Annual Tawes crab feast means politics, as usual

Tradition: The campaign trail led the prospective gubernatorial candidates and many others to Crisfield to eat and greet.

Election 2002

July 18, 2002|By Howard Libit and Tim Craig | Howard Libit and Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

CRISFIELD - Three out of every four years, the annual J. Millard Tawes Crab and Clam Bake is an equal mix of crabs and politics. And then there are statewide election years, when almost everything involves politics.

"If you're a politician, this is where you should be every year," Comptroller William Donald Schaefer said yesterday as he worked on a fried fish sandwich. "But if it's an election year, this is the place where you have to be. Because if you're not here, people won't know that you're running."

Of course, the 26th annual event at Somers Cove Marina attracted plenty who came for the crabs, corn and fried clam strips. But there was no escaping the politics in the 95-degree heat, whether it was in the form of stickers, fliers, banners or signs.

"This is the political happening of the summer," said state Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, a Republican who represents Crisfield and the Lower Eastern Shore. "This is where we'll see the real start of the campaigns."

And for the 5,000 or so people who packed picnic tables and tents, there was no escaping the big political question in Maryland: Who will be the next governor, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. or Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend?

Both candidates made carefully orchestrated entrances with their running mates and were greeted by huge throngs of supporters. Ehrlich was somewhat tardy because his helicopter flight from Washington was delayed by congressional business.

Townsend immediately began working the crowd, kissing supporters and signing autographs before she and Adm. Charles R. Larson settled down for a few crabs.

"It's great visibility and great politicking," said Townsend, who pulled on T-shirts during the afternoon from the firefighters' union, Schaefer's campaign and the state association of independent universities.

Ehrlich also walked from tent to tent shaking hands along with his pick for lieutenant governor, Michael S. Steele.

"Most people who come here already have their minds made up," said Ehrlich, acknowledging that neither he nor Townsend were likely to win many votes yesterday. "But this is a political tradition, and political traditions are important."

Named for former Maryland Gov. J. Millard Tawes, the crab feast has become one of the biggest events sponsored by the Crisfield Chamber of Commerce, with many Eastern Shore and statewide politicians making it a habit to attend. The political traditions include paying homage to Schaefer, as Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan said he came to do yesterday.

"I'm here to kneel in front of [former] Gov. Schaefer," said Duncan, who at last year's event had been flirting with the idea of a campaign for governor.

Other once-potential gubernatorial candidates stayed away yesterday, including Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who is running for Congress.

Unlike recent years, yesterday's event featured no major protests or confrontations. Four years ago, chanting supporters of Republican gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey followed Gov. Parris N. Glendening. Last year, watermen unhappy with Glendening's crabbing policies protested the administration.

"This is a very good-natured political gathering, very polite," said McDaniel College professor Herbert C. Smith, a close observer of Maryland politics. "At this event, Republicans and Democrats show they can get along. I don't know if it will be this polite in October."

Townsend and Ehrlich never met during the crab feast, though their entourages came within 5 feet of each other. Quick-thinking advisers steered them in opposite directions.

In the battle over who could bring down the biggest busloads of supporters, the two candidates appeared to score a draw. But with the Eastern Shore tending to lean Republican, Ehrlich stickers proved more popular among the rank-and-file who paid $30 each to attend.

The only reported conflict occurred in a tent shared by Republicans and a state labor union: They argued over whether Ehrlich or Townsend signs would be hung between them.

There were some lingering bad feelings concerning Glendening, who did not attend for the third year in a row. Bad weather kept him away the last two years. Yesterday, a spokesman said the governor had a full office schedule in Annapolis.

Miss Crustacean 2001 (Ashley King, 16, of Deal Island) said people on the Eastern Shore are still smarting over the governor's strict limits on crabbing.

"I am neutral," said King, who walked around the marina in a black-and-white dress, high heels and tiara, "but my dad is a waterman and he is not happy with Glendening's decisions."

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