The Battle for District 2

Paula Hollinger hasn’t held an elected office since 2007, when she left the Maryland State Senate after an attempted run for U.S. Congress.

After nearly three decades in the Maryland General Assembly, having first been elected as a delegate in 1979, she opted not to return to her state senate seat.

“Twenty-eight years was a long time,” said Hollinger, who is now associated director of health workforce at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. “I left a nice trail of good things behind me.”

But at least one person thought she should get back into the politics game. In March, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz approached her on the steps of the state house with a proposition, she said.

Vicki Almond (Marc Shapiro)

Vicki Almond
(Marc Shapiro)

He asked her if she would be willing run against incumbent District 2 Councilwoman Vicki Almond or state Sen. Bobby Zirkin.

“My answer was, ‘No,’” she said. “I said, ‘I’m not running anymore, and I’m not fundraising anymore’ and the answer was, ‘Well, we can take care of that.’”

After a series of contentious zoning decisions that pitted Almond against developers, it seems her standing with Kamenetz and certain developers has turned sour, and a steady effort to replace her has coalesced. So when Jon Herbst declared his candidacy in the Democratic primary for Baltimore County’s District 2 Council seat, the race had already emerged as one of the most hotly contested local primaries in Maryland.

With accusations of changing parties for political expediency and candidates being backed by development money, shifting political allegiances and a history of heated zoning debates, the race for the county’s Second District has amounted to a complicated and somewhat hostile contest.

Kamenetz, along with executives from Towson-based developer Caves Valley Partners, has been a player in the race through a campaign fund called A Better Baltimore County Slate. Through slates, contributors can back multiple preferred candidates. The fund lists Herbst, Kamenetz and District 7 Councilman John Olszewski Sr., who is not running for re-election, as affiliated candidates.

In a report filed by the slate published on May 27, there were two $6,000 poll-related expenditures paid in May to Annapolis-based OpinionWorks and a $16,307.51 expenditure paid to Baltimore-based Fontaine and Company for consulting and phone services.

Jon Herbst (Marc Shapiro)

Jon Herbst
(Marc Shapiro)

And at least one area resident believes a phone call she received from a pollster in May came from a group working on behalf of Herbst due to its focus on the County Council race and the phrasing of some questions.

“From the questions, that’s what made me realize who these people were working for and for what reason,” said Pikesville resident Jean Carton, who answered the pollster’s questions with her husband, Buddy.

The pollster asked Carton who she is voting for in the governor’s race, if she wants to see Almond re-elected, if she thinks the county executive is doing a good job and what the most important issue facing her in the election is.

It also asked if she was more or less likely to vote for someone who accepted money and favors from developers, is a woman, is Jewish (Herbst is Jewish), has been described as ineffective because of “her” reputation of not working well with County Council colleagues and the county executive, has been described as fiscally irresponsible because of shortsighted zoning decisions, has increased the number of failed businesses and made zoning decisions without considering the impact on small businesses, Carton said.

It also asked for her take on Foundry Row, a development in Owings Mills that will be anchored by Wegmans, which was the subject of a heated zoning battle. Almond and the Baltimore County Council ultimately rezoned the property — the former Solo Cup factory — for retail in August 2012, despite protest from neighboring developers, including Howard Brown, chairman of David S. Brown Enterprises.

Between August and September, seven contributors tied to Caves Valley donated $23,000 to A Better Baltimore County Slate. Between January and May, seven other developer-linked donors, six of which did not contribute in the previous period, gave an additional $14,000 to the slate. While Kamenetz originally transferred $101,500 from his own campaign fund to the slate, he later transferred $90,000 to Olszewski’s fund, which can be used to support other candidates.

Two other development firms linked to the slate by way of contributions are Chesapeake Realty Partners, a joint venture partner of Caves Valley, and Southern Land Company, which owns property in several areas of Baltimore County.

Although Caves Valley Partners, which has property near Foundry Row, did not publicly campaign against the project like Brown, the company and Almond staked out opposing positions on another zoning issue, when she was the only councilperson to vote against zoning for Caves Valley’s $300 million mixed-use project Towson Row last December.

Almond said her relationship with both Caves Valley and Brown soured after Foundry Row was zoned for retail.

“They did support my campaign the last time,” Almond, a Democrat, said. “Perhaps I was naive, but I assumed if I was elected I was going to be an independent person on the Council. I didn’t realize that you get punished when you don’t go along and get along.”

Caves Valley officials could not be reached for comment.

The Candidates
Baltimore County’s 2nd councilmatic district includes parts of Pikesville, Owings Mills, Reisterstown, Lutherville-Timonium and Ruxton. Through some minor redistricting changes, the Mays Chapel area in Lutherville-Timonium became a part of District 3, and District 2 picked up areas of northern Reisterstown.

This is not the first time Almond, 65, and Herbst, 36, have faced each other in the District 2 contest. Herbst was defeated in the 2010 race, when he ran as a Republican.

Though nearly three decades separate the candidates, both have a wealth of community advocacy experience.

Herbst practices real estate, commercial and business law at Royston, Mueller, McLean & Reid, a Towson-based law firm. He was appointed to the Baltimore County Planning Board in the summer of 2013 by Kamenetz, has served as treasurer of the Pikesville-Greenspring Community Coalition since January 2012, was president of Sports Boosters of Maryland in 2012 and 2013, where he is still chairman of the board, and serves of the board of directors of the Robert E. Lee Park Nature Council. He is also active in the Baltimore County Bar Association, where he has served on the executive council and several committees. He and his wife, Irina, own AME Pharmacy in Catonsville, where Irina is pharmacist in charge.

Almond’s community involvement started in schools as a volunteer in the 1980s. She spent time as PTA president at Franklin Middle School and Franklin High School, was parade chair and president of the Reisterstown Festival and spent two terms as president of the Reisterstown-Owings Mills-Glyndon Coordinating Council. Former Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening appointed Almond to the Rosewood Advisory Council, and former Baltimore County Executive (now Congressman) Dutch Ruppersberger appointed
her to the Baltimore County Commission for Women. Almond rallied the community behind establishing the School Resource Officer Program, which stations uniformed police officers in Baltimore County schools. That program is now a national and international model.

Almond was elected to the County Council in 2010 and served as its chair in 2012, making her the first woman to hold the position since 1983.

In a recent debate between the two candidates at North Oaks Retirement Community in Pikesville, both candidates said they would focus on public safety and education, but most of the talk centered on economic issues. Herbst expressed his dissatisfaction with the Reisterstown Road corridor, in particular downtown Pikesville.

“I’m just not happy with what I see out there when drive up and down Reisterstown Road,” he said, referring to vacant storefronts.

As councilman, he would try to attract more small businesses to the area, he said, and wants to bring back the Pikesville Redevelopment Fund, which the county used to give grants to developers to rehab long-vacant properties. He criticized Almond for not developing an overall Reisterstown Road corridor redevelopment plan that includes downtown Pikesville, which she advocated for during her 2010 campaign.

Almond maintains that the Pikesville business community is alive and well, citing growing membership in the Pikesville Chamber of Commerce, renovations at the Pikes Diner and the reopening of the Pikes Theatre, which Almond helped get proper zoning.

Rezoning the former Solo Cup factory for retail in August 2012 to make way for Foundry Row tainted Vicki Almond’s relationships with some developers. (Melissa Gerr)

Rezoning the former Solo Cup factory for retail in August 2012 to make way for Foundry Row tainted Vicki Almond’s relationships with some developers.
(Melissa Gerr)

The councilwoman counts Foundry Row among one her biggest victories and believes the development will uplift the Reisterstown Road corridor. While it was opposed by Howard Brown, who is building the massive transit-oriented development Metro Centre at Owings Mills, and Kimco, the company that was originally planning to redevelop the Owings Mills Mall, many community members ultimately rallied behind the project. Some community members, including a group called the Say No To Solo Coalition, had concerns about traffic and the local business impact.

Herbst criticized Almond for her immediate support of the project, and said he would have tried to put in more protections for local businesses, which he fears may be trumped by big-name retailers at Foundry Row such as LA Fitness. Herbst did say, however, that bringing Wegmans to town was a “no-brainer” and he would have approved Foundry Row.

Only one council member, District 4’s Ken Oliver, voted against rezoning Solo Cup for retail to make way for the project.

Almond maintains that while Baltimore County designated White Marsh and Owings Mills growth areas, Owings Mills fell behind while White Marsh flourished.

“This was an opportunity that was going to pass us by if we didn’t act on it,” she said.

Throughout her time as a councilwoman, Almond has maintained a presence in the small business community. In addition to her work with local chambers of commerce and groups trying to revitalize Reisterstown’s Main Street, the councilwoman has helped organize three small business summits during her time in office.

Herbst believes his real estate and business background would help him navigate complex zoning decisions and their effects on local businesses.

At the debate and outside the debate, Herbst has faced criticism of his switching parties. He replies that while he is conservative on fiscal issues, he is more liberal on social issues. He got involved with the Baltimore County Republican Central Committee around the time of the last election, but he said he didn’t fit in there and that the party was moving too far to the right.

Endorsements and Campaign Contributions
Herbst has been endorsed by Kamenetz, who has close relationships with David S. Brown Enterprises and Caves Valley Partners and was the District 2 councilman for 16 years, as well as by Zirkin. Almond was a volunteer, and then campaign coordinator for Zirkin when he ran for a delegate seat in 2002.

“He broke my heart,” Almond said of Zirkin’s endorsement. “It wasn’t just political, it was personal.”
Zirkin declined to comment, and Kamenetz could not be reached for comment.

Another endorsement of Herbst’s, from the Greater Pikesville Owings Mills Reisterstown Small Business Coalition, has been drawing criticism from Almond and her supporters, who said they have never heard of the group. Heads of both the Reisterstown-Owings Mills-Glyndon Chamber of Commerce and Pikesville Chamber of Commerce said they have never heard of the group.

Andy Hoffman, owner of Gourmet Again in Pikesville, said the coalition is a business networking group that formed about a year ago. Hoffman, who grew up with Herbst, said the endorsement is the group’s first political activity. When asked to name other members, he referred to Herbst, who was able to name one other person involved in the group.

Both candidates have traded jabs as to who is the “developer’s candidate.”

While some have painted Herbst to be the development candidate because of the slate and support from Caves Valley executives, several of which
attended a fundraiser Herbst held at Tark’s Grill at Green Spring Station, Herbst is quick to note that Almond’s campaign has received numerous
contributions from those connected to the Foundry Row development. While three contributors — two executives from the company that demo-lished the Solo Cup factory, Chesapeake Contracting, and the wife of a Foundry Row attorney — gave to Almond before Foundry Row was granted retail zoning, the vast majority of contributions came after that decision.

Reaction and Analysis
Herbst is quick to point out that Almond was part of a campaign slate in the 2010 election cycle. And he is correct, the District 11 team slate still lists Almond, Delegates Jon Cardin, Dan Morhaim and Dana Stein and Zirkin as affiliated candidates.

Contributions to the slate, during this election cycle and in 2010, have primarily come from the affiliated candidates’ campaigns. Expenses include pay for campaign workers, advertising, field expenses, yard signs and fundraisers.

A government watchdog group, Annapolis-based Common Cause Maryland, said that slates similar to the District 11 team slate can make sense, with candidates who share tickets pooling their resources for items such as mailers, TV and radio ads, polls and consultants. But they can also be used to raise and deploy money in a targeted fashion.

“They’ve become very distorted over time because they are unregulated,” said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, the organization’s executive director. “Because they’re not transparent, these slates definitely influence elections in [ways] voters can’t always track.”

Candidates can become part of slates and contribute unlimited amounts of money from their own campaign funds, Bevan-Dangel said. A person or corporation can contribute a maximum of $4,000, but a person with multiple LLCs can contribute $4,000 through each LLC, a loophole that will be closed in future elections. Direct expenditures are “pretty unlimited,” she said.

“Slates are somewhat unique to Maryland and something Common Cause has been trying to reform for some time because they’re easy to abuse.”

John Bullock, an assistant professor of political science at Towson University, said that while it might be unusual that a county executive is endorsing a challenger to an incumbent, it appears he’s endorsing someone who may be more amenable to his policy proposals. And developer money being involved in elections is not unique to this race or to Baltimore County, he said.

“Campaigns are run on money and developers have a lot of it,” Bullock said. “I’m not saying it’s an all-out bribe, but what campaign contributions allow you are access to an ear.”

The Council race has raised the eyebrows of several community members who keep a close watch on local politics.

Reisterstown resident Mary Molinaro said she thinks Herbst may be unduly influenced by developers and is concerned by his change in party affiliations. Her concern is also local.

“He has not had a relationship with Reisterstown in the past, and I have no idea what he would do to assist us with the projects that we have,” she said.

Cheryl Aaron, a longtime community activist and the zoning committee chair of the Greater Greenspring Association, said that while all candidates have money coming in from various sources, the development dollars stick out to her as most prominent in Herbst’s campaign.

“The irony is not lost that the same people who are backing Jon Herbst also financed Kevin Kamenetz. It’s all pretty obvious,” she said. “What worries me most is, what are they expecting in return? Hopefully, we won’t have to go there, and [Almond] will be successful in the primary.”

Bob Frank, who was a state delegate for District 11 from 1995 to 1998, takes a more neutral position.

“I think you have to recognize that Jon is somebody who’s run before. I think anybody who said he’s a prop for somebody else ignores the fact that this is
obviously a serious young man who has an interest in politics,” Frank said. “That being said, I think some of the things happening around him would suggest some other people are trying to steer things in a certain direction.”

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