Father Knows Best: A Tale of Political Nepotism & Campaign Finance Chicanery
My first-person account of my run for public office — the narrative nonfiction book Don’t Knock, He’s Dead: A Longshot Candidate Gets Schooled in the Unseemly Underbelly of American Campaign Politics — is replete with examples of corruption, malfeasance, deception, power plays, lust, shenanigans, shell games and other mechanisms that help office holders keep their buckets full and padlock the iron gates against intruders.
Here’s another political power tale that didn’t make the cut for the book from Sirenian Publishing, but includes some of the elements and may be added:
[NOTE: Names have been changed. Facts haven’t]
For a campaign story that contains multiple political shenanigans rolled into one endeavor — nepotism, cronyism, money shell games, political dynasties and bosses, powerful slates created to enrich one candidate, muddled, misdirected or deceptive fundraising requests, coyness about poorly concealed political intentions – look no further than the Orlovski family from Dundalk, a blue-collar community neighboring Baltimore known for its brick row houses and supplying labor to the once-thriving, now defunct Bethlehem Steel plant and shipbuilding yard. Dundalk’s population decreased 27 percent over a 30-year period, tracking the decline of its lifeblood industries.
Dundalk is the type of place known for spawning old-style, pro-labor Chicago-like political bosses who dominate the landscape, strangle power like a World Wrestling Entertainment chokehold and determine who will rise to join the elite club, one that apparently commonly includes members with the “Jr.” suffix. After a half-century of rule, octogenarian Maryland Senator Marvin Rockledge, Jr. of Dundalk announced in 2013 it was time to leave the state legislature after 52 years and 13 consecutive terms. A media report said Rockledge rose to power after joining a local Democratic political club and getting a request (or a non-negotiable order?) from a club political boss known as “Iron Mike” to run for state delegate.
Rockledge didn’t leave the legislature empty-handed; he descended from the throne holding hands with Jimmy Orlovski, Jr., throwing his support to his hoped-for successor at Orlovski’s fundraiser and Senate announcement event the day after Rockledge made his retirement intentions known.
Orlovski, Jr. had a valuable political boss in his corner: his father, Jimmy Orlovski, Sr., a four-term Baltimore County Council member. Certainly, the senior Orlovski’s status as the east-side’s leader in the 800,000-population county surrounding Baltimore had something to do with Jimmy Orlovski, Jr. being appointed in 2006 to fill a vacated Maryland delegate seat at the tender age of 23, a year after starting a teaching career.
Later that year, young Jimmy won election to the Maryland House in his own right, and was re-elected in 2010. As it became clear that the aging Rockledge was on his last legs as Eastern Baltimore County’s state senator, the money shell game involving new political slates with altruistic-sounding monikers and influential, well-heeled politicians began.
Money Shell Game
First, Baltimore County Executive and rumored 2018 Maryland governor candidate David Denison transferred more than $100,000 from his campaign account to A Better Baltimore County Slate in early 2013. Members of that slate included Denison, Jimmy Orlovski, Sr. and two other local politicians.
Around the same time, another similar-sounding slate – Baltimore County Leadership Fund Slate – was established. That slate was comprised of the Orlovski father-son duo and three other local candidates.
Then, in early 2014, A Better Baltimore County Slate transferred $90,000 to the campaign account of Orlovski, Sr., even though he had announced he was retiring from the Baltimore County Council. So, in essence, Denison had given Orlovski, Sr., who had previously campaigned for Denison, a huge pot with which to play kingmaker by redistributing to other preferred candidates on his way out of office.
For some reason, Orlovski, Sr. held on to that $90,000 gift, which, when combined with his existing campaign fund, armed him with nearly $200,000 heading into an election in which he was not running. He gave sparingly to several Baltimore County Leadership Fund candidates during the 2014 election cycle, keeping his own account stout.
Perhaps that was because son Jimmy Orlovski, Jr. already was flush with cash and was running against a pauper Republican candidate that the political news outlet Center Maryland called a “non-entity” in a Democrat-dominated district that had elected the same Democrat to the state Senate since the 1960s.
Perhaps it was overconfidence – or a case of political hubris. But there must have seemed no way Billy Roy Townley, a former steel worker for more than 30 years with no political experience whose bio said only “attended” – not graduated – high school could defeat the two-term delegate Orlovski, Jr., an educator pursuing his doctorate in public policy who had already risen to chairman of Baltimore County’s House Delegation in the Maryland legislature and whose father was the widely-known, influential politician at the county level.
Money No Match for Anger
Jimmy Jr. outspent Townley by 20 to 1 in the election year — $242,000 to $12,000 – and, stunningly, lost, apparently the victim of the region’s shrinking Democratic labor vote and the trend of struggling, angry white working class voters bucking The Establishment and changing allegiances, the kind of surge that two years later powered Republican Donald Trump to the presidency.
Orlovski, Jr. “ran into a buzz saw of discontent in Dundalk, where voters were apparently sick of the three Os: the Orlovskis, [Maryland Governor Martin] O’Malley and Obama,” the Baltimore Sun analyzed.
Jimmy Jr., an acknowledged rising star among Democrats with all the insider connections, was unceremoniously tossed out, replaced by a political nobody, an outsider whose only listed credentials included membership in United Steel Workers of America and the Dundalk Moose Lodge, and service as a deacon and choir singer at the local Baptist church.
I can only imagine the Orlovskis incredulity at the family dinner table. The burgeoning family political dynasty upended by a career lunch-bucket steelworker who might not even have held his high school General Equivalency Diploma (GED)? Perhaps Pops should have slid Sonny an extra $100,000 through a slate financing scheme before the election so Jimmy Jr. could have enjoyed a 30 to 1 spending advantage. But in politics, as in baseball, there’s always next year.
Follow the Bouncing Dollar Bill
It didn’t take long for the Orlovskis to jump-start a revival for Jimmy Jr.’s now-moribund political career. A month after the November 2014 election fiasco, the Orlovski duo began fueling the family’s political rebirth. Just follow the bouncing dollar bill:
Jimmy Sr. transferred $130,000 from his own campaign account to the Baltimore County Leadership Fund Slate, whose five-candidate membership included both Orlovskis.
Two days after that transfer, the Baltimore County Leadership Fund Slate wrote a $130,000 check to Friends of Jimmy Orlovski, Jr., easily avoiding the law that limits transfers between candidates’ campaign accounts to $6,000 in an election cycle. Maryland slates are permitted to transfer unlimited amounts to the campaign accounts of individual members of the slate.
So, let’s review, diagram and simplify. Essentially, County Executive Denison gave a boatload of his cash to a slate comprised of a handful of candidates with the philanthropic-sounding goal of improving the community, A Better Baltimore County.
That slate gave $90,000 of the county executive’s cash to a politician who was retiring, thus had no need for campaign money, Orlovski, Sr. Senior funneled the county executive’s money, plus some of his own, through a second slate, the Leadership Fund, to which he belonged.
The cash sat in the Leadership Fund just long enough for the check to clear before that second slate dumped the whole lump sum of $130,000 into Orlovski, Jr.’s coffers.
Within nine months, the Leadership Fund Slate was shuttered, its apparent primary purpose of enriching and regenerating the Orlovskis political endeavors having been served.
Convoluted Political Resurrection
Like many ousted politicians, Orlovski, Jr. promptly signed up for a $90,000 lobbying gig with Baltimore City’s transportation department in 2015, where he could take advantage of fresh ties to influence former legislative colleagues.
Soon after, Orlovski, Jr. launched his political resuscitation, in convoluted fashion. In 2016, Orlovski, Jr. formed something called “Better Baltimore County,” not to be confused with A Better Baltimore County Slate, which was closed in January 2016. The website for Better Baltimore County described it as an organization created to “tell the stories of…unsung heroes and to inspire creative new partnerships.”
The Better Baltimore County website also included an authority line (Authority: Friends of Jimmy Orlovski, Jr., Ken Brandt, Treasurer) indicating it was tied to Orlovski, Jr.’s ongoing political campaign committee, designating the website as political marketing material. The same authority line appeared on Orlovski, Jr.’s personal website, which did little more in 2016 than promote Orlovski, Jr.’s Better Baltimore County and his career and personal background without announcing any particular political aim or office.
Orlovski, Jr. sponsored a fundraiser in August 2016 that the Dundalk Eagle said fueled speculation that he was considering a campaign for public office. Center Maryland reported earlier in the year that Orlovski, Jr. was one of three Democrats mobilizing to replace County Executive Denison, whose term would expire in 2018.
But Orlovski, Jr. remained coy, according to the Eagle, claiming that the money raised would fund his new creation, Better Baltimore County, giving only a vague nod that he was “keeping an open mind about 2018.”
The fundraiser was advertised on Orlovski, Jr.’s personal website, which makes no mention of Orlovski, Jr. being a candidate for any political office. So, what was the money contributed really for, Orlovski, Jr. the politician or some nebulous conception to promote people, businesses and organizations of Orlovski, Jr.’s choice through Better Baltimore County, honorees who, of course, could return the favor and assist Orlovski, Jr. in the event of a future Orlovski, Jr. candidacy?
Which begs the question: Was the benevolent, business-oriented Better Baltimore County and Orlovski, Jr.’s political quest one and the same, just an extension of an ambitious man’s ambiguous political campaign, as intertwined as the two entities were?
Nowhere on the Better Baltimore County website did it indicate that the group was registered as an official nonprofit organization or that it had any director, staff or supervisory board. In other words, it appeared accountable only to Orlovski, Jr. Apparently, Better Baltimore County was Orlovski, Jr. and Orlovski, Jr. was Better Baltimore County.
Was the organizational creation with the noble-sounding name, Better Baltimore County, just an ornamental tool used as a smokescreen to generate money for the real purpose: to help Orlovski, Jr. return to public office?
Orlovski, Jr.’s intention to highlight positive community works and foster collaboration may have been pure. But as an outsider looking in, Better Baltimore County and Orlovski, Jr., the overthrown politician, seem so enmeshed that I can’t help but think there is something concealed going on, if not downright disingenuous.
But it is not surprising, nor unusual. It is just part of the tangled web of politics that is best and most readily, expediently and successfully spun by insiders, for their advantage, to feed what often grows to an insatiable desire to wield influence, attract followers, bask in the limelight and gratify ego – and for many, Orlovski, Jr. certainly possibly included, to also advocate for their notion of the public good in the process.