CRISFIELD -- Anybody who is anybody in Maryland politics -- and plenty more who want to be somebody in Maryland politics -- converged yesterday on the seafood capital of the Lower Eastern Shore.
Up to their elbows in Old Bay, almost 5,000 visitors wielded crab mallets at the 23rd J. Millard Tawes Crab and Clambake, a shindig that raises as much as $70,000 for the local Chamber of Commerce and for one day each summer turns the waterfront town of 2,700 into ground zero for campaign-style schmoozing, even in a nonelection year.
Trouble is, in a town synonymous with the seafood industry for most of its history -- where a giant red crab adorns the water tower that dominates the skyline of the flat landscape along the Little Annemessex River -- organizers had to go out of state to get seafood.
The water business, as the watermen from nearby Tangier and Smith islands call it, has been so bad that organizers from the Crisfield Area Chamber of Commerce had to truck in clams and crabs from North Carolina.
"We always import the clams; our season is in the fall, " said Fritz Gerald, Crisfield's town manager, a former town councilman and mayor who's helped run the festival since its inception in 1977. "But this year, there's just not enough crabs for an event like this."
Declining crab harvests are nothing new for the town, where crab-picking houses that bustled with activity from spring to fall now stand empty. In the early 1980s, Gerald said, more than a dozen packing houses operated. Now there are three.
Crisfield and Somerset County officials hope for a turnaround in the seafood industry, but they're setting their sights on attracting other businesses and increasing tourism. With an unemployment rate of 8.5 percent, third highest in the state, bringing in more visitors is a must, they say.
"It used to be that seafood was it," said Councilman Danny Thompson. "Now we have to rethink and be more creative."
With thousands wandering the grounds of the state-owned Somers Cove Marina, enjoying mild temperatures and clutching cardboard boxes teetering with crabs, corn and clams, the hope is that many will come back.
In recent years, corporate sponsors have begun buying up blocks of tickets (at $30 a head) to entertain clients and treat employees. City leaders say the exposure is invaluable.
"It's great to bring this number of people into Crisfield, and many are important people from all over the state," said Del. Charles A. McClenahan, a Somerset County Republican and former Crisfield mayor. "Somerset County has great potential for tourism."
But for Maryland politicians, the festival has long been the event of the summer.
And yesterday, everybody from Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry to former Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker to Queen Anne's County Commissioner George O'Donnell was there backslapping.
"I've been in Baltimore two or three times in the last 10 days, and everybody has been saying, `See you in Crisfield,' " said Ocean City Mayor Jim Mathias.
Last year, Republican gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey led two bus loads of yellow-shirted volunteers who arrived from Baltimore to work the crowds. Yesterday, she was in the Somerset County Republicans tent, working just as hard on a serious pile of No. 1 jimmies.
"I tell you, this is the first time in all the years I've come here, back to 1983, that I've had time to sit down and eat," said Sauerbrey, who twice ran unsuccessfully for governor. "Without a doubt, this is the premiere political event in the state. At least for political junkies. And there's all this food."
Still, Sauerbrey had political business on her agenda: As the statewide coordinator for George W. Bush's presidential campaign, she greeted supporters and signed up volunteers.
Her rival in two campaigns, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, arrived late and casually dressed. "There's a tradition here, a political tradition that over the years has taken on a weight of its own," Glendening said. "When I first came here in 1991, people were saying, `Parris who?' "
Glendening said he considered not appearing because of the deaths of John F. Kennedy Jr. and Kennedy's wife and sister-in-law, but after talking at length with Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, decided to attend.
Festival food included 350 bushels of hard crabs, 700 dozen ears of corn, a truckload of watermelons, 1,000 pounds of trout, 40,000 clams, french fries and onion rings, untold gallons of soda, bottled water and beer.
John Brown of Washington, a veteran of at least 10 Tawes festivals, had rigged a rope through a large cardboard box to help support a huge pile of crabs.
"I'm taking turns in the lines with my wife," he said. "We're here for the food, not the politics."