With more than two decades of experience working directly and indirectly with county government, County Councilman Kai Hagen (D) said Wednesday he is running for county executive in the 2022 election.
Hagen, 62, who also previously served on the Board of County Commissioners, the county's planning commission and in various other capacities, said he is excited for the future of Frederick County, but there is still a lot of work to be done.
He is the second Democratic member of the County Council to announce their candidacy this week for the county government's top post, after County Councilwoman Jessica Fitzwater (D).
Hagen said it's fair to say he and Fitzwater are probably more progressive politically than current County Executive Jan Gardner (D). But he thinks that helps him as he kicks off his campaign.
"It's hard to rebrand me," Hagen said. "One of the things that I think works to my advantage is that people know me, and I've been very consistent over a long period of time in terms of my values and my commitment ... to those values and issues."
The primary for county executive will be held June 28, 2022, and the general election is scheduled for Nov. 8, 2022.
The longtime Thurmont area resident has constantly fought to make climate change a local priority, arguing that many policies that are friendly to the environment are good practices, even if climate change isn't as much of a threat.
That issue, along with affordable housing, overall planning and others are all interconnected, Hagen said. And like Fitzwater, he highlighted the importance of addressing the inequities shown by the United Way's Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed (ALICE) report, which shows despite the county's growth and diversified economy, many families are living paycheck to paycheck.
One issue where Hagen differs from Fitzwater is collective bargaining and binding arbitration for the county's firefighters union. More than 70 percent of county voters approved a ballot measure on the subject in 2018.
Hagen had tried to introduce amendments to corresponding legislation, requiring that a neutral arbitrator's decision must be funded as part of the county's budget process. But those amendments failed, and the firefighters' union later sued the county for not enacting legislation in line with the ballot question and county charter.
"The council, not with my support, passed implementing legislation that did not reflect either the spirit, intent, or in my opinion, the letter of the law," Hagen said. "And I think in the long run, that's what is going to happen in court."
Hagen has sided with Fitzwater in taking a critical stance on the 287(g) program run by Sheriff Chuck Jenkins (R). That program allows sheriff’s deputies to be trained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to check the immigration status of anyone booked into the county’s detention center and begin deportation proceedings if deemed necessary.
But he also agrees with Fitzwater that the sheriff is a separately elected official, who has the power to run his or her own department per state law. And despite the executive and County Council members having control over the sheriff's budget allocation, it wouldn't make much of a difference if some funding was withheld, Hagen said.
That's in part because an audit showed the program was, at most, costing the county $21,400 annually, he said.
"A sheriff who strongly supports 287(g) isn't going to back away from it because you start to play manipulative games with other parts of their budget," Hagen said.
Karin Tome, former mayor of Brunswick from 2012-16, called Hagen the "gold standard" of elected officials, commending him for his knowledge on various county issues.
"One of the things that I look for in an elected official is integrity and he has that in spades," Tome said. "He’s genuine, he’s honest, [and] very ethical, so that’s very important to me."
Patrice Gallagher, of downtown Frederick, has worked on both of Hagen's campaigns for county commissioner, along with his run for County Council. She anticipates she will somehow be involved with his run for executive. She also was one of the original board members of Envision Frederick County, a nonprofit Hagen helped create to boost civic engagement and discussion on local issues.
The two met in the early 2000s, in part because Gallagher was concerned about local school crowding issues. She called Hagen a "natural leader" with an extensive knowledge of local issues.
"In political terms, I feel like Kai is 'what you see is what you get,'" said Gallagher, who still serves on Envision Frederick's board. "He’s very authentic, he’s going to tell you what he believes and follow through on that."
Hagen has been politically active for decades, and his family has always been plugged in to the importance of being civically engaged. His dad's uncle was Harold Hagen, who represented a Minnesota district in the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1940s and 1950s.
He said his childhood conversations around the dinner table about political issues likely helped shape his political career to this point. It might be early to declare for county executive, but a countywide race requires considerable work, he said.
"I've been saying to people, and approaching it as, this is the most important thing I will ever do, aside from family," Hagen said. "And then, if I win, being dedicated to a very demanding job for that term, starting now instead of in six months just seems smart."