Dist. 36 State Delegate Seat Up for Grabs as Caroline County Candidate Falls Victim to Map Murk

October 3, 2013

“Mapmaker, mapmaker, make me a map…” (With apologies to ‘Fiddler on the Roof’)

Caroline County residents thought they had a golden opportunity to have their own “resident” Delegate in the General Assembly, after a nearly 20-year hiatus, with revised district line maps that expand the county’s voting share in the four-county 36th legislative district. But now their hopes have been dashed by the same boundary maps and rules for filling a vacant Delegate seat.

“We got screwed by the maps,” said one frustrated Caroline County Republican. “We thought the new maps would help us, but now we find we have to go by the old maps for now.”

At issue is the fact that the new boundary lines do not officially take effect until after the 2014 election. So that means a candidate for appointment to the seat vacated officially this week by Del. Steve Hershey, of Queen Anne’s County, must be a resident of the district — which includes Cecil County– as its boundaries are now drawn.

Leading Caroline County Republicans had united behind the candidacy of Jeff Ghrist, a member of the Caroline County Board of Commissioners. But, as it turns out, Ghrist lives in the newly expanded Caroline County portion of the district under the new maps but he is outside the limits under the current, “old” maps.

After consulting with the state Attorney General’s office, local GOP officials concluded that Ghrist was out of the running for the appointment process to fill the vacancy.

That just adds another complex twist to the already convoluted process that began when state Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R-36) stunned the state political world by announcing he was resigning from the seat he had held for more than a decade to move to Texas to study sports management. That set off a month of turmoil in the four counties of the district—Caroline, Cecil, Queen Anne’s and Kent— among local Republican Central Committees that each had one vote to pick a replacement, since Pipkin was a Republican and the state Constitution specifies that a vacancy be filled from the same political party.

Caroline and Kent counties backed Hershey while Cecil and Queen Anne’s—after a controversial re-vote process—endorsed Del. Michael Smigiel, of Cecil County. With that deadlock, Gov. Martin O’Malley was empowered to break the tie and he chose Hershey. Hershey was sworn in to the Senate on Tuesday 10/1/13, after officially resigning his Delegate seat, and that set off another 30-day clock for the four counties’ GOP panels to pick a replacement in the House of Delegates for Hershey.

Rob Willoughby, chair of the Caroline County Republican Central Committee, said the four local GOP committees in the 36th District will accept applications until 10/14/13. It will be up to each local panel to decide how to review the applicants but, he added, it is hoped that this time all four committees will vote at the same time and announce their decisions simultaneously.

In contrast, the process for selecting candidates to fill Pipkin’s Senate seat was a topsy-turvy, every-committee-for-itself affair, as panels voted on different dates and made individual announcements– including a vote tally revealed on a personal Facebook page and internet radio show by Andi Morony, chair of the Queen Anne’s County GOP committee and also a paid employee of Smigiel, working as his legislative chief of staff.

Caroline County was the last panel to vote, and members were subjected to a concerted telephone and email campaign by Smigiel supporters demanding that he be given the seat. Smigiel claimed that Rep. Andy Harris (R-1) had tried to intervene and block support for Smigiel, but multiple GOP sources say the only pressure panel members received was from Smigiel backers.

This time around, the process for filling the Delegate seat is limited to candidates from Caroline and Queen Anne’s counties—since the other two counties of the district are already represented: Cecil, by Smigiel, and Kent County by Del. Jay Jacobs (R). While the Senate seat drew a roster of 14 applicants, the geographical limits could narrow the Delegate field to fewer candidates.

The map issues in Caroline County now make Queen Anne’s County Commissioner Steve Arentz, president of that panel, the most visible contender for the appointment. Arentz had already contacted GOP committees in the four counties to declare his candidacy for the appointment and has been actively seeking support.

“I would hope they would give me a hearing and full consideration,” he said of the committees. Arentz, who had earlier applied for the Senate vacancy, was interviewed by the Kent and Queen Anne’s panels during that process, but Caroline and Cecil did not conduct formal interviews of candidates at that time.

Arentz, a businessman and real estate operator who has been president of the county commissioners in his home county for three years, told Cecil Times in a recent interview that he believed his track record in working to resolve financial problems the county faced when he came into office gave him experience that would serve the district well in Annapolis. He also cited work with state agencies to get a needed emergency hospital and to win waivers of state education rules for county schools as further evidence of his experience in getting things done to aid local residents.

“I’m a detail-oriented person,” Arentz said. He described his political style as a “mix” between the low-key Del. Jacobs and the more aggressive style of Del. Smigiel. “I do have opinions,” he said, and he is not afraid to stand up for his convictions. But he said he prefers to work constructively on issues and avoid “calling people names.”

Meanwhile, Caroline County Republicans had pinned their hopes on Ghrist, a veteran county commissioner who also ran against Harris for the Republican nomination for the congressional seat before pulling out and backing Harris. They had also hoped to have a sympathetic response from Republicans in Kent County, which like Caroline is a small-population community.

But with Ghrist out of the appointment picture due to the map murk, Caroline County Republicans have to figure out a strategy for getting their long-held dream: a resident Delegate. Caroline is the only county in the state without a resident Delegate and has not had a local representative in nearly 20 years.

It’s too early in the process to see who else might apply for the vacant seat, but one strategy for Caroline countians could be sitting out the appointment process and focusing on the 2014 election—when whoever gets the appointment will have to defend the seat. An appointee will be subject to state laws that ban fundraising by sitting Delegates during the four-month General Assembly session that ends in April. The primary election will be held in early June, 2014.

Voters in all four counties of the 36th District vote for candidates for all three Delegate seats and running for election in the sprawling geography of the district requires a substantial campaign warchest.

Under the new maps for the 2014 election, state Planning Department figures show that Cecil County will lose some of its past clout while Caroline County gains a lot in the four-county district. The voting-age population totals for the re-drawn 36th are as follows:

Queen Anne’s: 36,525
Cecil: 26,983
Caroline: 18,170
Kent: 16,718
(Total: 98,396)

(In addition, 6,660 southern Caroline County potential voters are split off into District 37B, with Dorchester County.)

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