John Olszewski Jr. of Dundalk was just 23 when he was appointed to fill a vacant seat in the Maryland House of Delegates. Since then, he was elected to the seat twice, then lost a bid for the state Senate in 2014.
The son of a four-term county councilman, he’s been a teacher in Baltimore County Public Schools, is now an executive with a software company, and he just earned his PhD in public policy from the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
At 35, he is running to become the next Baltimore County Executive. He’s considerably younger than the other two Democrats vying for the seat — Councilwoman Vicki Almond, 68, and State Sen. Jim Brochin, 53 — but he counts that as a plus.
“What’s exciting is that you can get the benefit of having that experience and that knowledge and a record of accomplishment [in the House of Delegates], and combining that with sort of that youthful energy and excitement that I think really can reinvigorate where Baltimore County can go,” Olszewski said in an interview.
“We can pursue innovations and arts and culture and technology and really create what the future is for the county.”
This week, he gained the endorsement of former Gov. Martin O’Malley. And Del. Steve Lafferty, who, like Brochin, represents Towson, has also endorsed Olszewski.
“I think John has a willingness and a talent to build bridges and bring people together,” Lafferty said. “His views are closer to mine in terms of family leave and other problems. And I think he would bring an open mindedness and more progressive positions to his leadership as county executive.”
Olszewski — whose name is pronounced “Ol-shess-kee” but who is more commonly referred to as Johnny O — also spent part of 2015 as a lobbyist in Baltimore City’s transportation department. One of his jobs was to promote the Red Line, a proposed light-rail route that would have connected the western portion of the county to East Baltimore. Gov. Larry Hogan eventually killed the project.
It’s in part that experience, he said, that makes him now want to create a Department of Transportation in the county and focus on more biking and public-transit options — including a Towson circulator bus.
“I think if we can show success there, it’s something we can replicate in other parts of the county,” he said. “Unfortunately in Baltimore County we do a lot of road paving and that’s it. Now, I’m all for paving our roads and having good infrastructure, but we also have to think of other modes of transportation.”
Development is always a major issue in Baltimore County, and the question of public financing for Towson Row highlights candidates’ philosophies. Almond voted in favor of a $43 million aid package for the stalled mixed-use development at the corner of York Road and Towsontown Boulevard. Brochin and Olszewski both said they would have preferred a loan or other support for the project.
Olszewski said Towson Row should happen and that it could be “transformative” for Towson, but that he doesn’t want taxpayers “on the hook” if for some reason the project is not a success. He’s also worried about the precedent it sets.
“I think you run the risk of having developers come in and say, ‘I need a similar set of supports,’” Olszewski said.
The three priorities for Olszewski in this campaign are job creation, education and accessible government.
He’d like to expand the Employment Advancement Right Now (EARN) act that he co-sponsored in the General Assembly. The program gets feedback from local companies about what kind of skilled labor they need, then helps train people for those jobs. He also wants to create arts-and-entertainment districts and expand the county’s economic development initiatives.
In education, he wants to see voluntary universal pre-K, more investment in school infrastructure, and a renewed emphasis on training for trade jobs — including “the trades of the future” such as coding, cyber security and health care.
In the area of government, he’d like to see an app that makes connecting to county services easier, evening work sessions — instead of afternoon sessions — for the County Council so that more people can participate, training for communities on how to participate in government and how to understand the county budget.
Another issue facing Towson is what to do about Towson High School. The building has been identified as being in need of replacement, but some parents are concerned that building a school large enough to hold 1,800 students (it now has about 1,500 with a capacity of just under 1,300) on the smallest plot of land of any county high school could be problematic.
“I would love to see all the options laid out to the community — from redistricting to varying designs. And if there are other creative iterations that we could produce, then we should put those on the table as well,” he said. “Bring all the stakeholders together, talk through the pros and cons of each of the viable concepts and let the community decide.”
Olszewski and his wife, Marisa, live in Dundalk with their toddler, Daria. His father, John Olszewski Sr., retired from the Baltimore County Council in 2014 after serving four terms. Between his father’s longevity on the council and Olszewski Jr.’s appointment to the General Assembly at a young age, there is a perception among some that he is part of the old guard — at a time when people want change.
But he doesn’t see it that way.
“I’m the only one calling for ending the current campaign finance structure and providing more meaningful ways for people to participate in our government. I’m the candidate who’s calling for work sessions to be in the evenings, who’s calling for more budget hearings, who wants to open up government through technology,” he said.
“I don’t have massive campaign contributions funneling in from the development community. Certainly there will be some … but not in ways that are overwhelming,” he said. “I can walk in as county executive and look at a community and say ‘We’re going to make the best decision for you’ because I’m not beholden to anyone.”
In addition to the three Democrats, Maryland Insurance Commissioner Al Redmer and state Del. Pat McDonough have both joined the race on the Republican side. Democrats outnumber Republicans in the county by a 2-to-1 margin.
The primary is June 26, 2018.