Steve Hershey Named to State Senate in Dist. 36 as Governor Rejects Cecil County Del. Smigiel; Caroline Commissioner Seen as Top Prospect for Delegate Seat

September 18, 2013

Governor Martin O’Malley announced Wednesday he has appointed Republican Del. Steve Hershey, of Queen Anne’s County, to the state Senate– rejecting Cecil County Del. Michael Smigiel’s bid to fill the seat vacated by his former political ally and mentor E.J. Pipkin. As a result, there will be a new process to fill Hershey’s Delegate seat, with Jeff Ghrist, a Caroline County commissioner, having the inside track, sources say.

Hershey disclosed, via Facebook, that he had a late Tuesday evening phone call from the governor informing him that he had been selected for the post. “I am both thrilled and humbled by all the support I received during this appointment process,” Hershey wrote. “I am looking forward to serving the 36th District in this new role.”

Since Pipkin—who surprised the local and state political world in early August by announcing he was resigning his seat and post as state Senate Minority Leader to move to Texas and study sports management—was a Republican, it was up to the local GOP party committees in the district to pick a replacement to fill out the year and a half remainder of his term.

But the four Republican Party Central Committees in the 36th District tied between Hershey and Smigiel. Under the state Constitution, the governor has the power to fill a vacant legislative seat if the local party committees tie or deadlock on a preferred successor. Hershey won the support of the Caroline and Kent county GOP committees, while Smigiel won the endorsement in Cecil County and, eventually, Queen Anne’s County after a controversial re-vote process.

Gov. O’Malley, who is a Democrat, said in a statement issued Wednesday that he picked Hershey because he had “demonstrated the broadest electoral support in the district” in both the last general election and in the recent GOP Central Committee votes in the district. The Governor noted that the choice was put on his shoulders only because the local GOP committees could not make the decision themselves.

True, but a few caveats: Hershey was the top vote getter of the Delegate candidates in the four counties of the 36th District in 2010, but he had no general election opponent. (He defeated incumbent Del. Richard Sossi in the GOP primary and Democrats had not fielded a candidate for the general election.) In the recent vote-a-thon of the GOP central committees, Hershey won a total of 16 individual votes to Smigiel’s 12, sources said. (The local tallies, sources said, were Caroline County providing 9 votes for Hershey, 1 from Cecil County, 4 from Kent County and 2 from Queen Anne’s County. Smigiel got 8 votes from Cecil and, eventually, 4 from Queen Anne’s.)

In practical political terms, Hershey was widely expected to be the governor’s choice because of his low-key demeanor, in contrast with the abrasive style of Smigiel, who has sued the governor several times and attacked O’Malley in personal terms.

The governor said the appointment of Hershey to the Senate seat was “effective immediately.” But Hershey will have to submit a formal resignation of his Delegate seat and that will set off a new timeclock to fill his House seat: 30 days for the four counties’ GOP committees to pick a candidate.

But that process may be a lot quicker than the drawn out battle for filling the Senate seat, in which Smigiel attacked Hershey and “outside forces” that he claimed were working against him. Smigiel eventually named US Rep. Andy Harris (R-1) as his alleged antagonist and attacked the broadly popular GOP congressman, who denied any role in the local process of picking a successor to Pipkin. (Pipkin unsuccessfully opposed Harris in a GOP primary for Congress, and there has been no love lost between the Harris and Smigiel/Pipkin—‘Smipkin’– political camps ever since.)

Caroline County—which is the only county in the state with no resident delegate for nearly 20 years—is determined to get a voice in the General Assembly and under the new redistricting following the 2010 census, the county has its first real shot at winning one of the three Delegate seats in the 36th District. So, sources say, the Caroline County GOP committee is likely to unite behind the candidacy of a county commissioner—Jeff Ghrist of Ridgely– to fill the newly vacant Hershey Delegate seat.

And, sources say, the Kent County GOP panel is sympathetic to the Caroline County agenda—so Ghrist could get the support of two of the four counties’ GOP Committees.

But Queen Anne’s County—which has the largest population of the gerrymandered 36th District—is expected to support the candidacy of Steve Arent, a county commissioner, sources told Cecil Times.

That leaves an open question about the Cecil County GOP committee, which is controlled by Smigiel after the Smipkin political organization installed a solid majority of its sympathizers on the panel in the 2010 election. Some sources suggest that the Cecil panel could ‘sit out’ the process to fill the newly open Delegate seat—as a way to protest the loss of the Senate seat for Smigiel.

If so, that could mean that the Caroline County candidate, Ghrist, would get support from two GOP panels—with the end result that he would have the majority and win the seat.

“One thing is clear—Smigiel hates Caroline County now and he blames them” for not giving him their support for the Senate seat, a knowledgeable local source told Cecil Times. “So Smigiel and his people may try to do something to hurt their chances” to get a Delegate seat.

Looking ahead to the 2014 election—in which Hershey will have to defend his new Senate seat and whoever gets the open Delegate seat will have to run to keep it—there is a whole new dynamic. With Pipkin, and his political and financial muscle, gone from the local political scene, it is every man for himself. (So far, no women have filed candidacies or been seriously mentioned as candidates for the seats.)

While Hershey will have the incumbency advantage, however brief, for the Senate seat, there are several Republicans nipping at his heels in the 2014 election.

Smigiel has said he will give up his Delegate seat and run for Senate, while Dick Sossi—who lost by just 124 votes to Hershey in the GOP primary for Delegate in 2010—has declared he is “in it to win it” to run for the Senate seat in 2014. And Dr. Eric Wargotz, a former Queen Anne’s County Commissioner and failed GOP candidate for US Senate, has declared his plans to run for the state Senate slot.

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