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Analysis: Kamenetz’s Death Scrambles Political Landscape in Incalculable Ways

Maryland’s stunned political class was busy Thursday publicly mourning the sudden death of Baltimore County Executive Kevin B. Kamenetz (D), who died overnight from a heart attack at the age of 60.

But behind the scenes, these same people were equally busy burning up the phone lines, floating rumors and testing theories, as they struggled to figure out the implications of Kamenetz’s swift exit from the scene on two critical elections, for governor and for county executive.

Kamenetz, a political animal himself, would surely have enjoyed the dichotomy, as his fellow pols answered their phones with a clipped, “What are you hearing?” while simultaneously issuing flowery statements about the departed leader’s passion for public service and his family.

The late Baltimore County executive Kevin B. Kamenetz and his running mate, Valerie Ervin, stump at a Silver Spring coffee shop earlier this year. Photo by Bruce DePuyt.

But the political calendar waits for no man, and with the June 26 primaries fast approaching, and with them, the imperative to print accurate ballots, certain decisions have to be made quickly – some more quickly than others.

This surely is the most surreal moment in Maryland politics since 10-term Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein (D) dropped dead poolside on the eve of July 4 weekend in 1998 – just 72 hours before the candidate filing deadline.

The deadlines this time are almost as pressing; the circumstances, no less confusing.

“Everything’s a crapshoot right now,” a top strategist for one of Kamenetz’s six rivals for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination observed Thursday.

Topping the list of known unknowns is whether Kamenetz’s running mate, former Montgomery County Councilwoman Valerie Ervin, takes advantage of a little-known provision in state election law and chooses to take his place on the primary ballot. Actually, Ervin has three options – whether to run for governor herself and choose a running mate, whether to find a substitute candidate for governor and remain on the ballot as that person’s lieutenant governor pick, or whether to abandon the effort altogether.

Ervin won’t be making that decision alone, of course. Kamenetz’s family, campaign team, and long list of advisers and funders accumulated over a quarter century in politics will also have a say – a strong say. How the Kamenetz gubernatorial campaign has chosen to allocate funds among its three campaign accounts – his, hers and the Team Kamenetz Ervin Slate – could also impact any decision, because not all the funding may be available to a substitute gubernatorial effort.

For her part, Ervin was lying low Thursday. She did not answer calls to her cellphone or respond to text messages. At midday, she issued a statement through the campaign that sounded like most of the others.

“Like so many, I am shocked and heartbroken by this sudden and unexpected loss,” Ervin said. “I want to thank those across Maryland for their outpouring of support, sympathy, and gratitude during this difficult time.

“Kevin was first and foremost a loving husband to his wife Jill and a proud father to Karson and Dylan. And he was a dedicated, bold leader who served the people of Baltimore County for over 20 years. I have been honored to call him a friend and partner.”

Throughout the day, Kamenetz campaign officials quietly put out the word that there would be no announcements – or even decisions – in the immediate future. The final deadline to formulate a replacement campaign would be May 17, less than a week from now.

Until a decision is made on whether Ervin or someone else runs in Kamenetz’s place, the state of play in the Democratic primary for governor cannot truly be calculated. This has got to be a source of newfound frustration for the candidates, who have been largely laboring in obscurity, waiting for the race to take center stage and gel as Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) remains insanely popular. Now they’ll have to wait a little longer.

But if the seven-way primary becomes a six-way primary, absent Kamenetz or Ervin, then Kamenetz’s death leaves a significant void with opportunities for at least a few of the contenders.

Kamenetz was one of three frontrunners in early polling on the primary, along with Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III and former NAACP president Benjamin T. Jealous. Take away Kamenetz and his name recognition in the Baltimore media market and base in the Baltimore suburbs and that’s a meaningful chunk of the electorate for other candidates to chase.

Attorney James L. Shea, another Baltimore County resident, and with a huge Rolodex besides, could benefit. He may be gearing up for a measurable paid media blitz, and with Baltimore City Councilman Brandon M. Scott as his running mate, seems to be running the most Baltimore-centric campaign.

Tech entrepreneur Alec J. Ross is also a Baltimore guy, with room for growth. Jealous has solid name recognition in Baltimore from his time headed the NAACP. And to the extent that Kamenetz enjoyed some institutional support in and around Baltimore, that could gravitate to Baker, who has a growing list of officeholders endorsing his campaign.

The Kamenetz campaign headquarters in Pikesville was shuttered Thursday afternoon. Photo by Josh Kurtz.

And in Baltimore County…

Meanwhile, an equal level of intrigue exists around the question of who will succeed Kamenetz as Baltimore County executive.

The county’s Administrative Officer, Fred Homan, who has held the job for a dozen years and has worked in county government for four decades, is now the acting county executive. But the County Council, with four Democrats and three Republicans, must meet to appoint someone – a Democrat, under law – to serve the remainder of Kamenetz’s term, through December.

But with competitive Democratic and Republican primaries under way for county executive, the question is whether the Council would appoint a caretaker for the next seven months, or attempt to elevate one of their own – Vicki Almond, one of three major candidates in the Democratic primary.

Would a hypothetical Almond appointment help or hurt her in a primary with state Sen. James Brochin and former Del. John Olszewski Jr.? How would it affect the dynamic in the general election against either state Insurance Commissioner Alfred W. Redmer Jr. or Del. Patrick B. McDonough, which is likely to be highly competitive, especially with Hogan driving Republican turnout?

And is there even a logical candidate to be a caretaker appointment? Even though he’s got the institutional knowledge and know-how, Homan isn’t a political leader and has racked up a decent number of critics in his long career in Baltimore County government.

The County Council’s next scheduled meeting is May 22.

Kamenetz’s funeral is set for 2 p.m. Friday at the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, 7410 Park Heights Ave. An array of state leaders, from Hogan on down, are preparing to attend.

When the lid on political activity lifts is hard to say. Kamenetz will be buried after the funeral. His family will sit Shiva on Saturday, Sunday and Monday evenings, following the Jewish Sabbath.

There, Kamenetz the statesman and Kamenetz the family man will be celebrated in equal measures – which the late county executive no doubt would appreciate. But Kamenetz knew – as his own death and the spectacular downfall this week of high-profile former New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman (D) reminded us – political power is a very transitory thing. And long-held political assumptions can be erased in a heartbeat.

Bruce DePuyt contributed to this report.

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Analysis: Kamenetz’s Death Scrambles Political Landscape in Incalculable Ways