Cecil County Councilor Jackie Gregory Files for Dist. 36 Delegate: Challenge Undercuts Delegation “Team,” Another GOP Committee Pick to Fill a Council Seat?

January 10, 2022


Cecil County Council member Jackie Gregory (R-5) has filed as a candidate in the 2022 Republican primary for state Delegate in District 36, potentially casting aside the Council seat to which she won re-election just 14 months ago and challenging the all-Republican delegation that has worked together as a “team” for the past eight years to represent the four counties that comprise the 36th.

If she succeeds, it would mean that the Cecil County Republican Central Committee would get a second opportunity to pick a successor to fill a vacant County Council seat, as the panel did recently to submit a list of its choices to replace Council member George Patchell (R-4) But Patchell, who resigned to become the Perryville town administrator, had just a year left on his term while an appointed replacement for Gregory would get to serve for more than two years without having to stand before voters.

Gregory filed her candidacy papers on 1/5/2022 and created a new campaign finance committee to support her bid to move her political career to Annapolis. Unlike the three incumbent delegates, who are banned from campaign fundraising during the General Assembly session that begins on Wednesday, Gregory will be able to actively solicit campaign donations for the crucial months leading up to the June primary. But she is starting from scratch, while her rivals have banked campaign funds already and also have a “Team 36” slate committee that has been a stalwart source of campaign funds in past elections.

Dist. 36 is unique in the state: it is the only House of Delegates district covering four counties but only providing three seats, which means that one county is always left out of direct representation. Voters in all four counties cast ballots in the district but can only vote for one candidate per county and no more than three candidates in total.

For over 20 years, Caroline County was the odd county out, with no voting representation in the 36th. That changed when Jeff Ghrist, a former Caroline County Commissioner, narrowly upset incumbent Del. Michael Smigiel (R-Cecil) in the 2014 GOP primary. Ghrist won re-election in 2018 by a strong margin in the primary and the general election. But his victories meant that Cecil County had no resident delegate in the 36th.

The unique nature of voting in Dist. 36 means that Gregory is challenging all the incumbent GOP Delegates, including Ghrist, Queen Anne’s County Delegate Steve Arentz, and Kent County Delegate Jay Jacobs. Jacobs, the former mayor of Rock Hall, is hugely popular in the district and is consistently the top vote-getter.

The incumbents have joined together under a “Team 36” campaign slate banner for joint fundraising to support their campaigns, led by state Sen. Steve Hershey (R-36) who in the past has infused significant campaign funds into the team’s election efforts. But more than a fundraising device, the “team” banner has been an extension of how the three Delegates and GOP Senator have functioned legislatively. Despite the sprawling distances of Dist. 36—by some estimates up to a thousand miles to travel the highways and byways of the four-county domain—the Delegates in particular have made a practice of attending public meetings in Cecil County together and keeping close tabs on local issues. All three Delegates and Hershey filed for re-election last summer on the same day and declared their plan to run as a team in 2022.

Gregory is not well-known among voters in the other three counties that comprise the 36th. She may be counting on getting a boost from redistricting maps, soon to be ratified by the General Assembly, that would give Cecil County a greater proportion of voters in the district and significantly reduce the Caroline County electorate in the 36th. One strategy she seems likely to deploy is telling her strongest supporters to “single shoot”—vote ONLY for her and leave blank potential votes for two other Delegates—thus depressing the votes for others while boosting her proportional share.

So Gregory’s entry into the race amounts to a challenge to all of the Delegates, a point that she tried to downplay in conversations with the incumbents leading up to her decision to file, sources said.

Jacobs said she contacted him several weeks ago to say she was considering entering the race and inquired about Ghrist’s status. Jacobs said he was “surprised” at her decision several days ago to file as a candidate and he added that the “Team 36” alignment was still in force.

Ghrist told CECIL TIMES that he “welcomes any candidate who chooses to run for public office” and overall took a philosophical attitude about Gregory’s entry into the race. He acknowledged that the redrawn maps put him at a disadvantage, by carving out many Caroline County voters and shifting them to Dist. 37 while greatly expanding Dist. 36 voters in Cecil County. “Certainly, I’m most at risk,” he said.

The proposed new maps push Dist. 36 up toward the Pennsylvania line (pulling some voters out of Del. Kevin Hornberger’s current Dist. 35A district, but his map fate is a story for another day.) Population changes from the 2020 census meant that Kent County lost population while Cecil County grew, and the Dist. 36 map had to be adjusted.

The revised maps also mean that Ghrist will have to move his residence to remain within the district, and the state Constitution mandate that a delegate must live in the district he/she represents for six months before taking office. He said he has already made plans to move his residence.

Ghrist has been an underdog before. When he first ran for Delegate, he said he and fellow Caroline County Commissioners joked “who will be the sacrificial lamb” to run to make the point that Caroline had been without a resident delegate for 20 years. He drew that short straw, but eked out a 144 vote victory, helped in part by the candidacy of Alan McCarthy –then a Cecil County Council member—who out-polled Smigiel in his home county and helped reduce Smigiel’s district-wide vote. But Ghrist drew strong support district-wide four years ago and out-polled Arentz and came in a close second to perennial top vote getter Jacobs.

Meanwhile, Gregory faces challenges of her own, despite the redistricting numerical advantages. Foremost among them are the potential reactions of Cecil County voters to her willingness to give up her Council seat just months after asking local voters to re-elect her to the Council. And there are questions about the ability, or willingness, of some of her Council political donors to drain their wallets for her again so soon.

Her political mentor and key donor— Rep. Andy Harris—is facing a tough and costly challenge of his own for the District 1 congressional seat and may want to keep his campaign warchest for himself. He is facing a serious challenge from Democrat Heather Mizeur, a former state delegate and gubernatorial candidate, as well as redistricting maps that include parts of Anne Arundel County and more Democratic voters in the formerly heavily GOP majority district. (Gregory currently works for Harris as a local constituent services aide, taking over the job that Danielle Hornberger had before becoming Cecil County Executive.)

Gregory started out her local political career as a citizen activist with the “Cecil County Patriots” group and initially impressed many residents by paying attention to details on local issues. As her first term moved forward, she focused less on the details and more on rhetorical flourishes, giving anti-tax speeches but not proposing any specific amendments to cut spending in Council budget deliberations and just casting a “no” vote on overall county budgets. She has also spent a lot of time in Annapolis, attending Maryland Association of Counties events and keeping tabs on legislation in the state capital.

By the time she sought re-election to the Council in 2020, Gregory was heavily focused on state and national GOP politics, running on a ticket with Danielle Hornberger’s campaign for County Executive with political and financial support of Rep. Andy Harris (R-1), who paid for campaign flyers featuring a “team” of Gregory, Hornberger, Harris and Donald Trump.

CECIL TIMES contacted and left messages for Gregory seeking comment on her candidacy. If she responds, we will update this report.

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