The annual Tawes crab and clam feast in Crisfield is a must-attend event for office-seekers

Politicians endure ritual trial by bake

Maryland votes 2006


CRISFIELD -- The J. Millard Tawes Crab and Clam Bake is billed as Maryland's must-attend, see-and-be-seen political institution, equal parts seafood, sweat and schmooze. And yesterday's gathering drew politicians from Ocean City to Cumberland, all intent on letting it be known that the event is an unparalleled chance to gorge on seafood and sway voters.

But the truth is this: The politicians eat no crabs, and there are few voters to convince.

Many attendees are either working for campaigns or from out of state. Truly undecided Maryland voters at Tawes are a commodity more precious than wet wipes.

Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, the feast marks the unofficial start of Maryland's election season, coming at a time when campaigns for governor, the General Assembly, Congress and other offices launch into intensive retail politicking.

This year, with more competitive races than the state has seen in decades, dozens of elected officials and challengers drove hours to this remote corner of the Eastern Shore to gab under a broiling sun.

The crowd of more than 5,500 fell about evenly between two groups. There were campaign volunteers, such as the green polo-shirted throng who followed Mayor Martin O'Malley around and chanted his name, or the self-proclaimed "Women of Steele" who flanked Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele wherever he went.

And there were the people whose love for crabs is strong enough that they were willing to overlook the first group.

"They don't bother me a bit," said Ed Maloney, a seafood devotee and long-time Tawes attendee who, like much of the crowd, is from Delaware.

To be sure, there are some who want at least a side dish of politics to go with their crabs and clams (steamed, raw or fried).

Michael Swift, a cook from Annapolis, said he made a couple of rounds inside the corporate tents where the real glad-handing goes on, to get a sense of who turned out their supporters. He said he might even talk to some politicians but doesn't expect much insight.

"You won't really see where the candidates are in dealing with the issues," he said. "Everybody has their game face on."

The crab feast takes place in a shadeless blacktop parking lot next to state-owned marina at very nearly the southernmost tip of Somerset County, which is to say that few if any places in the state can lay claim to being hotter or more uncomfortable.

Many in the state's political circles say privately that they dread it, but Tawes lovers insist that the stifling atmosphere is its greatest charm.

The marina and the city have been embroiled in their own recent political controversy. Last month, voters here ousted their mayor and two City Council members and elected a slate of leaders who promised to reverse a no-bid arrangement to turn much of the city's development projects over to a private company.

But few were talking about Crisfield development yesterday. Instead, a hard-core element competed to offer the strongest expression of love for the event, the hotter the better.

"It's too hot and muggy to be smooth," said Bruce Bereano, an Annapolis lobbyist and one of the state's biggest Tawes boosters. "We're all equal, we're all sweaty, we're all uncomfortable, so everybody has to be open and honest."

Another die-hard Tawes lover, Len Foxwell, who is now a lobbyist for Salisbury University and has held a variety of political jobs in the past, calls the crab feast the "ultimate no-spin zone" for politicians.

"No consultants, no campaign ads," he said. "Just real candidates talking to real people about the most important issues of the day."

Some politicians go to outlandish lengths to show their love for the crab feast. The two almost undisputed leaders in the political one-upmanship game yesterday were Delegates LeRoy E. Myers Jr. and Christopher B. Shank, Republican delegates from Cumberland and Hagerstown respectively, both of whom made the round trip from Western Maryland yesterday. Myers' drive, about 5 1/2 hours, was slightly longer, but Shank is running with no opponent in either the primary or general election.

"I love politics," Shank said. "It's even better that I don't have to run for anything."

The value for many, besides the chance at some free exposure in the news media, is to rub sweaty elbows with the state's political elite. Sen. John A. Giannetti Jr., a Democrat from College Park, said he was at Tawes yesterday to talk up donors, not because he expects to find any constituents there.

Not all of the state's big names made it. The most notable absence was Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. He attended several events in the Washington area yesterday, including a rally in support of Israel in its current conflict with Lebanon. He sent instead his lieutenant governor candidate, Kristen Cox, the state's disabilities secretary.

"It's hot, but fun," she said.

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