State Sen. J.B. Jennings’ annual Ocean City reception is one of the most well-attended events of the Maryland Association of Counties’ summer conference.
The sun-splashed gathering is held at Ropewalk, a Coastal Highway restaurant, and it is one of the most bipartisan and family-friendly events on the MACo social calendar. With free-flowing cocktails and live music, the late-afternoon gathering is held outdoors, and attendees — legislators, lobbyists, governments officials and others — are encouraged to bring their children. They get to enjoy the sand-covered play area.
Last year, Jennings’ event felt like the center of the Maryland political universe, as it served as a coming-out party of sorts for former Lt. Gov. Michael Steele (R). At the time, the former Republican National Committee chair was considering a run for governor. Commerce Secretary Kelly Schulz (R), a potential rival, was there as well, and the two chatted for a while.
Gov. Larry Hogan (R) stopped by last year, and the senator expected him to attend this year’s event, held on Thursday, as well.
By late afternoon, the governor’s security team was in position, one of his State House photographers was in place by the entrance to the party area, and two members of Hogan’s press shop were there.
But Hogan never showed.
According to Jennings, the governor’s plans changed when the restaurant’s owner, Marc McFaul, a supporter of Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Cox and former President Donald Trump, had a conversation with Hogan’s security detail.
“Marc went out and told his advance team that he didn’t want him there,” Jennings said. “I think Marc was just kidding and giving ‘em a hard time. The thing ballooned more than it was. It escalated because the troopers are pretty serious, and you tell them, ‘I don’t want him here,’ they’re going to take it seriously.”
The governor has been harshly critical of Cox, who defeated his preferred candidate, Schulz, in the July 19 primary. He has also heaped scorn on Trump during his many interviews on national talk shows. Hogan has traveled to New Hampshire and Iowa as he contemplates a run for the White House in 2024.
Jennings said he arrived to his own party late because a real estate closing ran longer than expected. He said he was “upset” to learn of the interaction between McFaul and Hogan’s security team.
“I was excited the governor was coming. I was hoping he was coming. I told people he was coming,” the lawmaker said. “I went and told Marc and he said, ‘Nah, nah, I just wanted to vent for a little bit.’ … But [Hogan’s] team just said, ‘Let’s not.’ They’re security personnel. If they feel they’re going into a hostile situation, they won’t do it. So I think that’s why they decided not to come.”
A Maryland Matters reporter left a message for McFaul at the restaurant but did not hear from him as of Friday evening.
The restauranteur has donated to numerous Republican candidates over the years and the Ropewalk dining room features a prominent statue of Ronald Reagan. A huge Cox sign sat at the entrance to the restaurant’s parking lot earlier this week.
In an interview, Hogan denied that his change of plans had anything to do with McFaul’s conversation with his security team.
The governor held a blowout reception at another Ocean City night spot on Wednesday evening, with well over 1,000 people in attendance. He has had full schedules during the MACo conference, with numerous stops up and down the Eastern Shore. By the time Thursday evening rolled around, he said, he was ready for a quiet evening with his wife.
“We had a list of five or six potential places last night, but it wasn’t on our schedule,” he said. “I was pretty tired after we did the 1,500 people the night before. I did my [MACo] speech. I had ten events or whatever. So my wife and I went out to dinner and went to bed early.”