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Theodore G. “Ted” Venetoulis, a former Baltimore County executive who was a power player in Maryland politics and civic life for more than half a century, has died, Maryland Matters has learned. He was 87.
No information on cause of death was immediately available Thursday morning.
The son of Greek immigrants, Venetoulis (D) was already an accomplished political strategist and congressional aide when he was elected county executive in 1974 at the age of 40. He was a political reformer perfectly suited for the post-Watergate era — and followed two county executives, Spiro T. Agnew (R) and Dale Anderson (D), who were indicted by the federal government on multiple corruption charges. His campaign slogan that year was “throw the rascals out.”
“The county was really kind of stuck in the backwash of corruption and the way it had operated for many years,” Venetoulis recalled in a recent Baltimore Sun interview.
Venetoulis was a hard-working county executive, credited with modernizing Baltimore County government, pushing environmental initiatives, preparing for suburban growth, and attempting to dismantle the Democratic political machines. But he was also considered a publicity hound, earning the moniker “TV Teddy.”
“As county executive I held town meetings, the first ones in Baltimore County,” Venetoulis said during a 1978 Washington Post interview. “I rode on garbage trucks, made district tours, opened up government meetings to the public, which I thought showed I was interested in an open government. Others called it a public relations stunt. It’s a matter of perception but I know why I did what I did.”
While county executive, Venetoulis helped engineer California Gov. Jerry Brown’s improbable victory in the 1976 Maryland Democratic presidential primary.
But Venetoulis’ career as an elected official only lasted four years: Rather than seeking reelection in 1978, he lost a bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination that year, finishing third in the primary with 24.5% of the vote. Harry R. Hughes, a former state Transportation secretary, leap-frogged the Democratic field, which included acting Gov. Blair Lee III, following an early and rare front-page endorsement from the Sun.
Running for governor in 1978 was a decision Venetoulis later came to regret. His running mate that year, Anne Arundel County Councilmember Ann Stockett, was the first woman to run for lieutenant governor on a major statewide ticket, according to The Washington Post.
Yet Venetoulis’ imprint on Baltimore and Maryland politics and civic affairs remained strong even after his political career, thanks to a wealth of contacts, a lifetime of political activism, a variety of business ventures, and strategic, short-term government assignments.
For the last several years, Venetoulis was closely associated with attempts to buy the Sun and return it to local ownership, and he became an adviser to wealthy businessman Stewart L. Bainum as Bainum tried to acquire the Sun and later its parent company, the Tribune Co., earlier this year.
“If a city loses its professional sports teams, it loses its spirit. If a city loses its newspapers, it loses its soul. We fight to keep our ballclubs. It’s time to fight to keep our newspaper,” Venetoulis wrote in a 2020 Sun op-ed.
Venetoulis had his own history in publishing, as owner of Times Publishing Group, which published several weekly newspapers including the Baltimore Messenger, The Jeffersonian, Owings Mills Times and Towson Times. Later he was publisher of Corridor Inc., a business magazine that served the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., corridor. He has also owned sports publications, a weekly newspaper chain in the Washington, D.C., area, and a magazine in San Francisco.
Venetoulis has been a trustee at Goucher College; a founder and director of Columbia Bank; a commissioner of the Maryland Port Authority; a trustee of the Maryland Public Broadcasting Commission; headed the transition committee for one of his successors, the late Baltimore County executive Kevin B. Kamenetz (D), in 2010; and more recently led a charter review commission in Baltimore County.
Venetoulis aided dozens of Democratic candidates through the decades, both in Maryland and nationally, and he hosted numerous political fundraisers at his well-appointed Lutherville home. He was a lifelong friend of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her brother, the late Baltimore Mayor Thomas L.J. D’Alesandro III (D), and was frequently by Pelosi’s side when she made political appearances in Maryland.
Venetoulis’ death appears to have been sudden and unexpected. He remained active in civic and political affairs and less than a month ago, posted a tribute to the late Baltimore Sun icon H.L. Mencken on his Facebook page.
“Today is the birthday of H. L. Mencken — Baltimore’s irascible contrarian and foremost columnist whose words skewered sanctimonious behavior and sacred institutions,” Venetoulis wrote, offering excerpts of some of Mencken’s most memorable columns.
Venetoulis is survived by his wife, Lynn Morrison Venetoulis, and three children.
This story will be updated.