Cecil County Biz PAC Backs Hodge, McCarthy for Council; Sidesteps Endorsement for County Executive

February 8, 2012

A new pro-business political action committee Tuesday endorsed incumbent Republican Robert Hodge for the 5th District Cecil County Council seat and Dr. Alan McCarthy, a veterinarian challenging incumbent James Mullin in the 1st District Republican primary. But the PAC sidestepped a potentially divisive endorsement in the crucial but crowded field of candidates for Cecil County’s first-ever County Executive.

The Cecil Business Leaders for Better Government PAC, which was announced last December with much fanfare and an overflow crowd of interested citizens, is dedicated to ending the current political infighting in Elkton and electing county officials who are committed to improving the local economy.

The group also made a bipartisan endorsement Tuesday of two incumbent Circuit Court Judges: Keith Baynes, a Republican, and Jane Cairns Murray, a Democrat. Baynes and Murray have garnered endorsements from both local Republican and Democratic clubs recently. A third candidate, Del. Michael Smigiel (R-36), is challenging the sitting judges, who were appointed by the governor after they successfully completed a lengthy legal panel vetting process that Smigiel declined to go through.

But the PAC was silent on the most important political contest on this year’s local election ballot: County Executive. Three Democrats have filed for their party’s primary and there are seven Republicans fighting for their party’s nomination in the April 3 primary.

Sources said the PAC’s leadership is divided, as a strategic matter, over what might happen on the new County Council if a current county Commissioner were elected as County Executive under the new Charter form of government. Commissioner Tari Moore (R-2), a favorite of many business leaders, is seeking the GOP nomination, but Commissioner Diana Broomell (R-4) is also running in the primary.

If either one of them wins as county executive, their commissioner/council seat would be filled from a list of three candidates picked by the Republican Central Committee that is now controlled by operatives linked to the “Smipkin” political machine tied to state Del. Smigiel and Sen. E.J. Pipkin, both R-36. The concern is that there could be a 4-1 Smipkin-aligned Council majority to override any veto of legislation by the county executive—thus rendering the executive essentially powerless.

“We are still evaluating candidates for County Executive,” said Mario Gangemi, the PAC’s vice-chairman. The PAC may still endorse a county executive candidate, or not, before the April primary, he indicated.

“Given the number of candidates and the fact that their campaigns are in the early stages, the CBL, upon the recommendation of the vetting committee, felt it best to continue to monitor the candidates for county executive to determine who best exemplifies the characteristics and qualities that support our mission,” Gangemi said.

In response to a Cecil Times question, Gangemi said the PAC had interviewed some Democratic candidates for County Executive, as well as some Republican candidates. But he acknowledged the group was not interviewing all of the candidates.

“It is our opinion that other candidates have vetted themselves. They have done so either in their decisions as elected officials, in previous runs for elected office or in interviews with the local press. We see no need to further evaluate them,” Gangemi said.

Broomell is out of the question for the PAC’s support, sources said, while there is some support for the candidacy of former county Commissioner Harry Hepbron, a businessman/farmer and owner of Dove Valley Vineyard and Winery in Rising Sun. Since Hepbron, a Republican who has endorsed some Democratic local candidates in the past, is not currently a commissioner, a GOP primary win by Hepbron would not tilt control of the new County Council.

Meanwhile, despite the initial hoopla, the business leaders PAC has so far held no public fundraising events and has raised just $7,625, mostly from donations by leaders of the PAC, according to a report filed with the state Board of Elections.

The campaign finance report also showed expenditure of $1,050 for purchase of a laptop computer and printer as an administrative cost, leaving net cash balance of $6,575. However, in an unexplained discrepancy, the PAC also reported a bank account balance on the 1/11/12 filing date of $9,775—which is more than the total of all reported contributions.

Chad Johnston, who took over as treasurer of the PAC a day or so before the report filing deadline, told Cecil Times he was working to account for the discrepancy and if necessary would file an amended report with the state to fully document the PAC’s finances.

The PAC reported 22 contributions, ranging from $100 from several individuals to a high of $2,000, donated by McCoy Lincoln-Mercury of Rising Sun. Other major donors, providing $1,000 each, were Williams Family Automotive of Elkton; Mario Gangemi, vice-chairman of the PAC; and Dwight Hair, owner of Elkton Florist. Ingo Zeise donated $500, while five business entities linked to the Johnston family of Rising Sun donated $100 each, for a total of $500.

Meanwhile, leaders of the PAC did not interview Democratic primary candidates in the County Council races. Asked why the PAC seemed to be putting all its political eggs in one basket—the GOP primary—especially in the 1st District contest, Gangemi said that the PAC had recruited McCarthy and felt he was the best candidate in that southern Cecil County district. “We’re OK with taking that risk,” Gangemi said. “Endorsing another candidate for that seat would seem to violate our recruitment process,” he added.

On the Democratic side in the 1st District, Garrett Billmire, an officer of the county Democratic committee and co-owner of a business that serves the feed and grain industry, is opposed in the primary by Pamela Bailey, a schools secretary who was recruited to run four years ago by allies of Mullin because they felt she would be an easy opponent for Mullin to defeat in the general election. (She was, and Mullin easily defeated her.)

Hodge is opposed in the GOP primary in District 5 by political newcomer Keith Moore, who was an unaffiliated voter until he filed to run as a Republican a few hours before the filing deadline. On the Democratic side, former Elkton mayor James Crouse is running unopposed in his party’s primary. The PAC did not interview the other candidates running in District 5 because members felt that Hodge had clearly demonstrated a voting record in tune with the group’s pro-business and economic development priorities.

Responding to the PAC endorsement, Hodge thanked the group for its support, saying he would “work hard as hell” to “change the perception of Cecil County” as unfriendly to business. He said attracting new business opportunities to the county would benefit all citizens, with jobs and expansion of the local economy.

As a newcomer to county politics, McCarthy said his first run for county-wide office was a bit “scary” but he felt he would show voters he is “a hard worker” who can do a good job. For months before he announced his candidacy last month, McCarthy has been a regular attendee at County Commissioner worksessions and meetings as well as school board sessions.

McCarthy, a veterinarian and businessman as well as a former Chesapeake City town council member, drew praise from Norman Hunter, who recalled Dr. McCarthy’s tenacious effort to save his seriously ill beef cattle. “He wouldn’t quit,” Hunter said. “He doctored those cattle for 12 hours… and he saved most of them.”

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