Theodore G. “Ted” Venetoulis, a former Baltimore County executive who was a power player in Maryland politics and civic life for more than half a century, died Wednesday at Johns Hopkins Medical Center after a brief illness. He was 87.
The son of Greek immigrants, Venetoulis (D) was already an accomplished political strategist and congressional aide when he was elected county executive in 1974 at the age of 40. He was a political reformer perfectly suited for the post-Watergate era — and followed two county executives, Spiro T. Agnew (R) and Dale Anderson (D), who were indicted by the federal government on multiple corruption charges. His campaign slogan that year was “throw the rascals out.”
“The county was really kind of stuck in the backwash of corruption and the way it had operated for many years,” Venetoulis recalled in a recent Baltimore Sun interview.
Venetoulis was a hard-working county executive, credited with modernizing Baltimore County government, pushing environmental initiatives, preparing for suburban growth, and attempting to dismantle the Democratic political machines. But he was also considered a publicity hound, earning the moniker “TV Teddy.”
“As county executive I held town meetings, the first ones in Baltimore County,” Venetoulis said during a 1978 Washington Post interview. “I rode on garbage trucks, made district tours, opened up government meetings to the public, which I thought showed I was interested in an open government. Others called it a public relations stunt. It’s a matter of perception but I know why I did what I did.”
While county executive, Venetoulis helped engineer California Gov. Jerry Brown’s improbable victory in the 1976 Maryland Democratic presidential primary.
But Venetoulis’ career as an elected official only lasted four years: Rather than seeking reelection in 1978, he lost a bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination that year, finishing third in the primary with 24.5% of the vote. Harry R. Hughes, a former state Transportation secretary, leap-frogged the Democratic field, which included acting Gov. Blair Lee III, following an early and rare front-page endorsement from the Sun.
Venetoulis may not have won, but he did make history in a way: His running mate that year, Anne Arundel County Councilmember Ann Stockett, was the first woman to run for lieutenant governor on a major statewide ticket, according to The Washington Post.
Running for governor, however, and losing his foothold in electoral politics, was a decision Venetoulis later came to regret.
Yet Venetoulis’ imprint on Baltimore and Maryland politics and civic affairs remained strong even after his political career, thanks to a wealth of contacts, a lifetime of political activism, a variety of business ventures, and strategic, short-term government assignments.
For the last several years, Venetoulis was closely associated with attempts to buy the Sun and return it to local ownership, and he became an adviser to wealthy businessman Stewart L. Bainum as Bainum tried to acquire the Sun and later its parent company, the Tribune Co., earlier this year.
“If a city loses its professional sports teams, it loses its spirit. If a city loses its newspapers, it loses its soul. We fight to keep our ballclubs. It’s time to fight to keep our newspaper,” Venetoulis wrote in a 2020 Sun op-ed.
Venetoulis had his own history in publishing, as owner of Times Publishing Group, which published several weekly newspapers including the Baltimore Messenger, The Jeffersonian, Owings Mills Times and Towson Times. Later he was publisher of Corridor Inc., a business magazine that served the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., corridor. He has also owned sports publications, a weekly newspaper chain in the Washington, D.C., area, and a magazine in San Francisco.
Venetoulis has been a trustee at Goucher College; a founder and director of Columbia Bank; a commissioner of the Maryland Port Authority; a trustee of the Maryland Public Broadcasting Commission; headed the transition committee for one of his successors, the late Baltimore County executive Kevin B. Kamenetz (D), in 2010; and more recently led a charter review commission in Baltimore County.
Venetoulis aided dozens of Democratic candidates through the decades, both in Maryland and nationally, and he hosted numerous political fundraisers at his well-appointed Lutherville home. He was a lifelong friend of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her brother, the late Baltimore Mayor Thomas L.J. D’Alesandro III (D), and was frequently by Pelosi’s side when she made political appearances in Maryland.
In a statement Thursday, Pelosi called Venetoulis “my close friend for many years.”
“Ted Venetoulis was a revered part of the fabric of our community,” she said. “His decades of service — not only as an elected official, but as a journalist, member of countless local commissions and mentor and confidante to so many — were unsurpassed. Ted was a reformer who believed deeply in making government more open to the people, and his leadership strengthened our democracy by bringing integrity, accountability and innovation to politics.”
Venetoulis’ death was sudden and unexpected, his widow, Lynn Morrison Venetoulis said in a Facebook post Thursday. He remained active in civic and political affairs and less than a month ago, posted a tribute to the late Baltimore Sun icon H.L. Mencken on his Facebook page.
“Today is the birthday of H. L. Mencken — Baltimore’s irascible contrarian and foremost columnist whose words skewered sanctimonious behavior and sacred institutions,” Venetoulis wrote, offering excerpts of some of Mencken’s most memorable columns.
In addition to his wife, Venetoulis is survived by three children.
In her post, Lynn Venetoulis said there would be no public funeral, but that there would be “a celebration of Ted’s amazing life some time next month.”
Tributes to Venetoulis came in from all over Maryland Thursday.
“One of our County’s earliest reformers at a moment when our communities needed it most, I will forever be grateful for the countless ways Ted gave back to our County, our region and our state as well as for his counsel and encouragement to build upon his own rich legacy,” Baltimore County Executive John A. Olszewski Jr. (D) said in a statement Thursday morning. “Baltimore County is a far better place today thanks to his many years of service. My prayers and condolences are with his family and loved ones during this trying time.”
State Sen. James C. Rosapepe (D-Prince George’s) called Venetoulis “a Renaissance man” and “a happy warrior.”
“He was one of my favorite people — every time I got off the phone with him, I felt better about everything,” Rosapepe said.