CRISFIELD — They keep coming back. Year after year, they drive for hours in cars, buses and RVs, on what often feels like the hottest day of the summer, down the long finger of Somerset County to this sleepy little Eastern Shore town, on just about the southernmost point in all of Maryland.
It is a pilgrimage, a ritual expedition to the shores of the Chesapeake Bay’s Tangier Sound, to spend a few hours waterside, hunched over a picnic table, or walking about, shaking hands with old friends and strangers alike, trading gossip and handicapping races in the fall.
Sure, some actually come for the crabs and clams, fish and fries, corn and cake (not just any cake, but the 10-layer cake named for nearby Smith Island, Maryland’s official state dessert). Maybe even the beer.
But mostly, the faithful flood into Somers Cove Marina on the third Wednesday in July every year for the unofficial start of another political season in Maryland at the annual J. Millard Tawes Crab and Clam Bake.
This year, maybe more than others, the event is a little more supercharged, given that it’s the year when Maryland elects its top officials – governor, attorney general, comptroller – and all 188 members of the General Assembly, as well as the federal representatives and locals.
“It gets the blood circulating,” says American Joe Miedusiewski, a Democratic former state senator from East Baltimore and candidate for governor, now a lobbyist with Old Line Government Affairs in Towson.
“It’s an election year, and that’s my signal: This is the one to attend every four years,” Miedusiewski says. “We hear the crabs are good, too,” he adds.
“They have crabs here?” jokes his lobbying partner, Brett S. Lininger.
Behind the two, in the hot asphalt parking lot of the marina, are lines of people with cartons, box lids and trays, waiting for hot steamed crabs to be served up.
Somerset County’s motto, “Semper Eadem,” sounds like it could mean “Always Eat ‘Em” in Latin, but translates to “Always the Same,” which exactly describes the essence of the annual Tawes event.
The place is festooned with candidates’ lawn signs and banners, eventgoers wear the hopeful’s T-shirt and buttons, and white tents of various size and shape offer shelter from the glare and heat of the summer sun. It is a bipartisan splash of color against the backdrop of the bay, its workboats and seafood houses under a near-cloudless blue silk sky.
State Sen. James N. Mathias Jr., the Lower Shore Democrat who’s running hard for re-election against Republican challenger, Del. Mary Beth Carozza, seems to be everywhere at once. He’s shaking hands. He’s being interviewed by local television. He’s handing out proclamations. It is, after all, his district.
“It’s old-school, retail politics,” Mathias explains.
Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, is working the parking lot. GOP State Sen. J.B. Jennings, the Senate minority leader from Harford County, waves from across the way. Miss Crustacean 2017 Gabrielle M. Matthews, who still wears the crown and sash, pending this year’s selection of the town’s goodwill ambassador, walks through the crowd, smiling at all.
The event is named for J. Millard Tawes, a Crisfield native son and Democratic governor elected in 1958 to the first of his two terms. The fete was started 42 summers ago to honor Tawes, the only official in Maryland to have been elected governor, comptroller and treasurer. Proceeds from the all-you-can-eat affair – which this year carried a $50-a-ticket price-tag — benefit the Crisfield Chamber of Commerce.
“This is the best day of the year,” proclaims lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano, who could well be the cheerleader-in-chief for the event, at least in Annapolis.
“How you doon?” Bereano says time and again, greeting guest after guest who enter his enormous tent, a circus tent — naturally — purchased from an actual circus at a going-out-of-business sale.
“How you doon?” he says, with more than a hint of his native Bronx-ese bleeding through. “Lemme know if there’s anything I can do for you.” It is the party within the party.
Which is not to say it’s the only game in town. Just the biggest.
Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr., a Prince George’s County Republican, tries to make his way through the crowd surrounded by aides, as eventgoers seem to swarm around him, hoping for a selfie or other photograph to be taken.
The plainclothes troopers of the Maryland State Police executive protection unit — most of whom are more than a little bit conspicuous dressed unenviably in black sports vests — watch the goings-on closely.
Hogan’s competition in the Nov. 6 general election, Benjamin T. Jealous, the former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Democratic nominee, put in an hourlong appearance.
“Hey, how you doing?” can be heard above the din.
“Hey, Kathy says hi,” comes the reply.
Alfred W. Redmer Jr., Maryland insurance commissioner and former House of Delegates member, has made it to the Crab and Clam Bake 26 years in a row. But why come all the way down here when you’re running as the GOP candidate for Baltimore County executive?
“I’ve probably seen 30 people from Baltimore County,” Redmer says. “This is my home away from home,” he explains. “My wife grew up about 15 minutes from here and managed a bank branch here.”
Sandy Nelson Redmer didn’t make it back down home with him Wednesday.
“I’m here for political purposes today,” Redmer says, almost too seriously. “And to renew old friendships.”
Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Angela D. Alsobrooks, a Democrat running for county executive, glides through the masses effortlessly with her entourage, shaking hands every step of the way.
Baltimore state Sen. Joan Carter Conway lost her seat in the Democratic primary last month, but that didn’t stop her from hiring a bus and bringing down a load of folks, as she has done for years.
“Nothing new,” Conway says. “It’s just what we do — to thank my constituents, my supporters and friends.”
Baltimore’s newest state senator, Jill P. Carter, a Democrat from the 41st District appointed to the seat in April, turned up to show the flag.
“We live in a very diverse state, and I think it’s important to enter the Senate with a real feeling of camaraderie,” says Carter, who won the seat in the June 26 Democratic primary. “Being a pescatarian, I like the crabs and seafood, too,” she says.
Tommie Broadwater Jr., the Democratic former state senator from Prince George’s County’s District 24, works a crab and sips a can of Coca Cola at a table just inside Bereano’s tent. He hasn’t held elective office in 35 years, but still he returns.
“I’m comfortable here,” says Broadwater, who lost his Senate seat in 1983 after a federal food stamp fraud conviction. “I come to see all my old friends, my new friends, people just starting in politics. I like the camaraderie.”
Broadwater, who still runs the Ebony Inn and a bail-bonds operation, among other businesses in Fairmount Heights, has run unsuccessfully for public office a few times since losing his seat and worked behind the scenes as a power broker in the political community.
It’s tough to fight the bug once you’ve been bitten.
Same could be said about the other Tommy, who is making his way through the Bereano tent, former state Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, the Baltimore County Democrat who left the Senate in 2002 and five years later was convicted on federal racketeering and income tax charges.
Bromwell, once one of the most powerful politicians in the state, warmly greets former Del. Donna M. Felling, who ran against him for the District 8 Senate seat and lost in the 1994 Democratic primary. Any hard feelings are long ago forgotten.
Alexander Williams Jr., a retired federal judge from Prince George’s County, sits for a while at the table with Broadwater. Retired Baltimore County state Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., the Eastern Baltimore County Democrat who was the longest-serving member of the body, from 1967 until 2015, passes by.
Maryland Health Secretary Robert R. Neall, a former Anne Arundel County executive and state senator — a Republican turned Democrat turned Republican again — laughs with friends. Robert C. Douglas, a lawyer who was once William Donald Schaefer’s press secretary and the unofficial leader of the former governor’s “Kool-Aid Kids,” is huddled with a couple at the edge of a tent, deep in conversation.
“This is nuts,” observes Mileah K. Kromer, a political science professor who runs the Goucher Poll as director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College. “I’ve never been here before — and this is nuts.”
“But entertaining,” Kromer adds.
Former U.S. Rep. Constance A. Morella, a moderate Republican of the old stripe who hails from Bethesda, made the long trip from Montgomery County on Wednesday — also for the first time ever — as the guest of a couple of guys who used to work for her on Capitol Hill.
“Those guys” are former Montgomery County state Sen. Patrick J. “P.J.” Hogan, now a lobbyist (and no relation to the governor), and Benjamin H. Wu, now deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Commerce.
“I love seeing all the people, I love the exuberance,” Morella says. “It’s nice to have people who seem happy, who like each other and who talk to each other, who raise their glass of water or Coke or beer, and tell stories.”
Morella, 87, a former member of the Maryland House of Delegates and eight-term congresswoman, does not miss a step falling into old familiar ways of the meet-and-greet.
“I mean, nobody cares what your political party is; they all just want to say hello to you,” she says.
Peter V.R. Franchot, the barely Democratic Maryland comptroller from Montgomery County, is one of many who wanders over to see Morella. An interloping observer mentions the seemingly long-forgotten 1988 challenge for her 8th District congressional seat that Franchot, then a freshman member of the House of Delegates, launched against her.
“Yeah, she kicked my ass,” Franchot says.
And she did. Again, no hard feelings.
“This is the way Congress should act, this is the way the General Assembly should act,” Morella says. “You know, you talk to everybody, you’re friends, and you listen to people. You laugh a little bit, and you enjoy it.”
Though she hasn’t been in Congress since 2007, Morella stays in touch with her former staffers – which is how the question of attending the Tawes event arose.
Wu asked her about it about three months ago, and she recalls answering, “It’s such a distance. I’ve been invited, but I’ve never gone.”
That simply could not stand, Wu and P.J. Hogan agreed.
“We e-mailed each other, the three of us, and they decided they would take that off my bucket list,” she says.
See more photos in the Tawes 2018 Photo Gallery.