MACo Preview: Still Crazy After All These Years

Scenes from the 2018 Maryland Association of Counties summer convention. Photo courtesy of MACo

The 2018 Maryland Association of Counties summer convention carried the title “Water, Water, Everywhere.” And indeed, a primary focus of the sprawling and multi-dimensional confab was water – the health of the state’s water supply, the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, and all the industries and communities that rely on it.

This year’s conference, which kicks off Wednesday in Ocean City, also makes reference to the elements, with the title “The Winds of Change.” But the subject matter this time is a little more ephemeral.

Rather than dealing with the wind per se (though offshore wind energy continues to be a raging issue in Ocean City), the convention thematically is laying out the myriad changes government officials confront on a daily basis – particularly how technology presents new challenges and opportunities and changes the way governments serve and interact with their constituents.

But even though change will be in the air this week at MACo – the largest annual gathering of elected and appointed officials in Maryland – plenty will stay the same. And the 2,800 people who attend every year like that just fine.

Inside the meat locker-cool Roland Powell Convention Center alongside the Assawoman Bay, MACo has its own rhythm and traditions, and attendees could spend the entire four-day conference geeking out on policy discussions, technology demonstrations, sessions with peers, visits to hundreds of exhibitor booths, and speeches from high-ranking officials like Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D) and state House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County).

But plenty of people will be slipping away for golf games or the beach. There’s feasting and swag collecting to be done at the convention center, and a dizzying array of off-campus receptions starting at happy hour on Wednesday and Thursday evenings and lasting well past midnight. Politicians will be raising money morning, noon and night. The next elections won’t be far from anyone’s minds.

In short, this is the schmoozefest to end all schmoozefests in Maryland.

And it’s also something of an endurance contest.

What’s on tap

While many people play in the official MACo golf tournament Wednesday morning at the Ocean City Gold Club in Berlin – and others hit the links on their own – the conference begins gradually, in the late morning, with sessions on drones, ransomware attacks, and the 2020 U.S. Census, among others.

That evening, Harford County Executive Barry Glassman (R) – who happens to be MACo’s president at the moment – and Del. Sharee Sample-Hughes, the lone Democrat remaining in the Eastern Shore legislative delegation, have fundraisers scheduled.

At least three top-flight Annapolis lobbying shops also have receptions on tap Wednesday night. One, sponsored by the firm Compass Government Relations Partners for its clients, is scheduled to include appearances from Glassman, Baltimore County Executive John A. “Johnny O” Olszewski Jr. (D), Howard County Executive Calvin Ball (D), Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman (D) and Frederick County Executive Jan Gardner (D).

Thursday is always the most jam-packed day at MACo.

At 9 a.m., the keynote address will be delivered by Simon T. Bailey, a self-described “breakthrough strategist” and author with a background in the hospitality industry, who will speak about innovation, customer service and employee engagement.

Dozens of sessions will follow throughout the day. Sure to be popular is a midday discussion on the work of the Kirwan Commission to reform the public education system in Maryland. Speakers include William E. Kirwan himself, the former University System of Maryland chancellor who has headed the effort; State Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon; and Montgomery County Councilman Craig Rice (D), who has served on the commission. Glassman will moderate the conversation.

Around the same time, state Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) – who has three days of activities scheduled this week at every end of the Eastern Shore, built around MACo – will be raising money at a crabhouse. Though nothing is certain for 2022, Franchot will be the official on the Shore most behaving like a future candidate for governor.

The annual Taste of Maryland reception begins at the convention center at 4:30 p.m., but many conference-goers will choose instead to make the rounds at several off-site events.

The highlights include a fundraiser for Hogan’s political action committee, Change Maryland; a joint reception for Olszewski and Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young (D); a launch party for a reconstituted Towson-based political consulting firm calling itself Aparagon; a reception sponsored by state Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings (R), which has become one of the most popular annual events at MACo; a reception sponsored by the Maryland Technology Council; at least three receptions by leading Annapolis lobbying firms; and a reception hosted by the political consulting firm Maryland Strategic Consulting, with Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) as guest of honor.

Just as Friday morning’s sessions begin back in the convention center, the state Senate Republican Caucus is holding a breakfast fundraiser off-campus.

An intriguing general session at 9 a.m. Friday is called “From Protest to Policy” – a discussion on how political movements create policy changes. The panel features Brian Griffith, the editor-in-chief of the conservative website Red Maryland; Cheryl Bost, president of the Maryland State Education Association; and Toni Holness, public policy director of the Maryland ACLU. Ball, the Howard County executive, will moderate the discussion.

The next big session, later Friday morning, is a town hall session with Cardin. Jones, the new House speaker, will speak to a women’s luncheon a little bit later.

Beginning around noon, Hogan and Franchot – heroes in Ocean City for their push to start the school year after Labor Day – will make their annual trek along the boardwalk, greeting beachgoers and stopping by favorite businesses.

At 3:15 p.m., back in the convention center, the governor’s cabinet will host its annual reception. At 4 p.m., Jones will be raising money off-campus. And at 5 p.m., MACo’s annual crabfeast begins, in the convention center parking lot.

Hogan will be a central and popular figure there – and on Saturday morning, when he gives the convention’s valedictory address. While Maryland is a Democratic state, the number of elected Republicans at the county level is actually larger – and that’s plainly apparent by the enthusiastic reception Hogan routinely receives.

And when it’s all over, the countdown begins for MACo 2020 – due to start on Aug. 19 of next year.

Click here for the full MACo program.

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