Del. Carl L. Anderton Jr. (R) Thursday unexpectedly fell short of winning appointment as the next Wicomico County executive — losing out to Rene Desmarais, a Salisbury-based cardiologist with little political experience outside of a losing bid for the House of Delegates in 2014.
The reaction from the audience gathered at the Wicomico Youth and Civic Center to watch the council interview three county executive aspirants ranged from astonishment to anger. Speakers ranging from the chair of the Wicomico County Republican Central Committee to Randy Day, CEO of the county’s most prominent business — Perdue Farms — rose to criticize the council’s decision.
“You really missed an opportunity. You missed an opportunity to get a warrior for agriculture,” Day told the council during a public comment period following the vote.
Privately, sources in both parties said Anderton had fallen short largely because of tensions within the local GOP between the more moderate and pragmatic wing of the party and the ideological “Trump” wing — which has viewed Anderton’s frequent efforts to work across the political aisle in Annapolis and at home with suspicion.
Anderton, Desmarais and a third applicant, former county finance director Michele C. Ennis, were competing for the post vacated by the July 26 death from liver cancer of the late Robert L. “Bob” Culver, Jr., who was in the middle of his second term as executive of Wicomico County — the largest jurisdiction on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Ennis, who was caught in a battle between Culver and the council over who had power of appointment over the finance director’s job, was seen from the start as having little chance of getting the county executive appointment.
After an hour of interviewing the three contenders in public session and 30 minutes of private deliberations in a nearby room, the seven members of the Wicomico County Council — four Republicans and three Democrats — returned to vote on the appointment. Because Culver was a Republican, the county charter required that a Republican be named to replace him pending the next county executive election in 2022.
A motion to approve Anderton for the job was defeated by a 4-3 vote, with Democrats Joshua A. Hastings and William R. McCain joining Republican John T. Cannon, the council’s vice president, in backing Anderton. The council’s three other Republicans — Nicole Acle, President Larry W. Dodd and Joseph B. Holloway — voted against approving Anderton, as did Democrat Ernest F. Davis, the council’s only African-American member.
A subsequent resolution to appoint Desmarais was approved by an identical 4-3 breakdown, with Acle, Davis, Dodd and Holloway in support and Cannon, Hastings and McCain voting no.
Holloway, regarded as one of the council’s most conservative members, had himself been an applicant for the appointment until earlier this week — when he withdrew his candidacy following research by the attorneys for Wicomico’s executive and legislative branches that found possible ethical and conflict-of-interest issues.
In a finding with potential implications for several of the other counties in Maryland with the county executive form of charter government, the Wicomico County attorneys “researched this matter and, according to Maryland case law and an attorney general’s opinion, it was determined that his fellow council members would not be able to vote for [Holloway] to be county executive,” according to a statement issued by Dodd late Tuesday.
Cannon, McCain and Hastings contended that Anderton’s experience — as delegate, former mayor of the town of Delmar and former president of the Maryland Municipal League — made him the most qualified candidate for county executive.
“We’re going to have to look toward the state of Maryland, despite their economic woes, and his connections will be of great benefit to Wicomico County,” said Cannon, referring to the county’s likely need for increased state assistance in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Both Hastings and McCain lauded Anderton’s presentation Thursday night, when Anderton distributed two documents to council members — one with ideas for dealing with many of the issues facing the county, and the other calling for “working together with the council and community groups in strategic collaborative committees [as] a way to take a fresh look at current practices and unearth new ideas, while inviting new voices into the process.”
“I think anyone who observed the interviews tonight certainly recognized the fact that he came the best prepared,” McCain said of Anderton. Later, in response to complaints from audience members during the public comment period, McCain said: “I am as perplexed as all of you. One candidate clearly stood out. One candidate clearly came utterly prepared…I am very, very disappointed.”
Cannon, a three-term council member who served as council president from 2015 until the beginning of this year, joined several members of the audience in pushing his colleagues who voted for Desmarais to explain why. “I found it shockingly, hauntingly surprising that those advocating against… Del. Anderton, were terribly silent,” declared Cannon. “Why was this vote taken, and why did you make that decision? That was terribly unusual. I’ve never seen this before.”
Cannon contended that the resolution appointing Desmarais could be reconsidered at the council’s next meeting if one of the four council members who backed it asked for such reconsideration. He prodded the public to apply pressure on the council members.
“It would be important between now and next week to reach out to individuals who voted in favor of this resolution as passed tonight to share your concerns — and hopefully at the next meeting one of the members who were voting in favor of this resolution tonight might be compelled to change their mind, reopen this resolution [and] bring it up for another vote,” Cannon said.
Acle disputed that such a parliamentary move was possible under current council rules. She defended her vote by saying that Desmarais would bring a “fresh perspective” to Wicomico County, while not elaborating. “Our county has come to a crossroads,” she said. “We can either stand still with status quo politics, or we can move forward [with] a forward means of thinking. I think Dr. Desmarais has the best vision…”
Earlier, Hastings sought to delay the decision on the executive appointment until Sept. 1, but was voted down. He then asked whether there were ethics issues that might compel a council member to recuse himself or herself from a vote.
Responded Acle: “My husband’s practice was doing business with a company that Dr. Desmarais had sold. So that business relationship was terminated in February.” She said the county’s ethics commission had weighed in on the matter, and deemed that she could cast a vote.
She proceeded to vote for Desmarais, as Hastings declared, “He seems like a fine individual, but not ready for prime time.”
The other three council members supporting Desmarais – Davis, Dodd and Holloway — did not offer any explanation of their vote, despite the prodding from Cannon and several members of the audience.
Wicomico County Republican Chair Nate Sansom, saying that he was speaking not as the chair of that committee but as a “citizen,” told the council, “I can say nothing other than the fact that I am disappointed. I’m optimistic for the future of our county with whomever may be in leadership, but I do believe this was a disservice to [the citizens of Wicomico County].”
Sansom also raised the prospect of a contentious 2022 election for the executive post. He thanked the three council members who had supported Anderton for “voting in the way of what I think the will of the people is — but obviously we will be aware of the will of the people at the next election.”
Anderton, in a de facto concession statement that won him a standing ovation from the audience and his supporters on the council, thanked the council for the opportunity to interview for the post.
“I am blessed because I have a great job,” he said, “I live a very blessed life of public service. I get to wake up every day and help my neighbors.”
“So I support your decision, you felt that was the direction to travel, and we’re all in this train together,” he told the council. “Thank you for the opportunity to spread my wings a little bit, and to see how far I could let my vision go. To me that’s a success.”
But Anderton later didn’t shut the door on seeking the executive’s job in 2022. Noting the support he had received from his “neighbors” at Thursday night’s session, he added, “I’ll do what my neighbors want me to do.”