TOWSON, Md. (AP) — A top Democratic gubernatorial candidate who unexpectedly died of a heart attack was eulogized Friday as a public servant who was unafraid to confront controversy during his more than two decades of public service — and while the last year of his life included sleepless nights and a fair amount of stress, he was in the race "to win it," his widow said.
Kevin Kamenetz's sudden death Thursday after going into cardiac arrest shocked everyone in Maryland's political circles and sent a palpable sense of unease through Baltimore County's executive offices, based partly on uncertainty about the future but mostly on the knowledge of what they just lost.
The 60-year-old, longtime political leader of populous Baltimore County was one of seven candidates vying for the Democratic nomination in the June primary to oppose Republican Gov. Larry Hogan this fall. One of three front-runners in the Democratic pack, he had chosen Montgomery County Councilmember Valerie Ervin as his running mate and built a war chest of roughly $2 million.
His death "has the potential to dramatically reshape the race" because many of his supporters may now look to four other candidates who have been polling in the single digits, said Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary's College of Maryland.
Eberly described Kamenetz as one of the top three Democratic contenders in the race, along with Rushern Baker and Ben Jealous.
Kamenetz woke up early Thursday, complaining to his wife, Jill, about chest pains. They drove to a volunteer fire station near his home in Owings Mills because he didn't want to disturb his neighbors with an ambulance, according to his chief of staff, Don Mohler.
Kamenetz was in "full cardiac arrest" when he arrived at St. Joseph Medical Center and was pronounced dead shortly afterward, chief medical officer Dr. Gail Cunningham said.
After beginning his public service career as a prosecutor in the Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office, Kamenetz was elected in 1994 to the Baltimore County Council, where he served four terms. He was a former president of the Maryland Association of Counties and the Baltimore Metropolitan Council. He was first elected county executive in 2010 and re-elected in 2014.
Condolences from political leaders and rivals rolled in after his death.
"He was a dedicated public servant in Baltimore County for more than two decades, and we join with the citizens of Baltimore County and all Marylanders in mourning," Gov. Hogan said in a statement. The governor ordered state flags to fly at half-staff.
U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin was among those who spoke at Kamenetz's funeral Friday. He recalled meeting frequently with Kamenetz over breakfast and said that rather than jumping straight into politics, Kamenetz would talk about his family.
"To Karson and Dylan, I want you to know your father treasured you and your mom. To Jill, you were the love of his life, his best friend, his most valued adviser, the person with whom he wanted to share life's adventures," Cardin said, according to radio station WBAL.
Jill Kamenetz, who eulogized her husband, said the past year during the campaign had been "rough."
"We rarely saw each other. He was a little moody, he barely slept. ... But he was in this to win it. He was driven and he loved what he was doing," she said.
Kamenetz's campaign touted his track record on education and the environment, highlighting a $1.3 billion investment in public education and the renovation or construction of 90 schools. On his campaign website, he also emphasized his fiscal policies, which he said resulted in no tax increases or government furloughs or layoffs during the Great Recession.
"He did not shy away from controversial or politically unpopular issues if he believed that addressing them was the right thing to do," Eberly said.
Orrester Shaw, Baltimore County's special assistant for education, health and human services, said what impressed him most about Kamenetz was the opportunities he gave to African-Americans to serve in local government.
"He gave us opportunities that were not afforded to us in the past," Shaw said.
Longtime county administrative officer Fred Homan will serve as acting executive until the council votes on a replacement to serve the remainder of the term.
Kamenetz's death was all the more surprising because he was both fit and health-conscious. He routinely trotted up stairs and teased colleagues about eating doughnuts and other junk food.
"He was a yogurt, granola and salad kind of guy," Mohler said.
Associated Press writer Sarah Rankin in Richmond, Virginia, contributed to this report.
Follow McFadden on Twitter at https://twitter.com/dmcfadd