The rolling hills of Williamsport, Md., became Ground Zero for Maryland Democrats Thursday evening.
It doesn’t get the attention or the hype – or the crippling heat – of the Crisfield crab feast, but the annual Washington County Democratic picnic is a must-stop for candidates, and just about all of them were there: All the candidates for governor except Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, all the candidates for Congress in the 6th district, plus Attorney General Brian Frosh, Comptroller Peter Franchot and a number of local officials (including a couple of Republican county commissioners).
“This is like an unofficial kickoff” of the 2018 campaign, observed former Maryland Secretary of State John Willis, who has been going to the Washington County picnic for 40 years.
Peter Perini, chairman of the Washington County Democratic Central Committee, called the event an opportunity “to try to kick the tires a little bit.”
Unlike the Crisfield crab feast, which is now dominated by Annapolis lobbyist Bruce Bereano and his enormous tent, which attracts countless politicians like flies, preventing most from moving about the festival and meeting real voters, the Washington County picnic is an informal affair.
“I’m one of two candidates who showed up in shorts,” Franchot told Maryland Matters. “People have been thanking me for that.”
The format almost demands close encounters between the candidates and the local party activists. After a period of schmoozing, the crowd sits down for a buffet dinner of fried chicken, meatballs, corn and potato salad. Some candidates continue to work the picnic pavilion, but most sit down with the voters for the duration of the meal. Then each gets a chance to speak.
It can make for a long night. Speeches lasted close to two hours.
“The mind can only absorb as much as the butt can endure,” Perini admonished the candidates, quoting his grandmother.
But Thursday night’s event produced real news: Dennis Weaver, the Washington County Circuit Court clerk, announced that he would not seek a ninth term.
He joked that when he first ran for the job, in 1986, he referenced two ‘80s-era TV hits on the campaign trail: “thirtysomething” and “Married With Children.” On Thursday night, he mentioned another: “Eight Is Enough.”
“I can’t tell you what an honor it has been to serve the citizens of Washington County,” Weaver said, to warm applause.
Although Washington County has moved away from Democrats in recent elections – President Trump carried the county with 63 percent of the vote, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) took 73 percent in 2014, and the Annapolis delegation is now all Republican – the county still elects Democrats to its key courthouse positions.
“If you want the job done, you give it to a Democrat,” said Register of Wills Jason Malott.
“We’re hanging on,” County Treasurer Todd Hershey told Maryland Matters.
‘Take a look at New Jersey’
So what did the party activists get from their candidates for governor and Congress? Partisan red meat, biographical tidbits, a call to arms and some mild pandering to Western Maryland Democrats.
The gubernatorial candidates went first. Some rhetorical highlights:
** “I don’t come from the Republican wing of the Democratic Party – I come from the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” said former NAACP President Ben Jealous. “I’m the only one the Republicans are attacking.”
Jealous said his campaign is best equipped to topple Hogan.
“I’ve put together the team that knows best how to turn out Democratic voters in this state,” he said.
** “In Washington, we ask, what did Donald Trump do today?” said Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz. “In Maryland, we can ask, did Gov. Hogan do anything today? Because we’re not really seeing anything taking place.”
Kamenetz called the governor “Larry Slogan,” and decried the “corporate ransom” the state is paying to Northrup Grumman and Marriott to keep them in Maryland.
“To defeat Larry Hogan, we need a candidate with governing experience,” he said.
** “If you want a preview of a second term of Larry Hogan, take a look at New Jersey,” said state Sen. Rich Madaleno, who called himself a “pragmatic problem-solver.”
Madaleno vowed to hunt for votes not just in Bethesda and Baltimore, but “from Ocean City all the way to Oakland…We will fight for every office that we can.”
** “I’m 45 years old and one thing I’ve learned is that talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not,” said tech entrepreneur Alec Ross.
Although he is a best-selling author and worked for the Obama administration, Ross emphasized his roots in “coal country” and his time in Teach for America, working in West Baltimore.
“You’re not just going to see me on I-95,” he said. “We as Democrats have seen a mistake with microtargeting, with identity politics. You’re going to see me a lot.”
** “Our governor, Larry Hogan, sits silently as atrocity after atrocity occurs in Washington,” said attorney Jim Shea. “That silence is not neutral. That silence enables Donald Trump.”
But Shea warned Democrats: “We can’t be obsessed with Donald Trump. We have to fill the vacuum with positive policies going forward.”
** “I see a solidarity and strength in this pavilion,” said former Obama administration official Krishanti Vignarajah. “It leaves no doubt in my mind that the next governor of Maryland will be a Democrat.”
Vignarajah also paid tribute to former U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) as a political trailblazer.
“She is a real hero to vertically challenged candidates like myself,” she joked.
‘Real friends and a real mission’
The five Democrats seeking to replace Rep. John Delaney (D), who is gearing up to run for president in 2020, also spoke.
Andrew Duck, the military veteran who was the Democratic nominee in 2006 and 2010, when the district still was a Republican stronghold, told the crowd that he’s the only candidate who lives in the district and complained that his opponents “saw an opportunity” and only ran for the congressional seat after the district lines were redrawn in the Democrats’ favor.
Another candidate, Del. Aruna Miller, does in fact live in the district – though she, like all the other Democrats in the race besides Duck, lives in Montgomery County rather than in Western Maryland.
“It doesn’t matter where we are – there are no lines or artificial boundaries when it comes to fighting for our Democratic values,” Miller said.
Frick acknowledged the difference between Montgomery County and Western Maryland but sought to draw a connection with the Washington County crowd.
“Democratic events in Montgomery County are different than this,” he said. “It’s not so much about party-building as it is about, how can you elect this or that Democrat? The events become a little transactional.”
But in Washington County, Frick concluded, “we have relationships that we make through politics – real friends and a real mission.”
State Sen. Roger Manno talked about his grandfather’s financial struggles as an immigrant tailor and union activist, and said, “Today, working people are under similar assault – it’s just not so in your face.”
Businessman David Trone recalled growing up on a financially shaky farm in nearby Adams County, Pa. “Shoveled a lot of chicken manure – probably good for Washington experience,” he joked.
In a region that has been hit hard by the opioid crisis, Trone also spoke about his 25-year-old nephew’s recent death from a Fentanyl overdose.
The coda of the evening was provided by Ed Forrest, a former member of the Washington County Board of Education who announced he is running for a position on the Board of County Commissioners as a Democrat – after a lifetime as a Republican.
“How can you stand as a Republican and not stand against the divisiveness of the White House?” said Forrest, who switched his party registration in March. He returned to the theme at the end of his lengthy speech, which seemed particularly meandering after such a long night, saying, “The change has to start local. The kind of stuff we’re seeing at the national level is disgusting.”
He also promised: “I’ll be getting a better stump speech in a while.”