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Thousands flocking to Ocean City for the annual MACo confab

A sign welcomes attendees to the Maryland Association of Counties summer conference in 2021. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Ocean City’s swelling vacation population will grow by about 3,000 this week, as the annual Maryland Association of Counties summer conference, the largest gathering of the state’s political clan, kicks off Wednesday.

As usual, the four-day ritual is essentially split into separate exercises: the official gathering, inside the bone-chilling Roland E. Powell Convention Center, where dozens of sessions are designed to illuminate the latest challenges facing local government leaders, and the almost two dozen receptions and political fundraisers that take place throughout the sprawling resort town.

The official theme of the conference is “Where the Rubber Meets the Road,” and several of the panel discussions emphasize the crossroads many governments find themselves in: Wrestling with less direct federal aid, now that the pandemic has died down, but tantalized by potential federal funding opportunities for infrastructure projects, other capital spending, and programs that confront climate change.

Most panels deal with the nuts and bolts of governing: public safety, technology, housing, energy and the environment, parks and recreation, health care, and so much more. Many of the conversations lead to future legislative action in the General Assembly and in the state’s 24 local governments.

This is the first MACo conference for the seven-month-old administration of Gov. Wes Moore (D), and several administration officials will participate, offering their expertise or leading panel discussions. The entire governor’s cabinet will be on hand for an annual reception Friday, and Moore will close the conference Saturday with his first speech to the county leaders.

A phalanx of top-ranking state legislators will also be there, as panel members and moderators. House Speaker Adrienne Jones (D-Baltimore County) will speak at the annual women’s lunch on Friday.

Both of Maryland’s U.S. senators will be present at the convention hall: Sen. Ben Cardin (D), whose decades-long political career is nearing its completion, will host his near-annual town hall on Friday morning, while Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D) will tape the “No Pix After Dark” podcast from the convention center on Thursday afternoon.

Every summer MACo features a keynote speaker who delivers a broadly-themed address early in the conference about the challenges of governing in a changing world. The keynoter is usually a titan of industry, an entrepreneurial innovator or a motivational speaker. This year, the honor goes to Valerie Sheares Ashby, the new president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

The conference is also an opportunity for hundreds of entities in the public and private sectors to peddle their wares to government officials, and the convention hall’s sprawling exhibition center is always a beehive of activity. Several corporations also sponsor panel discussions and, in some cases, get to shape the narratives surrounding their industries as a result.

At least eight elected officials are using the confab to raise campaign cash in Ocean City, including Moore; the presiding officers of the General Assembly, Jones and Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City); Howard County Executive Calvin Ball (D), who is the president of MACo this year; Frederick County Executive Jessica Fitzwater (D); House Ways and Means Committee Chair Vanessa Atterbeary (D-Howard); Del. Wayne Hartman (R), who lives in Ocean City; and Del. Sheree Sample-Hughes, the lone Democrat representing a district on the Eastern Shore.

Sample-Hughes has been serving as House speaker pro tem since 2019, but Jones has signaled her desire to have Del. Dana L. Stein (D-Baltimore County) serve in the position beginning in January, so the dynamic at this gathering could be particularly interesting. Sample-Hughes has suggested she may contest Stein to win the post when the House reconvenes.

Several other politicians are hosting receptions, without money changing hands, including Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks (D), a candidate for U.S. Senate; State Treasurer Dereck Davis (D); Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. (D); and state Sen. J.B. Jennings (R-Harford). Jennings’ popular annual gathering in the sand at Ropewalk restaurant is a bipartisan affair, but it’s also become the most consistent confluence of Republicans during the week.

Conference-goers are also invited to at least eight other after-hours receptions, sponsored by lobbying firms and their powerhouse list of clients, professional and business associations, and other entities. Lobbyist John A. Pica Jr. is hosting a bowling party.

Political leaders, including Moore and state Comptroller Brooke Lierman (D), are also expected to hit the Ocean City boardwalk and make appearances elsewhere on the Lower Shore.

Like any mass gathering — or a typical General Assembly session in Annapolis — part of the appeal of MACo is the serendipity of running into people, of pulling someone aside for a private chat, of after-hours mingling. It’s partly all about the policy tutorials and partly all about the schmoozing — the essence of government and governing.

And oh yes, there’s also the sand and the surf…

This story has been updated to correct that Del. Vanessa Atterbeary is chair of the House Ways and Means Committee.


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Thousands flocking to Ocean City for the annual MACo confab