Q&A with John Olszewski Jr., a Dundalk-raised progressive vying for Baltimore County executive

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Photo via John Olszewski Jr.’s campaign

“Faith, family and friends”—that’s where John Olszewski Jr. says he leaned for calm this past summer, as state elections officials re-tallied the votes from the Democratic primary for Baltimore County executive. He’d finished in a dead heat with state Sen. Jim Brochin (D-42nd District) on June 26. It took nearly three weeks before elections officials affirmed “Johnny O” had eked out a victory by 16 votes.

“I spent five years as a government and social studies teacher, so I would remind my kids every year to register to vote, to get involved and that every vote mattered,” said the Dundalk-raised Democrat at Golden West in August. “And to be part of an election that affirmed that, it was special for me.”

Olszewski served two terms in the House of Delegates representing District 6 in Southeast Baltimore County, from 2006 through 2014, and is the son of retired Baltimore County Councilman John Olszewski, Sr.

Running on a platform touting goals like free community college for all, universal pre-K and a $15 minimum wage, Olszewski Jr. has been grouped into a progressive wave sweeping the Maryland Democratic Party in election season coverage. (Full disclosure: Olszewski Jr. has advertised on Baltimore Fishbowl.) Others include Ben Jealous winning the party’s nomination to run for governor and Marc Elrich doing the same for Montgomery County executive, as well as candidates who’ve ousted establishment legislators—including here in Baltimore—in the primary. But Olszewski doesn’t make it a point to tout the brand.

“For me, it’s about the ideas. I’m not about what the label is.”

We sat down to talk change within the party, city-county relations, affordable housing policy, school construction, why he hasn’t endorsed Jealous for governor and more. Here’s an edited transcript of the conversation:

Baltimore Fishbowl: Kevin Kamenetz’s administration managed to meet targets for getting affordable housing developers to build more low-income housing in Baltimore County. How do you plan to carry that on as the targets get steeper in approaching years?

John Olszewski Jr.: I’d first point out that I’m the only candidate in the race who supports the agreement, and actually, my opponent has said that he would file suit against the federal government, which not only would end up being a losing effort, it would be an incredible waste of taxpayer resources. Part of the reason that Kevin entered into the agreement in the first place was to avoid litigation. And other jurisdictions that have not entered into similar agreements have actually been required to do more, and have lost, and that’s actually cost the taxpayers quite a bit of money.

One of the critical components of the agreement is ending housing discrimination. I’m a believer that discrimination in any form is wrong, and we should seek to end it in any form that it exists. Similar arguments were made when it comes to housing about a person’s ethnicity or their religion, or their race or their gender in years past. And frankly, we’re better than that, and we have to move beyond that.

The other piece of it is how we hit some of these aggressive targets. In addition to the HOME Act, we have to partner with the private sector to identify those opportunities for affordable, but high-quality housing. There’s a $30 million incentive fund that was part of the agreement, and we can strategically use that to fill those gaps of financing so that projects are not only meeting the need, but are done in a way that lifts up and support the surrounding community.

BFB: Do you think you would further incentivize developers beyond what the fund offers?

JO: I haven’t seen the need to go beyond what the current fund is, but to your point, I recognize that the goals become more steep in the years ahead. It’s my hope that we can continue to leverage the resources that have already been put aside to meet those targets. But I think we’ll also meet those targets just by ending housing discrimination and providing more options for residents who currently might go to places that already exist, but are denied simply because they use a voucher.

We should remember that 90 percent of these voucher holders are people who are disabled or who are veterans, or they’re families with children. We’re not actually increasing the number of vouchers. We’re just allowing for people who have those vouchers to have those opportunities to find housing across the county. And in doing so, we actually are de-concentrating poverty and de-concentrating overconcentrations of subsidized housing, which is better for all communities. Because if we can create an environment where no community has a saturation or overconcentration of housing vouchers and/or poverty, those communities will be more likely to thrive.

BFB: A recurring issue this year has been the aged conditions of a few Baltimore County high schools, including Dulaney, Towson and Lansdowne. How would you plan to finance construction of new facilities for those schools?

JO: The primary methodology that I would use to secure resources is to embark on something very similar to what City Schools was able to obtain—and I supported it as the chairman of the Baltimore County House delegation—which was the statewide 21st Century Schools legislation for the state to forward over a billion dollars to build new or renovate dozens of schools across Baltimore City. We still have among the oldest school stock in the state, and I want a similar deal for our residents—recognizing, again, that we have to continue to put forward our own resources. We’re owed more than $100 million in forward funding for some of our construction projects, and the state has not yet reimbursed the county for that.

I think that we also have to get our priorities right in Baltimore County when it comes to school spending. We have schools with brown drinking water, and schools like Lansdowne that are literally sliding into the ground. If we’re not meeting those basic needs, then we shouldn’t be spending $300 million to have every student having an individualized laptop—particularly at the earliest grades where it’s actually instructionally questionable.

Baltimore County has a $3.2 billion budget, so I would initiate a full independent audit of our practices to identify instances of fraud, waste and abuse. For every 1 percent that we find, we have $3.2 million annually to reinvest in our people annually, and our programs and our infrastructure. I believe that there’s at least several percent[age points] of inefficiencies or wasteful spending that we can identify as part of that process.

BFB: With city-county relations, there have been a few incidents so far this year, including the killing of a police officer in White Marsh and a push for reduced bus service after that mall fight. What do you think the relationship between the city and county should be?

JO: It should be strong. And as executive, I’ll be a partner. I recognize that if the city isn’t thriving, the county won’t be thriving. We can do that in a way that doesn’t lose sight of the challenges facing us in Baltimore County, addressing our unique needs. But while we’re addressing Baltimore County’s needs, we can be a partner to Baltimore City. And that can be everything from data sharing to coordinating resourcing of things like snow plows. If there’s a truck plowing snow and we come to the city-county line, there’s no reason that a truck can’t finish a street. There’s no reason that we can’t share data so that we’re better predicting where the next crime wave might be regionally, right?

Something that separates me from my opponent in this race is I believe that Baltimore’s cultural institutions are a benefit to Baltimore County residents, and I think we should be investing in them, as opposed to pulling out from them. But just because we invest in things like the BMA and Center Stage and other institutions doesn’t mean we can’t have a vibrant arts and cultural life within the county.

Transportation is another area that it makes a lot of sense for us to be partnering and collaborating. I was proud to be the first candidate for executive to call for a standalone department of transportation, so that we actually can have individuals thinking regionally about how we partner with our neighbors in the city and surrounding counties, and the state, to get people around more effectively and efficiently.

BFB: There were a number of progressive wins in this June’s primaries, including yours, suggesting a shift happening in Maryland’s Democratic party. What do you think is causing that change?

JO: What I tell people is, I’m more focused on the results, and I think that the issues we advocate for are resonating with people. People get behind the ideas of universal pre-K, expanding community college access. They like government that’s open and transparent, whether that’s moving our council work sessions to the evenings or enacting a public campaign finance option, like was used to elect the governor, as is in place in Howard and Montgomery and now, more recently, Baltimore City.

Workforce training programs, after school programming—I think if you strip away the label, you can have people of all political persuasions find that appealing. And so we really try to lead with a bold vision for what’s possible, and lead with ideas. If you don’t make it about which side of the field you’re on and you make it about the ideas themselves, I think you can really make a lot of progress. Which is the truest definition of the word [progressive], right?

BFB: Outlets have noted you haven’t directly endorsed Ben Jealous in his campaign for governor. Is there any reason why not, and do you plan to?

JO: I’m a Democrat who supports Democrats, but at the end of the day, Baltimore County residents want–and they deserve–a county executive focused on the issues affecting our county. And that’s what I’m doing in this race. Much to the chagrin of my opponent, I’m focused on Baltimore County issues as he’s trying to be focused on making this race about something other than Baltimore County. I’m very proud of my record in the legislature of working across the aisle whenever we can in a bipartisan fashion to get things done.

One of the things I point to that I’m most proud of is when I was chair of the Baltimore County House delegation. That’s a position that’s elected by the membership. In Baltimore County, we have very conservative and very liberal members, and we were split almost evenly while I was in the house. But for four years, I was unanimously elected, and it wasn’t because I agreed with everyone in the delegation. It was because when we could reach across the aisle to work together, we did. And even when we didn’t agree, members were treated with the dignity and respect they deserved. That’s the same approach I’ll take as executive.

Interesting sidebar: It’s the one proof point that I have, is that Del. Pat McDonough voted for me four years in a row. [laughs] He might not ever admit to it in any other election setting, but…

BFB: You said in a May pre-primary debate that you would pursue a “holistic approach” to criminal justice. That would require some cultural change at the law enforcement level from within. How would you push that?

JO: It begins with bringing in a police chief committed to that same vision. I think leadership starts at the top. And that’s coupled with supporting our law enforcement community with the resources they need. That means both hiring more officers so that we can do things like authentic community policing, that we can have officers get out of their cars and ride bikes or walk the street. It means equipping them with the latest, greatest technology so that they are efficient in how they can conduct their work, but also support it in terms of being proactive and predictive.

You have to offer the training and the resources to understand the value of doing those things. But outside of the law enforcement community, we also have to be investing in those downstream investments, whether that’s additional PAL centers, universal pre-K, summer employment programs, because they are all very much interrelated.

BFB: With opioid addiction and the overdose epidemic, the city has tried out some new tactics to address soaring overdose deaths—that includes making naloxone available over the counter or testing out strips that can help users detect fentanyl in street-bought drugs. Would you consider any of these steps, or other changes, in the county to stem the overdose epidemic?

JO: Dr. Wen [editor’s note: Wen has since left the Baltimore City Health Department to head up Planned Parenthood] in many ways is a leader, not just in Baltimore but nationally, with both the need to do more and to innovate in the fight. Because we’re losing.

In Baltimore County, I’ll be an executive who not only explores these innovations like treatment on-demand, like strip testing so that we can prevent overdoses and deaths ultimately, but also that we are being smart and strategic in how we do things like treatment. My background is data analytics, so it would be using data analytics to identify if there are over-prescribers and pill mills, to measure outcomes of various treatment methodologies, to ensure that our treatment dollars are actually being put towards programs that have the outcomes that we desire. To measure and track the effectiveness of approaches like distributing naloxone over the counter, like having the testing strips. We should pursue the things that make sense, but we also need to measure them against the investment to ensure that we’re putting the dollars in the places where we’re actually stemming the tide of the crisis.

Just along that holistic approach, we have to do more education in the front end to let people know what they’re getting into, and the myriad ways that people end up getting hooked. Oftentimes it’s innocuous. Someone gets addicted in a very sort of innocent, innocuous way, so we should be pushing the education on top of things like treatment on-demand. We need to have more treatment beds in Baltimore County. Exploring other innovative approaches and, of course, applying the analytics and the analysis to ensure that our investments are being impactful.

This is the second of two interviews with the candidates for Baltimore County executive. Click here for our interview with Republican candidate Al Redmer Jr.

Ethan McLeod
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Ethan McLeod

Senior Editor at Baltimore Fishbowl
Ethan has been editing and reporting for Baltimore Fishbowl since fall of 2016. His previous stops include Fox 45, CQ Researcher and Connection Newspapers in Northern Virginia. His freelance writing has been featured in Baltimore City Paper, Leafly, DCist and BmoreArt, among other outlets. He enjoys basketball, humid Mid-Atlantic summers and story tips.
Ethan McLeod
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