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Election 2022

Peroutka’s Crusade Against Mandates: ‘This Is What World War III Looks Like’

Michael Anthony Peroutka, a Republican candidate for attorney general, speaks to supporters at an Ellicott City restaurant. Photo by Josh Kurtz.

Michael Anthony Peroutka was pacing a small stretch of carpet in an Ellicott City restaurant the other night, brandishing a leather-bound copy of the Maryland Constitution like a weapon.

Peroutka’s speech, to a rapt audience of about 30 self-proclaimed patriots, was part first-year law school lecture and part tent revival sermon.

“The Constitution is not a self-enforcing document,” the 70-year-old provocateur and candidate for attorney general said. “It’s a wonderful document. It’s a powerful document. But it’s not going to leap off the page. You have to keep it alive. You have to understand the Biblical principles on which this country was founded.”

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Peroutka has largely flown under the radar this primary season, eclipsed by higher-profile candidates aligned with President Trump like Del. Dan Cox, one of the two leading Republican candidates for governor. But Peroutka, who is running with Cox’s support, was Trumpy before Trump was cool. And it’s entirely possible he could wind up as the Republican nominee for AG next month.

Peroutka’s governing philosophy is summed up neatly on his campaign literature: “Liberty forever, Mandates never!”

HIs campaign for attorney general is fueled by voter anger over COVID-19 health mandates and business restrictions, fear of crime and immigration, election integrity, and opposition to abortion rights. Even though pandemic protocols have largely eased in recent months, Peroutka urges his supporters to remain vigilant about government encroachment in their lives.

“I’m running for attorney general because unless this is redressed, it’s going to continue, it’s going to happen again,” he said. “Do you think they’re finished with you? I believe actually that this is what World War III looks like.”

Peroutka vows that if he’s elected attorney general, he’ll prosecute the leaders who enacted and enforced COVID mandates and restrictions — from Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, to county executives, to public health officials to law enforcement officers and others “who have been taking away your rights.” The list, he says, includes attorneys general, state’s attorneys and federal prosecutors “who were put in [office] by George Soros.”

This isn’t Peroutka’s first time on the ballot. He was the presidential nominee of the far-right Constitution Party in 2004. He won a seat on the Anne Arundel County Republican Central Committee and then on the County Council in 2014. He served on the council for four years, losing a bid for a second term in the 2018 GOP primary. Mostly, Peroutka has been associated with the Institute on the Constitution, which sells an array of educational materials, advising people to “Pray. Study. Act.”

Peroutka has also been a magnet for controversy. He’s been a donor to and public defender of Roy Moore, the arch-conservative former Alabama Supreme Court justice who later saw his bid for a U.S. Senate seat undone by allegations that he was a pedophile. The Human Rights Campaign has called Peroutka “an active white supremacist.” For years, Peroutka had close ties to the League of the South, which the Southern Poverty Law Center once described as a neo-Confederate group that is “explicitly racist.”

But the crowd in Ellicott City was not all-white. There were at least three people of color listening intently.

“A lot of minorities are all-in for Dan [Cox] and for Michael,” said Ray Serrano, a Republican activist in Howard County who is Latino. “There’s a lot of arrogance among the Democratic Party when it comes to minority communities.”

Maryland last had a Republican attorney general from 1952 to 1954: Edward Rollins, who was a temporary appointee of the governor. A Republican hasn’t been elected attorney general since 1918. In all those years since, Republicans have put up a variety of candidates for the job, some more credible than others, but pretty much always with the expectation that their nominee would lose.

Four years ago, Craig Wolf, head of a national business association and military veteran, hoped to backdraft off Hogan’s popularity to pull an upset over the Democratic incumbent, Brian Frosh. But while polls at one point showed Wolf within striking distance, the national political environment at that time and Maryland’s own political fundamentals gave Frosh a 30-point victory.

This time around, the race for the Republican nomination for attorney general is between Peroutka and Jim Shalleck, an ex-prosecutor who has unsuccessfully sought political office four times and is running on a conventional law-and-order platform. A poll conducted for the Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore recently showed Peroutka at 19%, Shalleck at 18%, with a whopping 63% of Republican voters undecided.

The Washington Post, in an editorial this week endorsing Shalleck — which may not be an asset in a GOP primary — called Peroutka “unfit for public office.”

During Peroutka’s appearance before the conservative group in Ellicott City this week, several people described supporting his candidacy, volunteering for him, and making campaign donations as acts of boldness and courage. Peroutka’s campaign encourages the battleground metaphors.

“So we are at war and we have to get a little uncomfortable,” Peroutka’s campaign coordinator, Macky Stafford, told the group. She also said fundraising has become tougher lately. “Nobody wants to give money right now because gas prices are so high. But gas prices are so high because of corruption.”

The candidate returned again and again to the Constitution he was holding.

“For the past two years,” he said, “we have lived under horrible, notorious, obnoxious, blatant violations of this document.”

These words are golden to a certain segment of the Republican electorate.

“It’s our damn Constitution. Our damn country. Let’s take it back!” said Beth Rettaliata Lawson, a candidate for the Howard County Republican Central Committee.

Less clear is whether Peroutka’s words can be spun into any kind of political gold besides a possible Republican primary victory.

Without saying so out loud, Democratic strategists are clearly hoping Peroutka becomes the GOP nominee — not because they believe either Republican is going to defeat their eventual nominee for attorney general, but because his presence on the ballot could complicate life for former Commerce Secretary Kelly Schulz if she becomes the Republican nominee for governor. She’ll want to present herself as a focused, pragmatic, well-scripted, family-oriented conservative, and will not want to be associated with Peroutka’s more extreme positions and pronouncements. If Peroutka wins the Republican primary, Democrats might content themselves with spotlighting his views and trying to draw links to Schulz.

But Peroutka and his supporters seem unconcerned. It’s hard to worry about the fate of Republicans that they perceive to be moderates, like Hogan and Schulz, when so much is at stake.

“There is a God,” Peroutka said. “Our rights come from him. The purpose of civil government is to protect our God-given rights. But you need to be heard. You are the champions and you need to see yourselves that way.”