Tawes Political Crab-Gab Fest Brings Candidates to Shore; Cecil County’s Infamy Draws Punditry

July 19, 2014

CRISFIELD—What a difference a year makes in the political landscape of the Upper Eastern Shore, but some things never change at one Shore political institution: the J. Millard Tawes annual crab and clambake here. The beer was still icy, the crabs and fried clams were warm and plentiful, and the still-surviving candidates after an unusually early primary election were working the crowds for votes in November.

It was the 38th annual Maryland summer ritual of steamed seafood and raw political glad-handing on Wednesday, but there were some big changes from last year’s event: the absence of some Upper Shore politicians who no longer have a seat either in Annapolis or at the crab-picking tables under the white tents in Crisfield.

Just a year ago, State Sen. E.J. Pipkin and his ally, Del. Michael Smigiel, both R-36, were working the Crisfield crowd with legions of tee-shirted campaign supporters, seeking to continue the political dominance of the four counties of the 36th district they had held since 2002. But just a few weeks after last year’s event, Pipkin shocked the local and state political world by announcing he was resigning from his seat to move to Texas and embark on a new career in sports management.

That was the beginning of the end of the “Smipkin” political organization that had ruled local Republican politics, especially in Cecil County, for years. And the final crab mallet blow came crashing down on Smigiel just a few weeks ago, when he lost his bid for re-election in the June 24 Republican primary. Smigiel even came in third in his Cecil County homebase, far behind County Councilor Alan McCarthy, the top vote-getter in Cecil, and Del. Jay Jacobs (R-36-Kent County.)

Several of the political “survivors” of the district’s recent GOP primaries were out in force at Crisfield. Jacobs is the luckiest of the locals, with no challenger in the November election. But he and his wife, Dawn, were there, Jacobs said, to “help the other guys” in November.

One of the other guys is newly appointed Del. Steve Arentz of Queen Anne’s county, who is running his first election for the seat in Annapolis. Arentz was appointed to fill the vacancy created when former Del. Steve Hershey was appointed by the governor to fill Pipkin’s Senate seat. Arentz was cheerfully trolling for votes at the event and posed for photos with other area candidates. He is facing a Democratic challenger, Irving Pinder, in November.

Hershey, who won a decisive primary victory over former Del. Dick Sossi in June, faces Democrat Benjamin Tilghman in the November general election. A few Hershey aides walked the grounds wearing campaign tee shirts but Jacobs said the senator could not be in Crisfield because of a court proceeding in Baltimore stemming from the Hershey chocolate company’s lawsuit claiming Hershey’s campaign logo infringes on the chocolatier’s signature trademark.

Other area candidates wielding the crab mallets and campaign signs in Crisfield were District 35 candidates Wayne Norman and Teresa Reilly. Norman, currently a state Delegate from Harford County, is running for the Senate seat from the re-districted 35th that includes a significant portion of western Cecil County as well as his Harford homebase. Reilly, who served as legislative aide to Norman in Annapolis and has long been active in Harford County GOP politics, is running for one of the two delegate seats in the redrawn District 35B that also covers western Cecil.

The top-tier candidate at this year’s politics and food-fest was Republican gubernatorial candidate Larry Hogan, whose “change is coming” campaign bus brought him and a large cadre of campaign aides to the event at the Somers Cove marina here. Hogan aides handed out stickers to visitors as they entered the enclave and staffed the candidate’s tent on the site, while Hogan himself shook hands and mingled with voters and fellow politicos.

His Democratic rival in the November election, Anthony Brown, did not attend, due to a commitment to attend a funeral in Baltimore County. But blue tee-shirted Brown campaign aides walked through the crowd, distributing campaign flyers.

Hogan’s presence in Crisfield highlighted some of his recent campaign themes, suggesting that Brown’s proposed venues for gubernataorial candidate debates are too metro-centric to Baltimore and the Washington suburbs while ignoring areas such as the Eastern Shore.

Also working the crowd and displaying a strong roadside sign presence in towns along the way to Crisfield was state Comptroller Peter Franchot, a Democrat. He faces a general election challenge from Republican William Campbell.

In conversation with Cecil Times, Franchot recalled his award to county public schools maintenance staff for their efforts in keeping aging schools functioning through hard work and ingenuity rather than dollars. “The maintenance people are always the most popular people in every school I go to,” Franchot said. “They are really local heroes.” Franchot was pleased to learn that the long delayed rehabilitation of Perryville elementary is now firmly on track.

Everywhere we went at the Tawes event as soon as anyone learned we were from Cecil County, we were peppered with questions and commentary about the defeat of Smigiel and the most notorious local political scandal of the recent primary: the election day nose-biting incident outside a polling place.

From Baltimore to Montgomery County, Democrats to Republicans, Cecil County’s political fame, or shame, was of great interest to the political operatives and campaigners visiting Crisfield.

With Cecil County’s political landscape vastly changed just since this year’s primary—with the demise of the Smipkin machine and its last remaining candidates and the defeat of controversial incumbent County Councilor Diana Broomell—perhaps next year’s Tawes will bring us less notoriety and jokes at the county’s expense.

[UPDATE: We have posted some photos from the Tawes event on our Facebook wall, at https://www.facebook.com/ceciltimes ]

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