The Ghost Of Sparrows Point Hovers Over A Hotly Contested Senate Race

Oct 29, 2014

Del. John "Johnny" Olszewski campaigning at the North Point Library in Dundalk, an early voting location.
Credit John Lee / WYPR

On a warm, sunny weekday morning, candidates for County Council and the State House were trolling for votes in the parking lot of the Dundalk early voting center. Republican State Senate candidate Johnny Ray Salling ran into voter Harry Hutchinson, who says his two sons had to leave the state to find work.

“Business is gone,” Hutchinson told Salling. “There’s no training here. There is absolutely no training here. Apprenticeships are gone. Everything’s gone."

Candidates always talk about jobs; finding them, keeping them. It can sound kind of stale after a while. But in Dundalk, it’s the real deal.

For decades, the local economy was driven by the steel mill at Sparrows Point. In its heyday, it meant up to 30,000 jobs. But by the time it shut down two years ago, about 2,000 jobs remained. Salling has had a ringside seat for the dismantling of the steel mill. For 25 years he’s worked at Lafarge, a plant at Sparrow’s Point that makes materials for the construction industry. Salling says he is running for office for the first time because while he is still working, he has a lot of friends who have been thrown out of work and can’t find jobs. “They’ve been trained,” Salling says. “They’ve exhausted their means for unemployment and the money they’ve been given and allocated. But all that being gone, they still don’t have jobs.”

State Senate candidate Johnny Ray Salling (R) greeting voters at the Dundalk early voting site.
Credit John Lee / WYPR

Salling says local legislators haven’t been doing enough to help out the unemployed and attract new business to the east side of Baltimore County. And that includes Delegate John Olszewski, his Democratic opponent in the race for the Senate seat Norman Stone held for 48 years.

Olszewski says he knows this election is largely about jobs. If he wins a promotion to the Senate, Olszewski says he’ll propose legislation to give tax breaks to manufacturers who set up shop at Sparrows Point. “We’ll forgive companies’ tax credit burden for between five and ten years depending on the number of jobs created and economic activity,” Olszewski says.

Olszewski’s name is well known. His father is retiring from the Baltimore County Council after serving four terms. People call the councilman Johnny O and his son Johnny O Junior. That familiarity pays off, like when Olszewski was making his pitch for Leah Brengle’s support during early voting. “I know your family and I was born a Democrat,” Brengle told Olszewski.

But Salliing is dropping a name too: Larry Hogan.

Salling’s opening line when meeting a voter is to say that he is a member of the Republican gubernatorial nominee’s "team." Even though registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than two to one in the district, both Salling and Olszewski agree Hogan will do well there. Salling says, “All we’re hearing is they want change. They’re tired of what’s been going on. They’re tired of being taxed to death. They’re tired of losing the jobs.”

Olszewski says it’s a difficult political climate for an office holder. So he’s been knocking on doors--close to 10,000 by his count--to remind voters that he opposed increases in the gas and sales taxes. He also says he wants a flat fee put on the Key Bridge for local commuters to save them money at the tolls. It now costs eight dollars round trip. A few years ago it cost half that. “Of all the taxes that have been enacted, the tolls affect the folks in my district more than any individual tax,” Olszewski says.

There’s a third candidate in the race, Scott Collier, who is running as an unaffiliated candidate. He failed to respond to requests for an interview.