Outwardly, Tuesday’s bimonthly meeting of the Wicomico County Council was dominated by the basics of local governance: A man alerting officials that his neighbor in Sharpstown may be selling dogs illegally. A woman complaining about noise from ATV traffic at a former quarry on the outskirts of Salisbury. A youth sports organizer criticizing county parks programs. Finely detailed conversations about possible tax breaks for local firefighters.
But past the placid exterior of day-to-day governing, the ongoing dispute between the county council and County Executive Julie Giordano (R) lurked just beneath the surface. Swiftly and with no debate or explanation, with Giordano sitting near the back of the council chambers working her phone, the council at one point, on a 5-1 vote, sandbagged one of her four nominees to serve on the county’s Personnel Board.
A few minutes later, one council member, Joe Holloway (R), spent time rebutting complaints that had been lodged against him by citizens aligned with Giordano at a council meeting two weeks earlier — including a suggestion that he had been taking bribes.
“It’s ridiculous,” Holloway said. “These are demeaning statements that are being made. It’s slanderous, quite frankly.”
Just another Tuesday in the Eastern Shore’s largest county.
“It’s becoming an issue,” state Del. Carl Anderton Jr. (R-Lower Shore), the chair of the Wicomico County legislative delegation in Annapolis, conceded in an interview. “I’ve already had colleagues and folks in the [Moore] administration saying, ‘What’s going on in your county?’ And I just say, ‘It’s growing pains.'”
That’s a decidedly optimistic view.
For the past few months, Giordano and the majority-Republican council have been at odds over some of the executive’s appointments to key government positions. When the council wouldn’t confirm two of her appointees, Giordano hired them anyway. Then, the council zeroed out funding for those two jobs, and for a third vacant position.
Giordano has filed a lawsuit against the council members, claiming they didn’t follow the county’s confirmation process properly. But the two sides can’t even agree on who should represent her in the suit. The county attorney, Paul Wilber, reports to both the executive and the council; but after Wilber issued a non-binding opinion endorsing Giordano’s interpretation of the county charter, County Council President John T. Cannon (R) said he’s content to have Wilber represent Giordano if the case winds up in court, figuring he’s already taken sides (the council has its own attorney as well).
When Giordano sought funding at a council meeting earlier this month to hire an outside counsel, the council rejected her attempt. An attorney with Wilber’s law firm wound up filing the latest iteration of Giordano’s suit against the council last Friday.
This internecine feud is taking place as the Wicomico County Republican Central Committee prepares to hold its big annual fundraiser this Saturday at the Wicomico County Youth and Civic Center in Salisbury, with Ben Carson, the celebrated Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon who served as former President Trump’s secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, as the featured speaker.
And the controversy in Wicomico County is unfolding as several Republican officials in Harford County are engaging in open warfare over a range of issues.
This can’t be a good development for Maryland Republicans, who are deep in the minority statewide and are looking to rebuild after a tough 2022 election cycle — and when the two-term tenure of popular Republican ex-governor Larry Hogan is receding in the rearview mirror.
There were eight county executive elections in Maryland last year, and Harford and Wicomico were the only places where Republicans won, and were the only jurisdictions with elections last year where the GOP emerged with county council majorities. Coincidentally, these two battles in county government are taking place as Republicans on Capitol Hill are paralyzed over how to deal with the federal budget, because certain members of the GOP conference seem allergic to governing.
What is happening with these local Republicans? And is anyone in Maryland equipped to play peacemaker?
“Republicans tend to eat our own in this state,” Giordano observed in an interview in her office this week. She added that she feels at times like she’s operating “in the Twilight Zone.”
Too close for comfort
On the third floor of the Government Office Building in downtown Salisbury, the executive’s office and the council offices are just a dozen feet away — conveniently within reach or uncomfortably close, depending on your viewpoint. Salisbury city government offices are farther down the same hallway. But that’s the way things are sometimes in a relatively small community.
Here’s an illustration of the challenges GOP leaders face as they get ready for their big event Saturday: In Wicomico County, Cannon is a member of the nine-person Republican Central Committee. So is Giordano — and so is her husband, Ralph Giordano. The vice chair is a man named Barry Beauchamp, who just happens to be the nominee for the county Personnel Board that the county council rejected this week.
Beauchamp is a political ally of Giordano, a 41-year-old political upstart who ousted County Executive John Psota (who had also been the county administrator) in the Republican primary before winning a three-way general election fairly comfortably. But several members of the council, where Republicans hold a 5-2 edge, also campaigned as Giordano allies and are now on the other side of the institutional divide. Only first-term Councilmember James Winn (R) has voted consistently with Giordano on the personnel disputes.
Wendy Anspacher, chair of the Wicomico GOP, said that while she has her own opinions about the ongoing government feud, she’s staying publicly neutral out of deference to her fellow central committee members, Cannon and Giordano.
“There’s two sides and they’re kind of letting it play out as it goes,” Anspacher said.
Asked in an interview this week whether she or any other Republican leaders in the state have the desire or ability to end the divisions in Wicomico and Harford counties, Maryland Republican Party Chair Nicole Beus Harris replied, “I don’t feel like it’s my role to step in.” Harris added that the squabbling elected officials will ultimately be accountable to their constituents and that GOP leaders generally hope the factions can keep things civil.
Harris’ husband is U.S. Rep. Andy Harris (R-1st), the lone Republican in the state’s congressional delegation, and his district takes in both Harford and Wicomico counties. A spokesperson did not respond to an email this week asking for the congressman’s views on the divides in the two counties.
It’s not that there aren’t institutional fights or personality clashes or longstanding grudges in Maryland’s Democratic counties. But Wicomico experienced another high-profile deadlock just three years ago, when council members could not agree on a successor for the late County Executive Bob Culver (R), who died in 2020, more than two years before his term was supposed to end. Eventually, the council members chose Psota, who had been the county’s director of administration and kept both jobs after being appointed county executive. Republican fissures were already evident in 2020.
Could the GOP dysfunction in Wicomico create a political opening for Democrats? Wicomico is swiftly growing and Salisbury, the largest city on the Shore, is swiftly becoming more cosmopolitan. President Biden lost the county by less than 2 points in the 2020 White House election.
“This entire process has shown that the Wicomico GOP can’t even govern,” said Jared Schablein, chair of the Lower Shore Progressive Caucus. “And it’s shown that the progressive leaders like [Democratic council members] Josh Hastings and Shanie Shields are the only ones on the council who are capable of getting things done.”
Seeking ‘neutral territory’
On paper, with such a thin bench, Giordano should be a rising star in Maryland Republican politics: A former teacher with a zesty personality. A young mom steeped in contemporary grass-roots conservative movements. An energetic figure who promised to bring something different to county government.
But now she must be mindful of not getting too mired in these personnel and personality disputes. For now, Giordano is shrugging them off.
“When it comes to the political part of it, [veteran council members] don’t think of me as being a Republican,” she said. “It’s surprising to me because we’re from the same party and we campaigned together.”
Giordano estimated that personnel disputes occupy only 5% of her time, and said constituents wouldn’t notice at all if the council didn’t have two public meetings a month.
“It’s just noise in the background,” she said. “They get a platform two times a month to say what they want to say.”
Giordano recently began hosting a regular TV show on the local cable access station. It generally debuts on Wednesdays, a day after the regularly-scheduled council meetings, and she has used it to rebut some of what council members say the day before. Giordano noted in an interview that certain veteran council members clashed regularly with some of her predecessors, whether they were Republicans or Democrats. Wicomico County has had a charter form of government, with an elected executive and council, since 2006.
“Honestly, Jesus could be in the seat, and they’d say he’s a socialist — he’s giving away too much,” she said.
Cannon, too, describes the tension with Giordano as a distraction, and says he and his council colleagues are laser-focused on their work.
“I try not to let the conversation go beyond this,” he said this week. “I don’t have time to let any of this get in the way.”
Both Cannon and Giordano said the ultimate resolution is likely to come through the courts and that they’re prepared to live with the decision. And there was some evidence that they are continuing to work together despite the tensions.
Shortly after the council adjourned on Tuesday afternoon, Giordano and Cannon met with Anderton, the state lawmaker, to discuss their priorities for the 2024 General Assembly session.
As he prepared for the meeting, Anderton dismissed the long-term significance of the tensions between the council and the executive.
“It has no hindrance on our plans for expanding and economic development in our county,” he said.
But the meeting wasn’t taking place in Giordano’s office or Cannon’s in the government building. Instead, the trio was gathering at the offices of the Greater Salisbury Committee, the region’s leading civic group, two blocks away.
“Neutral territory,” Anderton explained.