The J. Millard Tawes Clam Bake and Crab Feast, a beloved ritual of summer temporarily transferred to autumn due to the COVID-19 pandemic, returned to Crisfield on Wednesday, attracting dozens of flesh-pressing candidates, scores of political insiders schmoozing with one another, and thousands of everyday citizens who came to enjoy the unlimited seafood and beer.
For a struggling and neglected town at the bottom of Eastern Shore, far from Maryland’s population centers, it was a welcome moment in the spotlight, and an opportunity for candidates to pitch their policy prescriptions to local voters.
“This event is really important for Crisfield and for Somerset County,” said state Sen. Mary Beth Carozza (R-Lower Shore), who represents the area.
And the mid-October date created an anomaly for all who attended: A lovely breeze and breathable air ― a far cry from the punishing heat and humidity that usually greets the festival-goers when the event is traditionally held in mid-July. Typically, the crab feast is an endurance contest under the unforgiving sun, and the tents set up by businesses, nonprofit groups and political organizations barely provide respite.
“Usually I’m sweating like a pig here,” observed former Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez, one of several candidates for governor who were on hand, looking crisp in a plaid shirt.
Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) expressed the same sentiment.
“It’s much, much nicer,” he said. “I love coming here every year. But sometimes it seems like it’s 105 and sweating to death. …My wife came the first couple of years, and then she said, ‘I’m never going back. It’s just too hot.'”
This was the first Tawes crab feast ― named for the late Gov. J. Millard Tawes (D), Crisfield-born and bred ― since July 2019, and it’s the last before the June 2022 primary election. So candidates for state and local offices flocked to the parking lot at the Somers Cove Marina, the venue for the annual event.
In all, eight candidates seeking to replace Hogan made the trek ― Republicans Daniel L. Cox, Robin Ficker and Kelly M. Schulz, and Democrats Perez, Jon Baron, Peter V.R. Franchot, Douglas F. Gansler, and Wes Moore. So did all three candidates for state comptroller: Democrats Timothy L. Adams and Brooke E. Lierman and Republican Barry Glassman.
Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford (R) was also on hand. So was U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D), who is up for reelection in 2022, U.S. Rep. Andrew P. Harris (R), and at least two of his Democratic challengers, R. David Harden and Heather R. Mizeur.
Harris had his first encounter with Mizeur, a former state delegate, outside the tent of the Maryland Broadband Cooperative. When Mizeur approached the six-term lawmaker to say hello, the two shook hands briefly. She started to say something, but the incumbent quickly spun away from her to speak to others.
Mizeur recently announced that she has raised more than $1 million in the race. Congressional candidates must file their latest fundraising reports by midnight Friday, and Mizeur said she was looking forward to seeing Harris’ take.
Harris declined to speak with a Maryland Matters reporter, but he could be overheard telling supporters that Republicans are all but certain to retake the House in the 2022 elections. “The only question is by how much,” he said of expected GOP gains in the midterms.
Asked by one person how he’s doing, Harris responded, “How’m I doing? I have to deal with [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi every day.”
Wooing the Shore
Crowds seemed to be down slightly from previous years, but Crisfield Mayor Barry Dize said local leaders were still pleased with the estimated turnout of more than 4,000. Several local residents said they wanted to show up as a way to support the community. Carozza, the state senator for the area, said she sponsored a tent at the crab feast for the first time to show her commitment.
Even though the crowd comes from all over the Mid-Atlantic, “for me, this is a local event,” Carozza, who is seeking a second term next year, said. Her likely general election opponent, Salisbury City Councilmember Michele Gregory (D), was also on hand.
Wearing a bright pink shirt and sunglasses with an emotional support pug named Otis, Carol Withers, who docks a boat at the Somers Cove Marina, said she came to the crab feast to boost Crisfield’s economy.
“We try to support Crisfield to get it back to life again,” Withers said, carrying a plastic brown bag with three T-shirts from the event she just bought. Withers and her husband own businesses in Ocean City, but used to have a condo in Crisfield.
“We’re trying to help put money back into Crisfield’s economy because it’s such a beautiful town and so great,” she said.
Danny Thompson, executive director of the Somerset County Economic Development Commission and co-chair of the event, said even with the pandemic, economic activity is on the upswing in the county, where a new industrial park’s lots are filing up. He credited increased business interest to the recently-approved Eastern Shore Pipeline, the county’s first link to natural gas.
His advice to gubernatorial candidates? “Let business be business, let government be government, OK?”
Gregory, the Salisbury councilmember, stood near a side entrance to the marina lot, chatting with elected officials and handing out campaign postcards to passersby. She said economic policy efforts focused on the Shore have all too often fallen short. “Folks talk a good game, but they don’t actually deliver.”
Thousands of people traveled to Crisfield to eat and drink — without paying much attention to the politics swirling around them.
“I was here for the crabs mostly, and to meet people,” said Berlin resident John Borth.
But Borth conceded that he wound up talking to several politicians as well.
“It’s awesome. It’s good that they do press the flesh and get to know the average folk, ya know, and get down out of their ivory towers.”
Another Eastern Shore resident at the crab feast, Cheryl Walker, said it was “interesting” to mingle with the politicians and learn about their positions. “It’s helpful. It’s helpful to put the face with the platforms.”
Many of the politicians themselves chose to confine their meeting and greeting to one another, rather than talking to the general public. Hundreds spent the afternoon hunkered under the massive tent sponsored by Annapolis lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano, where even people who have been out of office for years are treated like celebrities.
“It’s good to see you and good to be seen,” former state Del. Donald E. Murphy (R) told an old acquaintance.
Harford County Executive Barry Glassman (R), who is running for state comptroller, described the experience as “a homecoming,” and rattled off a list of former colleagues from the legislature that he had encountered.
Whether the next crab feast takes place in July of 2022 or in October remains to be seen.
Dize, the Crisfield mayor, said he expects to be heavily lobbied to support a permanent change of date for the event, after festival-goers raved about the 70-degree and breezy weather. Storm clouds hung in the distance, but abidingly avoided dousing the marina.
Hitesh Patel, second vice president of the Crisfield Area Chamber of Commerce, which runs the event, said he’d also heard raves this year, but noted that a permanent shift to October would increase the risk of inclement weather.
The Tawes crab feast and the Crisfield National Hard Crab Derby, which is held on Labor Day weekend, are the chamber’s marquee annual events.
Carozza, the state senator, said a permanent change is worth considering.
“I’m wondering,” she said, “if it will maybe become a new tradition.”
This story was reported and written by Bruce DePuyt, Danielle E. Gaines, Hannah Gaskill, Josh Kurtz and Elizabeth Shwe.