CRISFIELD — If Maryland politics had an event that approximated a near religious obligation, the J. Millard Tawes Crab Feast and Clambake would be it.
The setting drew about 4,000 people including elected officials — current, former and future — as well as business leaders and average Joes to a marina that is nearly at the tip of the southeast portion of the state. And in a year when politics and the state economy are inseparable, the setting is appropriate.
Somerset County, population 26,253, is arguably Maryland’s most economically challenged. Its unemployment rate is a touch under 8 percent — much higher than the sub-6 percent state average. It is also a community that is still trying to climb back from Hurricane Sandy. The 2012 storm flooded the town and drove some businesses off a Main Street that was already struggling.
“The hurricane hurt us real bad,” said Valerie Howard, executive director of the Crisfield Chamber of Commerce, which hosts the Tawes event. “The water came in so fast it looked like something out of a movie.’
“Our Main Street has been struggling,” Howard said but noted some rays of hope.
Four businesses that are new to the area recently moved into the town center, where some businesses previously were forced out by floodwaters.
And in an election year, when the focus of state politics is so keenly focused in Crisfield, Howard hopes to send those who seek to govern in Annapolis home with a message: Crisfield could use some help.
Political event of the year
The genesis of what is thought of as the state’s premier political events started as a fundraiser for J. Millard Tawes, a Crisfield Democrat who served as Maryland’s 54th governor from 1959 to 1967.
“This is the political event of the year,” said Del. John F. Wood, D-Charles and St. Mary’s. “It’s almost a must. You put it in your calendar every year. If you’re in Maryland politics you have to be here. I can probably count on one hand the number of people here from my district who can vote for me but I come over here because over the years I have met a lot of people and made friends with — legislators and general citizens.”
The first event drew about 300 people but tripled in attendance a year later. Prior to the recession, more than 5,000 people attended the event. That number dropped to 3,000 annually over the last few years in a town that boasts 3,600 residents.
This year, Howard said, organizers sold 4,000 tickets and expect to serve guests 220 bushels of steamed crabs, as well as steamed, raw and fried clams, corn and the usual sides. Howard attributes the bump to a stronger economy and the election year.
“People like to talk to the politicians and so do we,” Howard said.
The annual event has other economic benefits. Howard said some visitors come in and stay for a day or two or visit the nearby bars and restaurants.
Part revival, part circus
At the center of the Tawes gathering is Annapolis power lobbyist Bruce Bereano’s tent.
“If it’s happening, it’s happening in Bruce’s tent,” said Sen. J.B. Jennings, R-Baltimore County and Harford.
The lobbyist has attended the event for 25 years. This is the fifth year he’s had a tent. This year it dwarfs those of his neighbors and is large enough to hold a revival or maybe even a circus.
“I’m expecting trapeze artists and elephants,” Bereano says.
Bereano sold nearly 600 tickets for the chamber. Guests will dine on the standard fare offered by the chamber as well as some items he has catered from local businesses. Once a guest sits down, every need is take care of. Runners hired by Bereano bring food and drink in — no need to wait in those lines — and the lobbyist flits back and forth between tables working the crowd that includes former Gov. Marvin Mandel and state Sen. Thomas Bromwell, and a host of other elected officials, business owners and candidates.
“It’s a great networking event,” Bereano said. “If you want to be serious about Maryland politics, you have to be here.”
He won’t get a chance to eat in his tent. In fact, he’s highly allergic to shellfish and confessed to taking medication to prevent a reaction — and carrying around epinephrine injection just in case.
Crabs aside, there is politicking to be done.
In an election year, candidate attendance increases. Even this year, when some expected the early primary to cut the number, there seemed to be no shortage of office holders, seekers and the defeated.
Larry Hogan, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, stood inside the front gate of the Somers Cove Marina and noted the city’s public housing development — rows of un-air conditioned brick one- and two-story apartment buildings — and touches on the economy.
“Unemployment has practically doubled in the state under the O’Malley-Brown administration and it’s worse here in Somerset County,” Hogan said. “We’ve got to get our economy on track and to do that we have got to cut wasteful spending, cut taxes and encourage businesses to come out and create jobs for the folks in this area.”
Hogan, surrounded by an entourage of supporters and staff, planned to walk that message around the marina. His opponent, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, and his running mate, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, did not attend the event. A campaign worker said both were detained at a funeral in Baltimore County.
Even so, Howard, the chamber executive director, said she hopes those who visit the town to dine on crabs and political gossip will go to Annapolis and remember Crisfield.
“We could use some help, grant money to help us to attract more businesses,” Howard said.