City Council candidate Donna Joy Beth Shapiro was only "fishing for votes," but she touched off a controversy when she sent 50 goldfish to local media organizations, including several TV stations and The Evening Sun.
The goldfish were enclosed in small plastic bags filled with water. A piece of Shapiro's campaign literature, with the line, "I'm TC fishing for your vote," was stapled to the top of each bag.
Shapiro is one of 13 Democrats seeking the three 2nd District council seats in the Sept. 12 primary election.
Shapiro said she used the fish to generate publicity because the media aren't giving adequate coverage to the race.
Lloyd Ross, director of the city's Bureau of Animal Control, said Shapiro may have violated an animal-care law and he has asked the city solicitor's office for an opinion on the fishy campaign tactic.
Ross referred to Article 11, Section 32c of the City Code, which reads: "No person shall give away any live animal, fish, reptile or bird as a prize for or as an inducement to enter any contest, game or other competition; or . . . as an incentive to enter into any business agreement whereby the offer was for the purpose of attracting trade."
"In a political campaign, it's a business transaction," said Ross. "They enter into a business agreement, that I'm going to get your vote, which is the same thing as attracting trade. That's my interpretation."
"If she's giving out goldfish for votes, if that's what's happening, then we have a problem."
Meanwhile, an animal-rights activist expressed concern about the welfare of the goldfish.
"The people taking the pets will probably not take care of them," said Deborah Williams, of the Maryland Network for Animals, adding: "They may flush them down the toilet. Taking care of goldfish is a responsibility. You don't just plop them in the water."
Shapiro, who describes herself as an animal lover and vegetarian, said she didn't think her campaign gimmick was either cruel or illegal.
She said she purchased the goldfish for a dime apiece at a pet store and that an employee there told her the fish could live in the bags for several hours. "I even asked him, 'do goldfishes have brains?' " she said.
Shapiro said she traveled back and forth from the pet store to the various delivery points to make sure the fish didn't die in the bags.
Shapiro said the fish were "feeders," small goldfish that are fed to larger fish.
"I don't think it was cruel," she said. "As my guy in the fish store explained to me, they would probably last longer by me giving them away."
Shapiro said the plan to trade goldfish for votes originated with her late father, Sam Shapiro, a perennial candidate for mayoral and senatorial offices during the 1960s and early 1970s. "No one ever did it except my dad," she said, adding, "He also gave out kisses for votes."
Despite his efforts, Sam Shapiro never won an election, his daughter conceded.
Asked about the fate of the goldfish, she said, "People probably won't let them sit in a bag all day long. . . . "I think they'll take them home and put them in a bowl and think about me everyday, and I hope they [the fish] won't go belly-up."
Joe Cray, owner of Pet Peddlers in Catonsville, said he thought Shapiro's campaign ploy was cruel.
"If you give someone a fish in a bag, they probably don't have a bowl and they probably don't have food" for the goldfish, Cray said.
After receiving much press attention for her gimmick, including several TV interviews last night, Shapiro today said she'll stop giving away goldfish. She had previously said she would give out "hundreds" to potential voters. "My reading of the City Code, my interpretation of it, is different than the people from animal control," she said. "The point is moot because I'm not giving out goldfish anymore.
"Interesting," said incumbent Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge after learning of Shapiro's campaign tactic. "Cute, little gimmick, but nothing replaces experience and a good track record." Ambridge is one of Shapiro's opponents in the 2nd District race.