Gubernatorial Candidates Talk Eastern Shore Economic Development at Crisfield Clam Bake and Crab Feast

    Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wes Moore reads campaign literature from Republican gubernatorial candidate Robin Ficker. Photo by Bruce DePuyt.

    Droves of visitors swelled the population of Crisfield, the southernmost town in Maryland, on Wednesday for the J. Millard Tawes Clam Bake and Crab Feast.

    The feast – typically held at the end of July each year and delayed since 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic – is one of two major annual events hosted by the coastal town’s Chamber of Commerce.

    Ahead of and during Wednesday’s event, Maryland Matters spoke to each of the candidates vying to be Maryland’s next governor about their ideas for boosting the Eastern Shore economy ― though some offered more details than others and, in some cases, the proposals are essentially repackaging their broader campaign themes.

    Here is a sampling of their views:

    Former Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D)

    Baker, who only recently returned to the campaign trail following his wife’s death, was not on hand in Crisfield — though he made news this week by announcing that Montgomery County Councilmember Nancy Navarro (D) was joining his ticket.

    Baker said that with its outdoor recreation opportunities and low cost of living, the Eastern Shore is “the perfect place to attract technology companies or other employers that primarily provide virtual services and folks who can work remotely.”

    “In order to do that, we have to invest in infrastructure like high speed broadband and 5G in every community,” he said. “We can also utilize the state’s economic development fund to attract new companies to the region. That’s exactly what I did as county executive with 2U, an education technology company that we convinced to build their headquarters in Lanham… They employ over 5,000 people now. Between technology and the pandemic, our economy is transforming as we speak and there are lots of opportunities for communities on the Eastern Shore if we have the right leadership that’s prepared to take advantage of them.”

    Jon Baron (D)

    Baron, a former Clinton administration official making his first run for office, moved slowly through the circus-sized tent erected by Annapolis lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano, introducing himself to the elected officials and political insiders congregated inside.

    “I love it, I really do,” he said. “I’m talking to a lot of people. I like talking to them and learning what’s on people’s minds. I’m talking about some of my policies and they’re giving me feedback.”

    Baron’s core message is that the state’s biggest challenges have existed for decades and that current programs aren’t addressing them. He has held leadership positions at policy-oriented nonprofit groups and believes that there are proven solutions to to problems with health care, education, economic development and the criminal justice system that can be borrowed from different jurisdictions around the country and can be applied in Maryland. For the Eastern Shore, he said, “broadband especially” has been a vexing challenge.

    Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D)

    Franchot has been to more Crisfield crab feasts than any other candidate for governor, and he moved through the crowd with the largest entourage — most of them sporting electric blue T-shirts. It displayed an incumbent’s strength — Franchot is completing his fourth term as comptroller — but also kept him from engaging in substantive conversations.

    Franchot said that “when” he wins, his administration will “reverse some of the policies that have prevented the state from really prospering,” like impediments on homeownership and the effects of redlining in areas with high concentrations of poverty.

    “We’re gonna address that very vigorously,” Franchot said.

    Anecdotally, Franchot is seen as having the strongest support among Eastern Shore Democrats, at least at this early stage.

    Former Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D)

    Gansler, sporting a red golf shirt, moved in and out of the tents, greeting old friends.

    Gansler said he’s the only candidate in the race “besides the tax collector” — Franchot — who has a long, solid relationship with the Eastern Shore and intends to augment the job market that exists there.

    “Too often,” he said, politicians “pay lip service to the Eastern Shore … and we need to make sure we support our businesses on the Eastern Shore and bring Democratic values back to the Eastern Shore.”

    Gansler recently rolled out his environmental plan, which includes off-shore wind energy for Ocean City, “which is a no-brainer and far past its time and due,” he said. He also wants to build a power plant on the Shore to help convert millions of pounds of chicken manure into energy and economic opportunity.

    “I’m the only one with a record of environmental accomplishment,” Gansler said.

    Ashwani Jain (D)

    Jain, a former Obama administration official, did not attend the crab feast.

    Jain said he plans to make state government more accessible to the Eastern Shore.

    “When I talk to residents — when I see their concerns, when I hear what they’re always talking about — they always feel that, no matter what … their specific local economy is going through, no one at the high levels are actually listening to them or making them feel like they’re being heard and respected,” he said.

    Jain also said he wants to eliminate the state income tax for anyone who makes less than $400,000 and proposes to create the nation’s first guaranteed jobs program.

    “In that way, we’re going to make sure that everyone has [a] lower cost of living, more disposable income in their pocket, and a good job if they need one and they can’t find one,” he said.

    Former U.S. Education Secretary John B. King Jr. (D)

    King was not in Crisfield, but he had a handful of campaign volunteers handing out fliers by the marina entrance.

    In an interview, he said it is important to ensure Eastern Shore residents have access to affordable child care and health care while thinking about economic development in the region.

    He suggested the development of a state bank, which would hold state assets and give loans to businesses that private commercial banks may not give, would help provide smaller businesses on the Shore with greater access to capital.

    Wes Moore (D)

    Moore, the author and former nonprofit CEO, was a sought-after figure at the crab feast, having lengthy conversations with scores of voters.

    Moore said the economic challenges facing the Eastern Shore are not new — and there is no “one solution.”

    “The reality is there are three jurisdictions in the entire state of Maryland where 100% of the children are on free and reduced lunch; two of them are on the Eastern Shore.” In many homes, parents and children face other challenges, like mental health and substance abuse.

    “When the Shore says we have felt ignored and left out of the conversation, they’re not wrong,” Moore said.

    The candidate said he would focus on “accessible broadband,” improved transportation and “smart jobs/green jobs.”

    Moore said he is spending a lot of time on the Eastern Shore.

    “I want to show people that how we are campaigning is how I plan on governing,” he said. “When people say, ‘you guys are working hard’ and ‘you’re everywhere,’ that’s exactly how I plan on governing.”

    Former DNC Chair Tom Perez (D)

    Perez, a former state Labor secretary and former Montgomery County councilmember, is not a stranger to the crab feast. He called it “retail politics, I think, at its best.”

    Perez said he believes the Eastern Shore has the potential to have a robust diversified economy by complementing its seafood, poultry and tourism industries with the budding clean energy economy in offshore wind.

    The Shore, he said, could be a “vital engine of a clean energy economy,” especially with offshore wind offering good union jobs, Perez said. “Extreme weather is a huge challenge for the Shore and for our survival and that is why becoming a solar and wind capital of America is an existential interest and it’s vital to our economic survival,” Perez said.

    As governor, Perez said he would work with local community colleges, universities and businesses to build a pipeline of workers, especially in the clean energy industry. He referred to the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future’s expansion of career and technical education programs as something to take advantage of on the Shore.

    Not only is access to broadband important for the Eastern Shore, but it is also vital to its economy, Perez said.

    “Broadband is like water — it’s an essential public utility that should be affordable and accessible to everyone,” he said.

    Michael Rosenbaum (D)

    Rosenbaum, a Baltimore-based tech CEO, missed the crab feast — “the logistics of trying to be in every corner of the state are complicated sometimes,” he said. But Rosenbaum said he believes his prescription for jump-starting the economy, by offering training programs that propel workers into the middle class, will especially resonate on the Shore.

    “We have not made it possible for folks to have a pathway to economic opportunity,” he said.

    Rosenbaum points to his own work as a job creator in the private sector and says the state needs “a coherent strategy” to do the same on the Eastern Shore — a strategy that also includes affordable, accessible child care, better transportation, and stronger health care coverage.

    “We need to support the jobs for the people on the Eastern Shore to support a family,” he said. “We need to create the resources to make it easier to work.”

    Del. Daniel L. Cox (R-Frederick)

    Cox, who is running as a vocal supporter of President Trump, had a tent at the crab feast and moved through the crowd with a small but enthusiastic group of supporters.

    “Above all,” he said, Maryland’s next governor should lift restrictions on watermen.

    Cox said he opposed bills in the General Assembly to expand Maryland’s oyster sanctuaries, and he pointed out that one of the Democratic candidates, Franchot, recently angered watermen by suggesting he would phase out wild fishery and oystering.

    “I want to make sure the Eastern Shore has the freedom it needs to grow its watermen, its water industry, as well as its farming industry,” Cox said. “I think those are two crucial areas that need to be honored and respected. We need to protect it.”

    Robin Ficker (R)

    Ficker, the attorney and perennial candidate whose Cut Sales Tax by 2 Cents signs lined the highways leading to Crisfield, said his focus on cutting Maryland’s sales tax by a third would help the state attract businesses generally and would specifically help economic fortunes on the Eastern Shore.

    “We have an 85-mile border with Delaware, which has no sales tax at all, so a 6% difference. That’s enough to get people to move across the line,” said Ficker, who moved aggressively throughout the crab feast crowd. “So we’re going to cut the sales tax, give everyone a tax cut, give everyone a fiscal stimulus each and every year and bring business in here and bolster our economy.”

    Maryland Commerce Secretary Kelly M. Schulz (R)

    Schulz also had a presence at the event, pressing the flesh while accompanied by supporters in white T-shirts.

    “We have a very positive message about the state of Maryland moving forward and what we can do in this race for governor,” she said.

    Schulz touted Maryland’s Outdoor Recreation Economic Commission as a way to “bring tourism and recreation into the business world,” which is also a shared goal of the Department of Commerce she heads and the state’s Department of Natural Resources. Recently, Hogan established the Office of Outdoor Recreation in response to one of the commission’s proposals.

    Schulz also said she would also support the Shore’s agricultural, forestry and waterman industries as governor.

    This story was reported and written by Bruce DePuyt, Danielle E. Gaines, Hannah Gaskill, Josh Kurtz and Elizabeth Shwe.