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State Delegate Dist. 36 Race: Three Hoops, Four Basketballs and a Caroline County Jumpshot

June 16, 2014
By Nancy Schwerzler

COMMENTARY


The 36th District, covering four counties on Maryland’s Upper Eastern Shore, is like no other legislative district in the state and this year the contests for state Delegates are the political equivalent of “March Madness” in college basketball. But in the Republican primary’s “June madness,” an underdog player from Caroline County will get three shots at the free-throw line to try to claim one of the delegate seats.

Every state legislative district has a senator and three delegates. But the 36th is the only district in the state where candidates from four counties—Cecil, Kent, Queen Anne’s and Caroline—have to contend for just three Delegate seats. The three seats currently have a designated “resident delegate” for Cecil, Kent and Queen Anne’s—while Caroline is the only county in the entire state with no resident delegate. Caroline County last had a resident delegate about 20 years ago.

Under various redistricting maps in the interim, Caroline County has been sliced into two state districts, diluting the voting power of its smaller population even more. But the redistricting after the 2010 census, while still dividing the county into two districts, suddenly gave Caroline County residents a much better shot—but still a longshot– at getting a hometown candidate into one of the seats in District 36.

And therein lies the basketball strategy that is coming into play in the June 24 Republican primary.

Caroline County Republicans are looking to “single shoot”—voting only for their hometown candidate, Caroline County Commissioner Jeff Ghrist, and leaving their ballots blank on the candidate lines of those vying for seats from Cecil, Kent and Queen Anne’s counties. They are hoping to get their player from “the final four” into the finals of this political basketball battle by boosting Ghrist’s overall vote count and keeping down the total vote tallies of candidates from the other counties.

And that strategy gives voters in Cecil County a second shot at unseating an incumbent, if they so choose, by voting for Ghrist from Caroline County and one other Cecil County candidate. Cecil is the only county in the district with multiple local candidates vying for one seat.

Just like in “March Madness,” you need to diagram the plays and players on the various teams to figure it all out. But keep your eyes on three hoops—not the usual two– and watch the bouncing ball.

Right now, there are three hoops in District 36: the Cecil County hoop owned by incumbent Del. Michael Smigiel; the Kent County hoop, owned by incumbent Jay Jacobs; and the Queen Anne’s County hoop, owned by the recently appointed Steve Arentz. All three incumbents are Republicans.

So the incumbents can only shoot their basketball into their own county’s hoop. The same goes for challengers in Cecil County—the only county in which there are multiple candidates for delegate in the GOP primary. So the challengers to Smigiel—Cecil County Council member Alan McCarthy, Rod Heinze, and J.D. Uhler—all have to aim at the Cecil County hoop to try to unseat Smigiel.

But Ghrist, the Caroline County candidate, gets to aim at all three hoops—with the potential for scoring more overall points (votes) than a candidate for a currently designated “resident delegate” hoop.

OK, take a time-out here and review some important rules of the game.

Voters residing in all four counties covered by District 36 are allowed to vote for a total of three candidates—but only one candidate from each county. That means for the Cecil County seat– where there are four candidates all shooting for that one hoop– voters can only pick one Cecil resident.

But district-wide, a candidate’s overall vote tally will decide which counties will get a resident delegate in the newly redistricted basketball court. For example, that means if the overall top vote-getters come from Queen Anne’s, Kent and Caroline, Cecil County would become the county without a resident delegate in District 36. (However, Cecil County has representation in Annapolis from two delegate seats in District 35 that covers the western and central sectors of Cecil, including much of Elkton.)

In District 36, voters can choose to vote for fewer than the maximum of three total delegate candidates. If voters want to boost the prospects of one candidate, they could vote only for that candidate.

In Cecil County, where there are multiple candidates seeking that one seat, voters could get two shots from the free-throw line by picking one local candidate and—as a backup, insurance policy—voting for Caroline County’s Ghrist. In that way, if your preferred Cecil candidate loses to the local guy you didn’t support, that guy might be knocked out by the Caroline county guy.

The Cecil County incumbent Smigiel is the top fundraiser among the candidates for the Cecil County seat, raking in much of his donations from out-of-district political action committees (PACs) and non-district residents. Smigiel, a lawyer from Elkton who has held the seat since the 2002 election, was sitting on an unspent $20,679 campaign bank account balance as of 5/20/14, according to filings with the state Board of Elections. (Another report due last week was not yet listed on the state site. Smigiel was listed as having $40 in unpaid fines for late campaign finance report filings, according to the elections board.)

Smigiel is the apparent front-runner among candidates from the Cecil portion of the district, although Cecil County’s geographic and voter share of the 36th was reduced significantly in the 2010 redistricting that shifted more Caroline County voters into the district.

If the contest for the Cecil “hoop” in the 36th were open to all Cecil voters, the outcome would likely be different, given the shellacking Smigiel got in 2010 when he ran county-wide for a Cecil County Circuit Court judgeship. But in state Delegate races, Smigiel usually draws his biggest vote margins from the largest electorate in the 36th District, in Queen Anne’s County.

Smigiel alienated many Caroline County Republicans last year when he fought aggressively to get the appointment to fill the District 36 Senate seat vacated by his former political soulmate/boss E.J. Pipkin. The Caroline GOP Central Committee opposed Smigiel, leading to a tie among the four counties of the district so Gov. Martin O’Malley was empowered by the state Constitution to break the tie and he chose Steve Hershey of Queen Anne’s county for the Senate seat.

OK, time out for a review of some of the player “stats”—and the voter pools in each of the four counties.

In Cecil County, local elections board officials count 7,806 Republicans eligible for the District 36 primary. In Caroline County, local elections board officials cited 6,145 Republicans eligible for the portion of that county included in Dist. 36. In Kent County, there were 5,845 eligible Republicans. And in Queen Anne’s County, the roster included 16,411 eligible GOP voters, according to local elections board officials.

(Statewide elections records posted on the state website only list lower numbers of “active” voters who were motivated to vote in the most recent elections and exclude in their stats “eligible” voters—despite the fact that some not-so-recent voters are still eligible to cast ballots in the 2014 primary. So Cecil Times called county elections boards to find out the number of “eligible” voters in the Republican primary in District 36).

The stats mean that Cecil County is second in GOP voters eligible for the primary while Caroline tops Kent County in voters eligible for the primary contest. And Queen Anne’s county overwhelmingly rules the roost in deciding which delegates will speak for the entire 36th District.

In Cecil County, Jeff Ghrist from Caroline County appeared at a candidate forum sponsored by the Cecil County Republican Club recently and spoke forcefully of his own background as a Caroline County commissioner and his concerns about state issues affecting the more rural and agricultural areas of the Upper Shore. (At the same forum, Smigiel and Uhler were absent.)

Ghrist, a graduate of Salisbury University who works with a family real estate company, is a two-term member of the Caroline County Commissioners board. Ghrist has been waging an increasingly high-profile campaign in Cecil County, with road signs on Route 213 and in area towns.

Of course, in any major Maryland basketball tournament, the only team everyone can agree on is the local one—Go Maryland Terps!

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2 Responses to State Delegate Dist. 36 Race: Three Hoops, Four Basketballs and a Caroline County Jumpshot

  1. J.D. Uhler on June 17, 2014 at 6:32 am

    You left out the fact that Ghrist would have to face a Democrat in the General Election. You think he can win going up against a seasoned politician, former delegate and former Republican?

  2. Marty Wilson on June 18, 2014 at 1:45 pm

    I don’t know much about basketball, but what I did understand from this is that if you are FED UP with Smigiel– who does not care about Cecil County, never shows up at local events, and thumbs his nose at his “home” county, it would be best to vote for someone else from Cecil County– for me, that is County Council man Alan McCarthy– and Ghrist from Caroline County so we have a second shot at getting rid of the last piece of the Smipkin political machine.

    That is good enough for me! Vote for Alan McCarthy and Jeff Ghrist for delegates in the District 36 election.

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THANK YOU, Cecil County voters, for endorsing my campaign for Delegate.
--Alan McCarthy