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Election 2022

Councilmember Files to Take on GOP House Incumbents in Dist. 36, Roiling Local Politics

Cecil County Councilmember Jackie Gregory, second from right, has filed to run against three Republican House incumbents in the District 36 GOP primary. She is an ally of County Executive Danielle Hornberger (second from left). Also pictured: County Councilmembers Bill Coutz (left) and Bob Meffley. Cecil County government photo.

A Cecil County councilmember closely aligned with County Executive Danielle Hornberger (R) has filed to enter the Republican House primary in District 36, posing a direct threat to the three GOP incumbents who are running together as a team.

At the same time, Hornberger’s husband, state Del. Kevin B. Hornberger (R), is preparing to introduce legislation that would change the way legislative elections are decided in District 36.

The developments are part of an ongoing political evolution on the Upper Shore, and particularly in Cecil County, where conservatives connected to U.S. Rep. Andrew P. Harris (R-Md.) are wresting control from more moderate Republicans. And they add an element of uncertainty to the election season in a Republican stronghold, a little more than three weeks before the Feb. 22 candidate filing deadline.

“I think there’s a lot of questions right now,” Danielle Hornberger said in an interview Wednesday.

Earlier this month, two-term Cecil County Councilmember Jackie Gregory (R) filed paperwork to enter the Republican primary for a House seat in District 36, where incumbents Steven J. Arentz, Jefferson L. Ghrist and Jay A. Jacobs are seeking reelection and are teaming with Sen. Stephen S. Hershey Jr. (R) on a slate.

Although Gregory has conferred with the incumbents and other GOP officials about her decision, according to several sources, she has yet to say anything publicly about her political plans. She did not respond to a text and email from Maryland Matters on Wednesday and she did not respond to queries from The Cecil Times earlier this month when the website wrote about her filing.

Gregory, the co-founder of a tea party-style group called the Cecil Patriots, is a member of Harris’ congressional staff, as Danielle Hornberger was before she was elected county executive in 2020. It’s widely assumed that Gregory has entered the Republican House primary with the Hornbergers’ blessing.

Kevin Hornberger, who represents another part of Cecil County in District 35A, said Wednesday he encouraged her to run because, “With the new district lines, we’re just ensuring that Cecil County is staying as strong and active as possible.”

That’s a reference to the fact that District 36, which takes in four counties, currently has no House representative from Cecil County. Arentz is from Queen Anne’s County, Ghrist is from Caroline County, and Jacobs is from Kent County.

But both Hornbergers stopped short of a full-on endorsement of Gregory.

“We have to wait until the filing deadline to see what the full picture looks like,” Danielle Hornberger said.

The District 36 incumbents seem to regard the potential challenge with a mixture of annoyance and resignation.

“Everyone’s certainly entitled to be part of the political process if they want to be,” Ghrist said Wednesday.

Asked how he felt about his House colleague, Hornberger, encouraging a candidate to run against the incumbents, Ghrist said, “He’s supportive of our team, too.”

Hershey said he and the District 36 House incumbents are comfortable pitching their individual and collective records to the voters, regardless of what their opposition may look like in the June 28 Republican primary.

“We do an outstanding job of representing that district in its entirety,” he said.

All three House incumbents are veteran local officeholders who have served together in Annapolis since 2015. Jacobs was elected to the House in 2010 and spent a dozen years as mayor of Rock Hall before that. Arentz was appointed to fill a House vacancy in 2013 after spending three years on the Queen Anne’s County Commission (he replaced Hershey, who was appointed to fill a Senate vacancy after serving for three years in the House). Ghrist was elected to the House in 2014 and served for eight years on the Caroline County Commission before that.

“I haven’t lost an election in 16 years,” said Ghrist, who ousted then-Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr. in the 2014 Republican primary.

The incumbents are also prepared to go on the offensive — and are poised to boast that all their top priorities for capital spending in the district have been included in Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s annual budget proposal, with a nudge from the House Appropriations Committee, where Ghrist serves.

“We have established very good relationships and our entire committee is committed to the entire state,” he said.

The campaign treasuries of the incumbents are varied. Arentz reported $53,412 in his account as of Jan. 12. Jacobs had $47,429, while Ghrist reported $10,634 on hand. But there is also a Team 36 slate account designed to help the three House members and Hershey, though as of Jan. 12 it only had $500 in it. Hershey reported a $205,507 campaign war chest.

Gregory has created a campaign committee for her House run, but her previous campaign accounts have been closed and had no money in them, according to records at the Maryland State Board of Elections.

Meanwhile, as Republican leaders sort out the situation in District 36, Kevin Hornberger hopes to end an anomaly in state election law that’s unique to District 36. He plans to introduce a bill that would eliminate a decades-old law that requires candidates on the ballot in District 36 to have the counties where they live listed alongside their names. It would also take away the requirement that the House election produce winners from each of three counties in the district.

Under current law, if the top two finishers in a primary or a general election in a District 36 House race hail from the same county, the second place finisher is eliminated in favor of a candidate from another jurisdiction. Because the district as currently drawn includes parts of four counties, one county is always left out of the equation — even though all three members represent all four counties because the district cannot be broken neatly into subdistricts, which is what happens in other Eastern Shore legislative districts.

Hornberger said he believes that provision of state law is unconstitutional and hopes the legislature will strike it.

“I don’t know how it’s stayed on the books for so long,” he said.