Mix of crabs, campaigning

Tawes: Politics is in the air at the annual Eastern Shore feast -- although some of the state's biggest names stay away.

July 22, 2004|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

CRISFIELD -- The tables were sticky, the crabs were stickier and the tents were thick with hot air -- and that was before many of the politicians even showed up.

Yesterday's 28th annual J. Millard Tawes Crab and Clam Bake, always a veritable who's who of Maryland politics, may have been significant for who didn't come. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski were among the no-shows.

But it was also significant for who did -- more than 5,700 people paid $30 apiece for the all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of crabs, clams, watermelon, sweet corn and beer, setting a record for the event.

Traditionally, the crab feast in this self-billed "seafood capital of the world" is a place for politicians statewide to test their mallet mettle while constituents, gadflies and opponents pepper them with questions about job growth and health-care reform.

And this election year, plenty of staffers showed the flags for the incumbents as the band played Johnny Cash songs and visitors fanned themselves with whatever political paper products seemed to be most handy.

Mikulski's people, decked out in red, approached people on their way in. A few members of Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest's staff were in an area near the Republican tent. Supporters of Bush-Cheney and other campaigns worked the lines of people waiting for cardboard boxes full of Old Bay-smothered crabs.

But with neither the senator nor the congressman in sight, and the president unlikely to make a cameo, the political show seemed to belong to the challengers.

Campaign kickoff

Kostas Alexakis, a Democrat who wants to unseat Gilchrest in the 1st Congressional District, said yesterday that he was officially launching his campaign at Tawes.

Voters were naturally curious about the 50-year-old who described himself as "6 foot 3, in perfect shape, with a slight accent."

Not only is Alexakis (pronounced Alex-SOCK-keys) a political unknown and first-time campaigner running against a popular incumbent, but he also lives in Virginia.

Alexakis, however, told the many people who asked that he had recently bought a home in Anne Arundel County (though he declined to say where), that he's concerned about the Chesapeake Bay and education, and that, yes, he thinks he can win the race.

"I'm not running a popularity contest. I'm running on a set of issues," said Alexakis, a real estate developer who owns two Baltimore restaurants. "And the fact that people know [Gilchrest], I mean, I love my mother, I think my mother's the greatest woman in the world, but I would not vote for her for Congress."

Alexakis' mysterious charm and sartorial smarts -- he wore a red Oxford with the two top buttons undone, tassled shoes, jeans and a blue blazer -- seemed to be drawing as much attention as his impending move to the district.

Debbie Donoway, a Salisbury woman in a Harley-Davidson tank top, came over to shake his hand and ask who he was.

"A friend of mine said he looked real good," Donoway said. "She wanted to know what he was running for."

Alexakis tried out his charms on the Republican tent, where a backers of state Sen. E.J. Pipkin were awaiting their candidate, who is challenging Mikulski for the U.S. Senate this year. He compared mustaches with Queen Anne's County Republican Central Committeeman Nick Deoudes and traded campaign advice with Pipkin's finance director, Mat Palmer.

When Alexakis told Palmer he was thinking about campaigning in a limo, Palmer, a Berlin native, offered this friendly advice: "I don't think that's going to work out here on the Shore. Maybe I'm crazy, but I have lived here all my life."

Enjoying the limelight

Pipkin, whose red shirt was dripping with sweat, seemed in his element -- shaking hands, gabbing with old friends and beaming when supporters called out, "Hi, Senator!"

The first-term senator relished the attention that comes with being one of the best-known names at the crab feast -- and enjoyed reminding visitors of his opponent's absence.

"This is truly a Maryland event, a very special day," said Pipkin. "It's a great combination of great food, great people and great politics."

All told, the crowd devoured more than 275 bushels of crabs (from the Chesapeake Bay), 42,000 clams (from out of state), 800 pounds of fish and 600 dozen ears of corn.

Even with that much food, said organizer Valerie Mason, the place had run out of crabs by 4:30 p.m.

Record turnout

So many people came that, by midafternoon, Mason had run out of tickets and was just giving people wristbands.

She attributed the record turnout to publicity -- Crisfield crabs were featured recently on the Food Network -- and also to the condominium boom that's come to this tiny Eastern Shore town.

Mason said the event could raise as much as $90,000 for Crisfield's Chamber of Commerce, a record take.

"It's quite a bit of the general public, not just politicians," Mason said.

The politicians' absence was noted. Even Biscuit the Clown was sad that he couldn't find Ehrlich. The clown, better known as Earl Smith, a retired Princess Anne pharmacist, had a question for the governor.

"I want to know why he sends his children to private school," said Smith, who wielded a foam golf club as he promoted a local golf course. "But I am for slots, so I guess he's not all bad."

Even without the big names, Tawes regulars like Len Foxwell, a former Democratic press secretary, proclaimed the event good, sticky fun.

"Some of the A-list performers aren't here, but the political class still is," Foxwell said. "This is still the all-star game of American politics. Everyone here is either playing the game or watching."

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