburbs. This summer, he launched a one-year pilot program to divert some calls involving mental health crises from police to clinicians.
Serving in law enforcement “is a hard profession,” Olszewski said, made “more difficult in the last few years.”
At visits during precinct roll calls, Olszewski has spoken with “officers who candidly gave a very blunt assessment about the state of the profession and the department,” he said, adding: “I want them to know that they were heard.”
The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #4 has not endorsed a county executive candidate.
Olszewski has also funded positions for four floating school resource officers to abate school violence that spiked last year and alarmed parents of public school students; school officials say the numbers of in-school assaults and incidents involving weapons is on a downturn this school year.
“You want and expect a safe school environment,” Olszewski said. “The things that we can control, we certainly are pushing and leaning hard on.”
McDonough thinks more can be done.
“The county executive has a lot of power, because he controls the budget,” McDonough said.
Olszewski, a former county schools teacher whose daughter is a first grader in a public school, is proud of committing record school funding during his first term. He raised the school system’s budget this fiscal year by $90 million, on top of investments to renovate, expand and replace school infrastructure.
“Those investments are allowing us not only pay our professionals more,” Olszewski said, “they’re allowing us to hire more counselors and personnel workers and psychologists to support the system as they hire public safety attendants.”
McDonough wants to use whatever authority he may have to enable parents to “set limits and what can and cannot be taught” in public schools, and wrest control from school leadership’s hands to resolve issues such as teacher shortages and harsher punishment of students who violate school safety rules.
He also wants to codify a “parent’s bill of rights” decreeing school officials must share information about violent school incidents and other events and enforce those policies through his “office of education advocate.”
“Parents have the right to know what curriculum is being taught for their children,” he said. “Parents have a right to get a response when there’s violence in schools.”
An election ‘upset’? Unlikely.
Election observers expect Olszewski to cruise to victory in November — a far cry from the incumbent’s first win in 2018, when he clinched a hard-fought primary by 17 votes.
McDonough lost his primary that year, but came out on top in this year’s primary as the GOP nominee with about 41% of the vote in a crowded field of little-known Republicans. Olszewski beat a single primary challenger with about 86% of the vote.
While Olszewski, who represented the 6th District in eastern Baltimore County in the State House for more than eight years until 2015, has spent much of his war chest on generous donations to Democratic candidates for the State House, County Council and school board, McDonough said the Maryland Republican Party has abandoned him and his fundraising efforts. McDonough has mostly spent his campaign funds on advertisements for his campaign.
He’s banked $4,600 from early July through the end of August, according to campaign finance filings. McDonough’s campaign was fined $60 for failing to file a finance report by the October deadline, filings show. Olszewski still had $1.85 million in the bank as of Aug. 28, according to the latest campaign filings.
The Baltimore County Republican Central Committee in mid-June voted to condemn McDonough, who was criminally charged with misdemeanor theft when a primary opponent claimed McDonough stole his campaign sign. His opponent had the charge dropped.
“They’re useless and they’re nothing,” McDonough said about the state GOP. “I don’t need them.”
McDonough is confident that Republicans who voted for far-right gubernatorial candidate Dan Cox and Independents will cast ballots in his favor.
He’s done the math: If he gets enough support from the aforementioned parties, he said he’ll need support from a quarter of county Democrats. McDonough thinks he’ll convince them.
“This is gonna be the biggest surprise and the biggest upset in the 2022 election,” he said, adding the position would be his “last rodeo.”
Olszewski — a savvy politicker whose father, John Olszewski Sr., is a lobbyist and former four-term councilman — surprised some by foregoing a run for Maryland governor this year. Asked if he was considering a bid for higher office in the upcoming presidential election, Olszewski said he’s “fully committed to getting elected in Baltimore County.”
“I hope to keep delivering on the platform we’ve built and really raise the bar,” he said.