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Olszewski, Bhandari square off in Maryland’s 2nd Congressional District race

From left to right: Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski and Del. Harry Bhandari. They are vying for Maryland's Second Congressional seat, which is being given up by veteran Rep. C. A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger. Photos by John Lee/WYPR.
John Lee
From left to right: Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski and Del. Harry Bhandari. They are vying for Maryland's Second Congressional seat, which is being given up by veteran Rep. C. A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger.

Early voting is underway for Maryland’s May 14 primary election. WYPR is profiling races in the Baltimore region, and today we look at the race for the Democratic nomination in the state’s Second Congressional District.

It pits an immigrant who is a two-term state legislator against a well-financed county executive who has been on the political scene for nearly 20 years.

They are vying for the seat being given up by veteran Rep. C. A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger.

On a recent evening in his book lined basement office in his home in Overlea, Del. Harry Bhandari was dialing for dollars, asking people to support his Congressional campaign.

Bhandari is a Nepalese American. He said a lot of his financial support is coming from that community. So when he calls, he often has to educate them on how the U.S. political system works.

“Like why I’m running, where the money goes, the transparency and that sort of thing,” Bhandari said.

He said his life is a real American story.

Bhandari came to the U.S. in 2005 and fell in love with this country. He worked at a gas station and a Subway. He got a job as a substitute teacher in the city schools. He completed his education, earning a Ph.D at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He currently teaches global politics at Mervo High School in Baltimore City.

Bhandari ran for the Maryland House of Delegates in 2014 and lost. He ran again and won in 2018 and was reelected in 2022.

Bhandari said, “I want to be a voice of those who don’t have a voice.”

He added, “This country has given me a tremendous opportunity and I want to give back to the community, state and country.”

Legislation Bhandari pushed through the 2024 General Assembly includes one that requires movie theaters to provide closed captioning and another that sets up a commission to study long ER wait times.

Bhandari is hoping voters will check him out.

“They need to elect not the politician, the everyday guy,” Bhandari said. “So I’m that guy.”

County Executive Johnny Olszewski appears to have every political advantage in the 2nd congressional district race.

For the past five and a half years, as county executive, he has made a name for himself throughout Baltimore County. The county contains more than three quarters of the second district’s population, which also includes much of Carroll County and a small piece of Baltimore City. As of the end of March, Olszewski had nearly $500,000 on hand to fund his campaign, compared to Bhandari’s around $68,000.

During his April 11 budget message to the County Council, Olszewski sounded confident it would be his last despite the two years remaining on his term.

Olszewski said, “As I deliver my sixth and potentially my last budget as county executive, I’m proud to say that we have delivered on that promise.”

That promise, said Olszewski, is pushing Baltimore County to reach its highest potential. He said he’s done that by running a transparent government and working with a politically-divided County Council.

“I think it’s a model for our country and it’s a record I’m very proud of,” Olszewski said.

Olszewski was raised on Baltimore County politics. His father served 16 years on the County Council. Olszewski got started early, serving as the student member on the county school board in 1999.

He was a teacher in the county schools for seven years. In 2006 he was appointed to fill an open seat in the House of Delegates. He held that seat until he lost a race in 2014 for the state senate. Then four years later he pulled off his political comeback, winning the Democratic nomination for county executive by 17 votes.

When asked if he wondered where he would be if he had lost that election Olszewski said, “All the time, all the time. It’s just a reminder every day that it’s a blessing to have this opportunity.”

Olszewski said his experience being county executive is perhaps what makes him the most qualified candidate to replace Ruppersberger, who also once held that position.

“Really seeing day in and day out everything from health care to housing, how policies are and are not working at the federal level and how that makes people’s lives better locally," Olszewski said.

Olszewski, like Bhandari, has a Ph.D from UMBC.

There are four other Democrats in the race including Sia Kyriakakos, Maryland’s 2017 teacher of the year. In the last campaign finance filing she had about $2000 cash on hand.

Kyriakakos said the system is not set up for “me and you to actually run for office.”

She acknowledges she will not win the Democratic primary.

“Here I am a woman, middle aged, I’m 55, I’m a teacher, I’m a mom, first generation Greek American, there is no space for me right here. I have no seed money. I don’t have political backing.”

She added, “It’s really inequitable. For that reason alone it makes me want to run even more.”

It’s expected that the winner of the Democratic nomination will be running against conservative radio talk show host Kim Klacik in the fall. Klacik is in a three-way race for the Republican nomination.

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2
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