Upper Shore Politics: Arentz Gets Gov. Nod for Vacant Delegate Seat; Keeping Smigiel Delegate Option Open for 2014?

November 15, 2013

News Analysis

Gov. Martin O’Malley usually doesn’t come across as a man of few words on any topic, but when he is just carrying out a pro-forma requirement, he can be quite succinct. So it took just two short paragraphs for the governor to announce this week that he has formally appointed Steve Arentz, president of the Queen Anne’s County Commissioners, to fill a vacant state Delegate seat in District 36.

But the process, and local players, leading up to that appointment suggest there may be some interesting tea leaves swirling in the 2014 political pot for three Delegate seats and the lone Senate slot in the district.

Arentz won the endorsement of three of the four local Republican Central Committees in the District—Kent County, Caroline County and Queen Anne’s County. Under the state Constitution the vacant seat was clearly Arentz’ for the taking and the Governor’s appointment role was just a formality. Cecil County’s GOP panel voted well after the other committees so the inevitable outcome was known when the Cecil committee endorsed a politically unknown military retiree, John Graham of Queen Anne’s County.

There was no olive branch from the Cecil County GOP panel, which is dominated by acolytes of Del. Michael Smigiel, another District 36 representative. Smigiel is still licking his wounds from losing the appointment to the Senate seat vacated by his political ally and godfather, E.J. Pipkin, who resigned and moved to Texas. Pipkin’s departure set off a trickle-down political food fight, with Del. Steve Hershey, R-Queen Anne’s county, ultimately getting the appointment to the Senate seat. That led to Arentz getting the fill-in appointment to Hershey’s delegate seat.

The political tea leaves suggest that the Cecil GOP committee’s move was crafted to let Smigiel keep his options open about potentially running again for his own delegate seat—despite much bluster during the Senate appointment process that he would run for the old Pipkin Senate slot in 2014 regardless of whether he got appointed to the post now. By not endorsing a viable delegate candidate now, the Cecil GOP group gave Smigiel cover to, in effect, run against Arentz in 2014.

The convoluted four-county composition of District 36, and the 2010 redistricting, essentially mean that every Delegate candidate is running not only for his own seat but to fend off a potential upset by a Caroline County challenger. Caroline is the only county in the state without a designated “resident delegate” seat, so a Caroline County candidate has a shot at the designated Cecil, Kent and Queen Anne’s counties seats, all of which are currently held by Republicans.

Caroline County Commissioner Jeff Ghrist has already filed his candidacy for Delegate in 2014, and local Republicans say they plan to mount a “single shot” campaign to boost his numbers in the GOP primary—meaning they won’t vote for anyone else even though three seats will be on the ballot.

In that scenario, candidates from the other three counties of the 36th need to get out their own supporters’ votes but also try to diminish the other guys’ vote numbers so that perhaps a Caroline County surge hits the other guy, not you. Thanks to the redistricting that greatly increased the number of Caroline County voters in the 36th, a Caroline-based candidate has, for the first time, a credible shot at knocking off one of the other county’s resident delegates.

By the voter registration numbers alone, Kent County’s incumbent Del. Jay Jacobs would appear to be most vulnerable. But Jacobs, who has already filed for re-election, is well known throughout the four counties in the district and has worked hard to listen to and work on local concerns and issues. Jacobs had nearly $11,000 in his campaign bank account as of January, the most recently required filing with the state elections board. He has continued to fundraise and should show a bigger balance when the next reports are due in January, 2014.

Arentz, who is slated to be sworn in to his new state post on Tuesday, may have an uphill climb to hold on to his new delegate seat in the 2014 elections. Outside his home county, he is largely unknown in the three other counties of the district. And he has come under fire from some aggressive and well-funded anti-growth groups in Queen Anne’s County—which has the largest number of voters included in the multi-county district. Arentz has about $13,000 in his local campaign account, and that money can be used to support a race for the delegate seat in 2014.

In contrast, Smigiel listed nearly $16,000 in his campaign account in January and has held several fundraisers in recent months. But a Senate campaign—in which there will be a crowded GOP primary field of well known candidates—could be a much more costly affair than Smigiel’s past Delegate campaigns.

Hershey and former Del. Dick Sossi have already said they will run for the GOP nomination for Senate in 2014. Sossi has more than $25,000 left over in his campaign account, even before he formally files as a candidate. And Hershey lists more than $20,000 in his campaign fund as of the most recent January, 2013 filing.

Hershey and Smigiel—and now Arentz– are barred by state law from doing campaign fundraising while the General Assembly is in session, from January to April, 2014. But Sossi is not a current delegate so he is expected to kick his fundraising into high gear then.

Sossi, currently working as a district representative for US Rep. Andy Harris (R-1), keeps up a tireless schedule of attending local events and meetings and is well-known throughout the four counties. Since seeking the Senate appointment, Hershey has become a much more visible presence at local meetings in the district and has actively sought to mend political fences with local Republicans.

So Smigiel just might opt for the cheaper option of running for Delegate again. This time around, he won’t be able to count on the financial, and political, muscle of Pipkin to help him with jointly-financed ads, mailings and robocalls as part of a ‘Smipkin” slate of candidates.

But as a stand-alone candidate, he faces some significant political challenges. He alienated Caroline County Republicans during the Senate seat appointment process, his homebase in Cecil County has a significantly smaller slice of the 36th electorate after the redistricting, and many Republicans throughout the district were turned off by his attacks on the popular Congressman Harris during a combative bid for the Senate seat appointment.

And his losing lawsuit against the Cecil County government over a political issue—Tari Moore’s shift from the Republican Party to “unaffiliated” status shortly before becoming County Executive— cost local taxpayers $40,000 in legal defense fees. The costs raised questions for many Republicans about his claims of being a “fiscal conservative” with taxpayers’ money.

The bumpy ride of the 2014 political year is already underway.

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