Candidates Vie for Pipkin’s Vacated State Senate Seat; Queen Anne’s County Dominates Field of 14
The iron grip held on the four-county 36th legislative district by former state Sen. E.J. Pipkin ( R) for over a decade has crumbled in the past week since he announced his resignation and departure from Maryland, with a crowded field of hopefuls lining up to seek appointment to his seat. By early evening Monday, there were 14 declared candidates, sources said.
But the political dynamic of the contest— which is, at least initially, in the hands of the Republican Central Committees in each of the four counties comprising the district—could be complicated by the sheer volume of candidates and the potential for the Democratic Governor Martin O’Malley to have the final say if the committees do not unite on a single candidate.
The four counties of the district—Cecil, Queen Anne’s, Kent and Caroline—each get, in effect, one vote. State law specifies the name of a candidate receiving a majority of the county committees will be sent to the governor for automatic ratification. But if two of the committees were to pick different candidates, and another candidate got two counties’ votes, it is unclear if that would be considered a “tie” to be broken by the governor.
[Under the state Constitution, in a multi-county legislative district, "if there is a tie vote between or among the central committees the list of names there proposed shall be submitted to the Governor and he shall make the apointment from the list."]
The Cecil County GOP committee is firmly in the control of the old Smipkin political machine headed by Pipkin and Del. Michael Smigiel R-36), who has declared his candidacy to replace his old pal in the state Senate. Smigiel is a resident of Cecil County.
And Smigiel has a built-in advantage in Queen Anne’s County, where Smigiel’s chief of staff, Andi Morony, heads the county Republican Central Committee and her husband is also a member. Candidates were told they would have just five minutes for an interview with the Queen Anne’s committee Tuesday evening, sources said, indicating just a cursory review of candidates.
State legislators get a pot of money with which to pay staffers and individual staff salaries are not set by law. So Morony has a financial interest in Smigiel continuing to serve in state legislative office. Several rival camps pointed to Morony’s status as a conflict of interest, although state ethics laws generally do not apply to political committees even though members of party central committees are elected on the public ballot in primary elections every four years.
But multiple rival candidates have emerged from Queen Anne’s County, most notably former Del. Richard Sossi, who held a delegate seat in the district until 2010, when he was defeated by just 124 votes in the GOP primary by political newcomer Steve Hershey. Hershey, still serving his first term in Annapolis, has also declared his intention to seek the Pipkin Senate seat.
Also in Queen Anne’s county, Dr. Eric Wargotz, a former county commissioner and failed US Senate candidate in 2010, entered the fray, as did County Commissioner Steve Ahrentz. And former state GOP party Chair Audrey Scott signed a “taxpayer protection pledge,” sources said, as a first step to get into the race for the interim appointment.
Also on Monday, conservative political activist and former Queen Anne’s County GOP committee member Andrew Langer announced that he would run as a “placeholder” candidate just to fill the remainder of Pipkin’s term but would not run for election for a new term in the 2014 election.
Langer said his wife is an active duty member of the US Air Force and faces transfer to another location after the 2014 election so he could not in good faith imply that he would stick around for an expected GOP primary fight for the seat next year.
The primary will likely be “a very full and contentious primary,” Langer observed, speaking during an appearance on WBAL Radio Monday afternoon. He said it would be an advantage to residents of the district if he were selected as a caretaker occupant of the seat because he could focus on issues in Annapolis without the “distraction” of having to prepare a primary campaign fight at the same time. He said his strengths would be his record as a “respectful but aggressive” conservative who was not afraid to “speak truth to power.”
Langer, president of the Institute for Liberty conservative organization in the Washington DC area and a former official with the National Federation of Independent Business, has been active with area and national ‘tea party’ groups and has sought to forge ties between such groups and business organizations. He is also a former member of the Queen Anne’s GOP central committee.
Such a hefty field of local candidates could create some divisions in the hometown committee, but Smigiel’s aide controls the chairmanship of the panel.
All told, 10 of the 14 candidates were from Queen Anne’s County. Other hopefuls included Frank Frohn, John L. Graham, Tim McCloskey, and John L. Walter.
One new Cecil County name was on the list: R. Scott Bramble.
Sossi is seen as having an advantage in Kent County—where hometown favorite Del. Jay Jacobs decided to stay where he is and not seek the Senate seat. Meanwhile, Caroline County is an unknown factor—with a unique agenda of its own.
Caroline is the only county in the state without a ‘resident delegate’ in Annapolis for many years. Under new redistricting after the 2010 census, Caroline got a larger share of the 36th District while Cecil County’s electoral proportion declined—creating a distinct possibility that Caroline and not Cecil could end up with one of the three Delegate seats in the district in the 2014 election.
Two members of the Caroline County Commissioners were talked about as possible candidates for Pipkin’s Senate seat appointment but in recent days indicated they were not in the running at this time. But former Delegate Robert Thornton put his hat in the ring for the appointment and another Caroline resident, John Walton, Jr., signed up as well.
But if Smigiel were to get the Senate appointment, his Delegate seat would be open for appointment through a similar central committee balloting process. And promises of help delivering his House seat to a Caroline contender could sway that county’s GOP committee in deciding the Senate seat endorsement.
Candidates for the interim appointment were supposed to submit their applications by the end of the day on Monday. The committees have 30 days after last Monday’s effective date of Pipkin’s resignation to complete their selection process.