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What's Up Magazine

James J. King

Jan 30, 2015 02:11PM ● By Cate Reynolds
He’s the big engine that could…and did. An economy driver for the county and former state delegate who’s helped shape the business landscape. More than 600 employees in Anne Arundel County currently call him boss and though his physical stature is impressive, James King is approachable and converses easily, as I learned when I met with him two days prior to Thanksgiving at his recently opened Blackwall Hitch restaurant in Annapolis.

As King finished briefing restaurant management, I stepped into what could be considered a VIP den tucked within the confines of the upscale, well-appointed Hitch. It’s a cozy space with large brown leather couches and where we eventually sprawl to discuss King’s endeavors past and present. One point crystallizes instantly when our talk begins; King absolutely, positively loves business, loves this community (Anne Arundel County), and the symbiotic relationship he has worked so hard to foster between the two.

He didn’t always envision himself a politician, but growing up in Reagan-era Washington, D.C., the son of two federally employed parents (Mom a Democrat, Dad a Republican), King was always aware and in debate. “The dinner table was always talk of politics,” he recalls. Nor did King believe a career in the culinary and hospitality industry was in the cards. Sure, he worked as a dishwasher, later a busboy then waiter, at several politico powerhouse restaurants as a teenager, but it was Criminal Justice that he studied while at St. Leo College in Tampa, Florida.

Yet the two worlds would eventually collide for King, whose post-collegiate pursuits of law enforcement were sidelined by an offer to run a friend’s Georgetown bar. “I tried the bar job for a couple years and never looked back,” King says grinning. “I loved it. I love the challenges this industry brings every day.”

When King eventually settled in Anne Arundel County and opened the first of his now six restaurants (J. KING’s, Blackwall Hitch, and four Greene Turtles), he had a crash course in business management, permitting, legislation, etc. It’s when politics seemed to first percolate in his mind.

“As I started navigating my way through being an entrepreneur in the business world, I realized that a lot of the hurdles and challenges I faced on a day-to-day basis seemed to be overburdening, repetitive, and non-efficient,” he says. “As I looked at the political landscape, I realized that less than two percent of legislators had any business background whatsoever. I saw a real void there for a voice in Annapolis.”

So King ran for the Maryland House of Delegates, District 33A, in 2006 and won, serving his term from January 2007 through 2011. “My platform was very simple; it was small business. To be a voice for small business in Annapolis,” Kings says. He becomes more enthusiastic, the more he discusses his term.

“I loved it. I learned a tremendous amount. I think I was in a bipartisan way to affect real change. In Maryland, in a very Democratic state, and as a Republican, you have to be a problem solver, work with people, and have the right personality to accomplish goals. I worked very hard at it. At the end of the day, you can accomplish things by working with people, if you do it in the right tone.”

Though prodded, King won’t pick any single piece of legislation he’s most proud of. “Being able to take a lot of raw bills and turn them into positive pieces of legislation that didn’t hurt the business community. To get creative and offer an amendment; work with it, tweak it, and be able to accomplish what is wanted, while not having a negative impact.”

It’s creativity that ultimately pulled him to and from government. While in term, King was growing as a restaurateur, expanding his portfolio of restaurants. He would decide not to re-run for his seat, allowing him to focus on family (wife Katie and now, 1-year-old son Cooper) and the private sector, something he relishes to this day.

“At this point in my career, I think I’ve become a problem solver. I like that challenge. Every day it’s something different.” In addition to his restaurant enterprises, King developed a consulting and public relations firm, Blue Water Strategies.

“With consulting, I get the satisfaction that I’m still helping people create jobs. This is where I live, my kids will go to school. I want Anne Arundel County to be the best county in Maryland. Part of that is job creation, helping local government,” he says.

And there are certainly parallels between the hospitality industry and politics. “I grew up with 1,000 members of the general public per week coming in to my restaurant and my job was to please them. My job has always been to provide good customer service.” In politics that number grew to 50,000 constituents. Today, with his six current restaurants and four additional that are planned, he’ll soon be back to serving that number again.

In fact, his extracurricular endeavors have probably pushed that number already. Currently, King is a member of the Governor’s Commission on Congressional and Legislative Redistricting; a member of the Video Lottery Terminal Commission; and board member of the Gambrills Crossroads Business Group. Sitting on boards is nothing new, he’s been on no less than 15 before.

“But,” he says, “I want to make sure I can give 100 percent.” That 100 percent includes giving back to the community, as his restaurants have funneled charitable donations to more than 1,000 recipients alone in the past year— from medical fundraisers to little league baseball teams. “You have to give back to the community that keeps you in business. It goes back to that bigger picture of making Anne Arundel County the best place to live.”

Most recently, King was tapped by incoming Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh to chair his Transition Team. When I prod again, this time about whether or not it’s an indicator he’ll revisit politics, King laughs and says, “I’m absolutely flattered when people ask me ‘When are you going to run again?’ I take that as a compliment, that I did my job well. But there is no more politics for me as an elected official…at least, not until my son is in college.”