Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz died suddenly Thursday morning of cardiac arrest. He was 60.
Kamenetz’s death sent shockwaves through the county courthouse.
Signs of grief were everywhere you looked: the receptionist hugging the chief of staff, people wiping away tears, and talking about running into Kamenetz regularly in the stairwell or in the hallway, people expressing concern for his wife Jill and their two teenage sons. Don Mohler, Kamenetz’s chief of staff, said people are hurting.
"People are sad," Mohler said. "We lost a good friend. We lost a good man."
According to Baltimore County Fire Department spokeswoman Elise Armacost, Kamenetz and his wife drove the two miles from their home to the Chestnut Ridge Volunteer Fire Company around 2 a.m. Thursday. The county executive, who had no known health problems, called 9-1-1 from the parking lot, saying he was having chest pains. Armacost said two volunteers who had been sleeping inside the station heard Kamenetz on the phone and had him come inside for an evaluation. Armacost said Kamenetz’s condition quickly deteriorated.
"He lost consciousness," Armacost said. "He lost a pulse, and his heart stopped beating."
The volunteers tried to revive him and at one point did get a pulse, but Kamenetz never regained consciousness. Kamenetz was taken by ambulance to the University of Maryland Saint Joseph Medical Center in Towson.
Dr. Gail Cunningham, the chief medical officer there, said Kamenetz was in full cardiac arrest and receiving CPR when he arrived.
"Our team continued with the full advanced cardiac life support, attempting to further defibrillate him and manage him medically," Cunningham said. "And very unfortunately were unable to restore a heartbeat and pronounced him dead right around 3:20 this morning."
Kamenetz was in his eighth and final year as Baltimore County Executive. Before that, he served 16 years on the county council. In an interview last month with WYPR, Kamenetz said he loved being county executive and may have run for a third term if he had not been term limited. Kamenetz said he ran for county executive in 2010 because he knew he could do a good job.
"I was raised here," Kamentz said. "Jill was raised here. We choose to live here. We choose to raise our two sons here. And I wanted to make sure that we were making the best decisions for the future of our county."
Kamenetz pointed to his $1.3 billion dollar program to renovate and replace 90 old schools as his greatest achievement. Kamenetz said education drives everything in the county.
“So I inherited a situation where we had some of the oldest schools in the state plus rising enrollment and I made a difficult decision to invest virtually all of our capital dollars into school construction," he said.
Mohler said the school construction program will be Kamenetz’s legacy.
“I think years from now people will look back and they will say, wait a minute; did you really have one county executive build 16 new schools, build 12 new additions, and renovate or air condition 90 schools," he said.
In that interview, Kamenetz also touted no tax rate increases during his years as county executive, body cameras for police, protecting undocumented immigrants in the county, smart technology that’s improving the delivery of county services, and the revitalization of Sparrows Point, Towson and Owings Mills.
Baltimore County Council Chairman Julian Jones, a fellow Democrat, said Kamenetz was a strong leader. But he didn't want to talk about how the county keeps running after Kamenetz’s death.
"We will get through this process with the family in terms of grieving," Jones said. "And then we will get back to work for the citizens of Baltimore County."
According to the county charter, Fred Homan, the county administrative officer, becomes the acting county executive. Mohler said Homan has been running the day to day operation of county government for Kamenetz.
"The department heads report to him. There will be a seamless transition in county services."
Meanwhile, the county council is to choose an executive to serve the remaining months of Kamenetz’s term. The county charter is silent, however, on how long the council should take to do that. And council chairman Jones said he does not know when that will happen.
Jim Smith, who preceded Kamenetz as county executive, said Kamenetz was his go-to guy on the council. He said Kamenetz worked hard, did his homework, and for that reason other council members would turn to him for guidance.
"It was mandatory for me to talk to him because he was going to have tremendous influence on what other council members’ reactions to proposed legislation or proposed projects would be," Smith said.
Another former county executive, Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger, said Kamenetz was focused, hard working and smart. Ruppersberger said Kamenetz did something no other county executive had done. From time to time he would meet with all of his predecessors.
“And he would want our opinion, including Roger Hayden, who is a Republican," Ruppersberger recalled. "We would all come in and we would talk about the issues of the county."
Kamenetz had his political battles as county executive, most memorably with Governor Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot.
Hogan and Franchot regularly criticized Kamenetz for moving too slowly to air condition schools and refusing to use less expensive window units. Kamenetz said that would have been a waste of money. In last month’s interview, Kamenetz said he proved the governor was wrong.
"I put central air in the public school," Kamenetz said. "And I modernized our schools. And I added 6,000 additional seats to accommodate future growth. And I did it without his help."
Kamenetz said Hogan was attacking him because the governor saw him as his most serious potential threat to reelection, which Kamenetz said he considered a badge of honor.
Thursday, the governor released a statement calling Kamenetz a dedicated public servant in Baltimore County for more than two decades, and that he and First Lady Yumi Hogan “join with the citizens of the county and all Marylanders in mourning.”
Kamenetz was considered one of the stronger candidates in a hotly contested race for the Democratic nomination for governor. Throughout the day, his rivals issued statements of shock, sadness and condolences for his family.
His death most likely will shake up the race for the Democratic nomination, but chief of staff Mohler said it’s too soon to worry about that.
“Quite honestly for the next few days our focus will be on doing whatever Jill and the boys need to make sure they’re comforted in this very difficult time,” Mohler said.
Kamenetz was described as someone who took care of himself, ate right and would always take the stairs. Just last week he signed an executive order that only healthy snacks would be sold in county vending machines.
Kamenetz’s funeral is at 2 p.m. Friday at the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, 7410 Park Heights Ave., Baltimore.