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Josh Kurtz: Remembering a Friend

Keith Haller

Keith Haller was a man about town, in every sense of the term.

He knew everyone in the Maryland political orbit — especially in Montgomery County — and knew everything that was going on. This was a point of pride for him — but he never used the insight and connections in a self-aggrandizing way. Rather, Keith saw himself as a conduit, a connector, a source of information, which he utilized, in as many ways as he could, as a force for good.

That’s why so many people are mourning his death Tuesday, at the age of 70, following a three-month battle with cancer.

Considering how many people Keith knew, not all that many people knew he was sick. And for those of us who did know, few imagined the end was so close. It’s a shock and it hurts.

Professionally, after a stint on Capitol Hill as chief of staff to Maryland Congressman Michael Barnes (D), Keith became a communications guru and pollster. His firm, Potomac Inc., had an array of clients through the years, in the corporate, political, media and nonprofit sectors. He could make a cogent argument, write a deftly-worded communique, produce a beautiful TV ad, and analyze poll cross-tabs to the most granular detail.

Keith loved politics and the people who inhabited that world. He was knowledgeable and passionate about the broad sweep of American history but could be equally enthusiastic analyzing precinct-by-precinct voting trends in a legislative district. I believe he’s the guy who invented the term “The Fertile Crescent” to describe the Democratic strongholds that run from Bethesda to Takoma Park in Montgomery County.

Beyond his professional work and political kibitzing, Keith was a booster of a dizzying array of charities and noble causes. He was a music lover and seemed enthusiastic about every arts organization in town. He helped organize food drives and ethnic festivals. He knew how to get things done — how to appeal to the fortunate to give back to the community. Through his job, through his advocacy, through his volunteer time, he touched thousands and thousands of people and left a lasting impact on Montgomery County.

He was also a co-founder of Maryland Matters.

I don’t remember exactly when I first met Keith, but by 1998, we were talking regularly. I was the lead political reporter for the old Gazette newspapers at the time, and he did a series of statewide and local polls that election season for us and The Baltimore Sun. He always came up with a catchy turn-of-phrase or interesting narrative based on what he saw.

As far back as 2001, I started yapping to anyone who would listen that I was interested in starting a website dedicated to covering Maryland government and politics. But I started thinking about it more seriously in 2014, with so many media outlets in Maryland disappearing or scaling back drastically.

Everyone I mentioned this to said it was a good idea but wondered how it would work. Keith’s response, when we ran into each other at a legislative candidates’ forum in Rockville, was simple and emphatic: Let me help you.

The first time Keith and I sat down to discuss this concept, he arrived with a handwritten list of prominent Marylanders and a projection of how much money each might be willing to donate to the effort. My jaw dropped.

Before long, Keith, Lou Peck and I were having weekly meetings to flesh this idea out — usually at Keith’s “office” in the back corner of La Madeleine in downtown Bethesda.

This will probably come as no surprise to people who know him well, but I found some of Keith’s ideas during those early discussions to be grandiose and impractical, bordering on the absurd — like his initial fundraising target list. It frustrated me sometimes. I had an intense full-time editing job in D.C. I didn’t have two nickels to my name. I didn’t know how to do anything but be a journalist. How was I going to network, promote the idea, amass a list of endorsers and promoters, and beg people for money? How was I going to find the time and acquire the know-how?

Somehow, though, Keith laid out a path and kept me relatively focused and on-task. Bit by bit, in a more circuitous fashion than Keith no doubt imagined, Maryland Matters went from concept to reality. And it probably never would have happened without him.

Now that we’re a little more established, Keith’s ideas don’t seem so absurd after all. Now that I’m a lot more confident about what we’ve become and what we can be, I sure wish I could see Keith’s list of names to target for donations again.

I last talked to Keith three weeks ago. He acknowledged that the cancer had left him a wreck. He wasn’t complaining — but spoke about the illness with a certain awe. He told me that, as part of his treatment, he was seeing a musical therapist regularly, which lifted his spirits considerably. He finished our conversation by singing the first verse of the old gospel song, “This Little Light of Mine.”

On Tuesday, I bought Keith a book of Gordon Parks photographs, a companion to the stirring exhibit of Parks’ early works at the National Gallery of Art. I planned to send it to him later this week. At dawn Wednesday, I heard the sad news.

After Maryland Matters launched, people would occasionally ask me whether Keith was involved on a day-to-day basis. But that wasn’t his way. He loved helping people see their vision realized, then was content to step back and offer advice and encouragement when asked.

So no, Keith wasn’t involved on a daily basis. But a day won’t go by when I won’t be thinking of his passion for the project, his wise counsel, and his friendship.

Please keep Keith’s wife Stacy and his son Michael in your prayers.

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Josh Kurtz: Remembering a Friend