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C. Fraser Smith: Olszewski feels lost after loss

A rising star legislator, Dundalk’s John A. Olszewski Jr. lost his bid for state senator — and the sting hasn’t gone away.

Like some others who fell short last fall, the former delegate is feeling a bit lost. It’s even worse because a big part of his life has been government. And people expected him to win.

He expected to win.

He gets daily reminders of the reality.

An old friend shies away when she sees him. She conceded she had voted an all-Republican ticket last November. She was sure he would win without her vote.

A waitress he knows, certain he had won, greets him with, “Hi, Senator!”

You can imagine the personable former Democratic delegate trying to hide a grimace with a smile.

Others who ran as Democrats last year say there’s a simple explanation why many of them lost. That election was all about the R’s and D’s. R’s won, D’s lost.

Olszewski knew change was coming. But he thought he would survive. The 32-year-old lawmaker had won twice before, after all. And his father, Johnny Sr., had served four terms on the Baltimore County Council.

Both are known as Johnny O. The Olszewski name was money in the bank, a mini-institution — name recognition to burn.

Didn’t happen, he said, because Democrats up and down the line failed to adequately gauge the level of unhappiness with the party.

Voters rebelled, he said, because his party failed to address financial concerns — or failed to adequately communicate well on the concerns it had addressed.

Taxes were obviously a huge issue, he said.

“When you combine stagnant job growth with high taxes, what you got wasn’t entirely surprising, “ he said.

He makes no secret of his disappointment.

“I wish I was still fighting for my community. I think that’s why we all get into this,” he said.

That’s what he misses most. Close behind, he said, is the “special relationships” with colleagues in both parties. Harsh partisan rhetoric, he said he found, fades quickly when people are working together on things that matter in every part of the state.

“The bonds are tough to explain, but you work across ideologies. You tackle important issues. So [it hurts] when you can’t continue that work,” he said.

Watching it all now from the outside, he said he’s a bit dismayed at what appears to be an almost instant loss of good feeling in Annapolis. The arrival of a Republican governor, Larry Hogan, made him think important work could get done.

“I don’t want to say it’s gone,” he said. Just what the tone will be he suggested depends in part on what the almost 60 new House members do. A number of the assembly’s moderate members were defeated or retired. He wonders how that will affect the mood and the legislative outcomes.

What he has gained via this loss, he said, is time: time to be with his wife, time to start a family and time to finish his Ph.D. in government administration. He developed some expertise in the legislature in disparate areas of concern: workforce development and energy policy, to name just two.

He’s hoping to start or join a nonprofit development effort. He wants to maintain his contacts and his work.

Nor has he set aside his legislative interests.

“I do love it,” he said. “I’m learning you have to have the guts to put name out there again.”

There’s a waitress and an old friend who would love a chance to make their votes count in the Olszewski column.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in the Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.