Cecil County, Upper Shore Senate: Hershey Woos Locals; Smigiel in Attack Mode for Dist. 36 Seat
A Cecil Times Special Report
While a political bloodbath has been unfolding in the four counties of the state legislative 36th District recently, the man who caused it has been serenely contemplating, on social media, Texas sports teams and Lone Star state oversized hamburgers. But E.J. Pipkin’s abandonment of his Maryland Senate seat, for a move to Texas and a career change, has left in its wake a political free-for-all– and what many Republicans say is a deep wound in a political party that is already on shaky ground in the state.
The political drama is heading for its curtain call, and the most likely leading man—Del. Steve Hershey– is working hard, quietly, to mend fences in the district: even as his rival, Del. Michael Smigiel, is continuing to butt heads with fellow Republicans, threaten legal action and attack personally, or via surrogates, some of the most politically influential figures in his party.
After a nearly week-long see-saw ride that is not over yet, the fight to fill the remaining year and a half of Pipkin’s Senate term is a draw: Hershey, of Queen Anne’s County, has the nod of two of the Republican Central Committees in the district’s four counties (Caroline and Kent counties) while rival Smigiel has just one solid vote—Cecil County. And the fourth county of the district is tied in knots after another candidate—former state GOP chair Audrey Scott—suddenly withdrew her candidacy last Friday after she won the endorsement of the Queen Anne’s County GOP Central Committee.
The chair of the Queen Anne’s County committee, Andi Morony—who happens to be Smigiel’s employee as his legislative chief of staff—unilaterally declared on Saturday in a Facebook post that she decreed Smigiel would be the official nominee of that county panel, without a re-vote, because Scott’s withdrawal left no other candidates having received any votes. That triggered an outpouring of objections, both locally and among state-wide Republicans, while Smigiel defended his employee’s decision.
But the Queen Anne’s GOP committee is now scheduled to hold a meeting on Tuesday in Stevensville. Indications are that if a re-vote is held, it could be a 3-3 tie vote between Smigiel and Hershey backers, sources said. One woman who initially voted for Scott but later tearfully recanted and voiced support for Smigiel is said to have removed herself from the process, leaving just six voters left.
If there is a tie in that county, the tally would be Hershey 2 votes (Caroline and Kent) Smigiel 1 vote (Cecil) and no decision from Queen Anne’s—with the result that Hershey would hold the majority of the votes and ultimately win the appointment under state law. But even if Smigiel were to eke out a victory in Queen Anne’s, that would create a 2-2 tie that would be broken by Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat. Faced with such a choice, the governor is widely expected to favor the low-key Hershey over the brash Smigiel, who has sued the governor several times and attacked O’Malley in personal terms.
The political math aside, what has really been at play in the fight is what many local GOP committee members see as heavy-handed tactics and an arrogant sense of entitlement by Smigiel.
There are indications that Smigiel got an early heads-up from Pipkin about his plans to resign. (Upon his official departure, Pipkin gave Simigiel a lukewarm endorsement but said it really wasn’t his place to decide his successor.) Smigiel has been quoted in Baltimore media as saying he got an opinion from the state Attorney General’s office over a month ago that it was ethically OK for his employee, Morony, to remain in charge of the Queen Anne’s GOP panel during this process. (Pipkin did not announce his resignation until 8/5/13, effective 8/12/13.)
And some Caroline County Republicans say privately that they suddenly got a call from Smigiel shortly before Pipkin’s announcement, offering his services to help them get a local resident delegate in the General Assembly.
Caroline is the only county in the state that has had no local representation in Annapolis for nearly 20 years but the new redistricting of the 36th after the 2010 census cut Cecil County’s share of the four-county district and boosted Caroline’s electoral share—leaving the possibility, though remote, that Caroline could beat out a Cecil or Kent county candidate for a seat among the three delegates assigned to the district. (Queen Anne’s holds the largest share of the electorate and would be an unlikely target.)
Why would Smigiel offer to perhaps undercut his own delegate seat if he were planning to run for it again?
Once Pipkin’s resignation was official, the battle began in earnest, sources tell Cecil Times. And much of the fire was far from friendly—including organized robocalls to local GOP committee members, emails and phone calls from individuals identifying themselves as calling ‘in support of Del. Smigiel,’ local GOP sources said. Many of the calls attacked Scott, including robocalls identifying the source as the state Campaign for Liberty, a Ron Paul-affiliated group that is active in Cecil and Harford counties and which has been friendly to Smigiel.
Some local GOP committee members felt they were being “harassed” by pro-Smigiel activists. And after the Caroline and Kent panels went for Hershey, some members said that Smigiel personally contacted members to harangue them, demand copies of the local committee bylaws and threatened to sue.
Meanwhile, Hershey—who won his Delegate seat in 2010 as a member of the Smigiel-Pipkin slate—known in Cecil County as the “Smipkin” political organization—was quietly acting behind the scenes to mend fences and seek local county support.
Some Cecil County Republicans not involved in the local GOP central committee said they were ‘surprised’ at personal overtures by Hershey to acknowledge past mistakes and to pledge a new openness and willingness to listen to the concerns and needs of local residents. But, sources tell Cecil Times, Hershey has not yet reached out to the local all-Republican elected county leadership that was often targeted for vehement opposition by the Smipkin organization through attack ads and political mailings.
Hershey, who worked for former Republican governor Robert Ehrlich’s campaign and served in various posts in his administration, was a political unknown when he upset incumbent Del. Dick Sossi in the 2010 GOP primary– after a last-minute mailer showing pictures of an apparently sleeping Sossi.
Sossi supporters called it a Smipkin-backed sleazy low-blow, apparently taken during a catnap off the House floor, and not reflective of Sossi’s dedicated service for years that brought him to community events and citizen meetings throughout the far-flung 36th District. Sossi has declared his intent to run in the 2014 Republican primary for the Senate seat, regardless of who is picked for the temporary appointment.
“I know that a lot of people are unhappy that I won” in 2010, Hershey told Cecil Times on Monday. “I didn’t just tell people ‘get over it’ and I’ve been trying to convince people that I will be a conduit between the local government and the state,” he said. He emphasized that he has been trying to work on local issues concerning district residents during his first term in Annapolis.
“And I’ve been working on this campaign” for the Senate seat “all by myself: no robocalls, no email banks,” Hershey added.
Indeed, members of some of the county GOP committees say that Hershey himself was the only contact they had on behalf of his quest for an endorsement—in contrast with the efforts aligned with Smigiel’s campaign.
And local Central Committee Republicans interviewed by Cecil Times strongly dispute Smigiel’s accusations that US Rep. Andy Harris (R-1) was intervening on behalf of Scott and reject claims by some conservative bloggers that current state party chair Diana Waterman was a Svengali trying to pull strings to benefit Scott.
“I never got a call from anyone associated with Harris or Waterman,” said one local voting member of a key county GOP committee. And even during a Republican event attended by Scott, she only gently asked the member for support but did not pursue the matter subsequently, the committee member said.
After the Caroline County panel voted unanimously to endorse Hershey, Smigiel erupted with recriminations and demanded copies of the committee’s bylaws and made veiled threats to sue, according to another source who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Smigiel has openly attacked Harris, the Republican Congressman from the Eastern Shore who is widely popular with area party members. Harris has denied any involvement, although he and Pipkin were political foes dating back to when Pipkin unsuccessfully challenged Harris in a party primary for the US House seat in the First District.
And a Harris aide alleged by some Smigiel backers as lobbying some local party panel members was traveling in China at the time. (Here in Earleville, in southern Cecil County, we have trouble getting our cell phones to work in the rain and have to pray that our Internet connections will function at any given time; we doubt China handles US cell phones at all or has more reliable web services.)
Some conservative bloggers have cited a purported blog comment by a part-time aide to Harris as evidence of a pro-Scott conspiracy. While it may have been an improper use of a government computer, the comments in question did not support Scott and simply stated the obvious: that Smigiel was unpopular in Cecil County, as witnessed by the fact that he was overwhelmingly defeated in the 2012 elections for a county Circuit Court judgeship.
All this drama about an interim appointment to fill out the year and a half of Pipkin’s term overlooks the fact that the real fight will be in the 2014 elections to select a four-year term replacement. The district is overwhelmingly Republican, but a bloody primary—which seems all but assured, given the cut-throat battle over the brief appointment—may give Democrats an unusual opportunity.
But that would likely mean that the state Democratic Party would have to parachute in to help select and finance a viable candidate, since the local Democratic establishment has so far been powerless to mount a winning challenge to area Republicans in recent years.
Outside the Upper Shore, the catfight over the Dist. 36 Senate seat is being seen as yet the latest evidence of a Republican Party in disarray in an already overwhelmingly Democratic state. Just within the past week the executive director of the state GOP organization resigned with nary a moment’s notice, a leading Republican delegate was busted for the second time in a few months for drunk driving/boating, and the GOP minority in the House of Delegates and Senate seemed headed for even more obscurity as veteran Republicans chose to retire from the political fray.
While the Republicans are alive and well on the Eastern Shore, the current mess in the 36th District is just the latest headache, or black eye, for the GOP in the state.