Sitting Down with Johnny O. 2

The New County Executive Shares How He Intends to Make Government “Accessible, Transparent and Connected”

Baltimore County Executive John Olszewski Jr. knows the power of a great teacher. As a classroom teacher at Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts in Dundalk, “Johnny O.” saw daily the impact of a good role model. When he was elected at age 23 to the Maryland House of Delegates, he had the guidance of mentors.

But his most lasting lessons in leading come from his father, former four-term Baltimore County Councilman John Olszewski Sr.

In high school, the younger Olszewski volunteered for his dad’s campaign, knocking on doors, shaking hands and holding campaign signs on street corners.

“My dad inspired a love of public service and instilled values of how sacred it is to serve others and make a difference in others’ lives,” says the 36-year-old Johnny O. “We joke that it’s the family business. For me, it was the values plus the exposure to public service.”

His two younger brothers also serve: One is a police officer, and the other is a public code enforcement officer. During Johnny O’s challenging campaign—he won the Democratic primary by 17 votes last fall before winning the general election—the elder Olszewski was a sounding board, a role more paternal than political.

“He is there as a father for me. That’s the most important thing,” Johnny O. says.

Daughter Daria, 3 1/2, may have inherited her father’s and grandfather’s political chops.

“She’s been known to say, ‘Vote for my dad,’ and she’ll ask if I am going to be on TV today,” he says with a chuckle.

He and wife, Marisa, hope the lessons from his life as county executive extend far beyond any path, political or otherwise.

“We want her to have compassion for other people, empathy and a passion for service,” he says.

His new role as county executive brings him back to Towson, a place he discovered as an undergraduate student at Goucher College, where he met his wife and where he serves today on the Board of Trustees.

“I’ve always loved Towson, and now I am getting to know it again,” says Johnny O, who holds a master’s degree from George Washington University and a doctorate in public policy from UMBC. “What’s always been true about Towson is that there are incredible assets here—government, Towson University, hospitals, courts. What I’ve always wanted to see, and now am helping to lead, is connecting all of these great anchors and forces of energy, building bridges while respecting the residential nature of Towson.”

The county executive is particularly excited about Towson University’s vision for the former Maryland National Guard Armory building on Washington Avenue. The university’s plan for the “Towson Armory” is to create a space for community engagement and outreach, entrepreneurship, continuing education and workforce development. Envisioned as an “incubator” to connect business with students and faculty, the public space also will include a café.

“It’s taking a sleepy corner and opening that up,” he says, “letting the university become more integrated into the community.”

In addition, he’s talking with Towson anchors and local organizations about many issues, including transportation challenges and biking and walking around Towson.

“How do we also actively engage all the anchors to create a real energy and spark? All the assets are there to make it happen.”

As a former teacher and product of Baltimore County Public Schools—Johnny O. attended Sparrows Point High School—he says education is his top priority. Earlier this spring, he pushed for the Build to Learn Act, which would have funded more than $2 billion through Maryland Stadium Authority bonds across Maryland for school construction. For Baltimore County, this would have meant $400 million in extra funding for school projects, including a much-needed solution to the over-crowded Towson High School.

The Senate failed to vote on the House-approved bill, augmenting the hard choices facing Johnny O.’s administration, which inherited an $81 million budget shortfall. While the county budget will cover replacements for three elementary schools, other school construction and renovation plans remain on hold until the 2020 legislative session.

“Whatever we do moving forward is going to require a state partnership to meet the need,” he explains. “It’s about providing that top-notch, 21st-century education for our students and teachers and [and having] the resources to do it. Investing in both people and infrastructure is my No. 1 priority.”

His overarching goal, he says, is to make “this government accessible, transparent and connected” with a sweeping reform package passed through the County Council. On July 1, his administration will launch an office of ethics and accountability. On Nov. 1, public campaign financing of elections will be on the ballot, and lobbyists’ forms are now posted online.

“Public trust in government is critical and transcends partisan boundaries,” Johnny O. says. “I want people to know that the decisions we are making are grounded in a deliberative, thoughtful approach. The only way you can assure people of that is to open up your process.”