Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger’s leading successor running as pro-Israel moderate

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. told JI that Israel is ‘one of our most critical allies’

As one of Maryland’s veteran House members, Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD), prepares to retire at the end of his current term, his likely successor is vowing to uphold the congressman’s long-standing commitment to supporting Israel in Congress, where Democratic divisions over Middle East policy have sharpened in the wake of Hamas Oct. 7 attack.

“Israel is one of our most critical allies in what remains a very dangerous and unstable part of the world,” Johnny Olszewski Jr., the popular Baltimore County executive, said in an interview with Jewish Insider last week. “It’s so important that we continue to support and stand with Israel, that we acknowledge its right to exist and its right to defend itself.”

Olszewski, a 41-year-old Democrat who launched his campaign days after Ruppersberger, 78, announced his plans to step down late last month, said he would seek “to build on Dutch’s legacy of being involved and engaged” on national security issues. The 11-term congressman, a former ranking member of the powerful House Intelligence Committee, “provides a great model across the board to follow,” Olszewski averred, “and certainly that includes issues of global importance.”

The model set by Ruppersberger, a moderate lawmaker devoted to bipartisan initiatives, will be difficult to emulate as both parties have grown increasingly polarized and warring Democratic factions butt heads over the Biden administration’s continued support for Israel in its ongoing effort to eliminate Hamas.

But Olszewski, who goes by the nickname “Johnny O,” insisted that he was up to the task, touting a record of working with Republicans as county executive over the past five years. “I’m someone who believes that Washington is ready for a new generation of leadership,” he said, reiterating a line from his campaign announcement. “Leaders who can work together to find compromise without compromising values.”

While he does not have the primary to himself, Olszewski, a former state legislator, is widely viewed as the front-runner in the Baltimore County-based district, which is heavily Democratic and includes one of the largest Jewish populations in the country.

During his time in office, Olszewski, who is Methodist, said he has built strong relationships with local Jewish leaders, including through an interfaith advisory group, to address such issues as rising antisemitism. He said he was discouraged that a member of Maryland’s hate crimes committee, Zainab Chaudry, had praised Hamas following its attack on Israel, drawing widespread backlash.

“Incendiary and hateful language has no place in our discourse,” Olszewski told JI. “I have concerns about how that language inhibits the ability of groups like that to actually conduct its work.”

He did not confirm if he believed that Chaudry, the director of the Maryland branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, should stay on the commission amid efforts to eject her. She was suspended for her comments last November but has since been reinstated by the state attorney general’s office, which said it did not have the authority to remove her from the commission.

Speaking to the tensions over Gaza animating his own party, meanwhile, Olszewski rejected growing calls for a cease-fire, even as he voiced concerns about civilian casualties. “Like many, I’d like to see the war end,” he said. “We all want a cessation of hostilities. We all want hostages to be returned. We all would like to see a respite for affected innocent civilians in Gaza. I think we all want to see a future of peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians.”

But he stressed that an “immediate stop” would all but ensure that Hamas “would remain in power and allow it to continue to plan future attacks.”

“Ultimately, I hope that we see a sustainable solution that provides security for Israelis and addresses humanitarian needs in Gaza,” he said. “But in any arrangement, it must ensure the release of all the hostages and ensure that Hamas is no longer posing a threat to Israelis or to the people of Gaza.”

He also gave a relatively positive review of President Joe Biden’s approach to the conflict, as his administration seeks to exert pressure on Israel to scale down its offensive in Gaza. “I think the president is trying to thread a very, very delicate needle,” Olszewski told JI. “It’s not a situation that offers easy answers.”

Summarizing his own view, he explained that his support for Israel is “coupled with a commitment to” finding a diplomatic solution “that reflects both a balanced and pragmatic approach to lasting peace.”

“As a member of Congress, I would want to stay connected to doing all that I can to address these issues, including visiting Israel,” said Olszewski, who has never been to the Jewish state. “But anchoring in fundamental truths about Israel’s right to exist and defend themselves from attack.”

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