OCEAN CITY – Potential candidates for governor in 2014 flocked here this week to raise cash, mingle with other elected officials and line up support for their likely campaigns.
On the Democratic side, at least five potential contenders for the governor's office were making the rounds at the annual political rite staged by the Maryland Association of Counties. Three potential Republican hopefuls also were chatting up potential supporters.
For aspirants to statewide office, the summer conference is virtually a must-go occasion. Even lawmakers who have just come off a grueling General Assembly session — the second special session this year — would have to think twice about skipping the event if they want to be taken seriously as potential candidates for higher office.
"It's probably political malpractice not to go here," said state Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat.
Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who will deliver the convention's closing speech Saturday and is widely considered a gubernatorial candidate, held a $1,000-a-person fundraiser Friday in nearby Berlin. His big draw was Senate PresidentThomas V. Mike Miller, fresh off his successful effort to pass a gambling bill during the legislative session that ended early Wednesday.
Attorney General Douglas M. Gansler, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Howard County Executive Ken Ulman all held fund-raisers as they scrambled to prove their financial viability in the next campaign finance report in January.A fifth possible gubernatorial candidate, Montgomery County Del. Heather Mizeur, was working the crowd and testing the waters for what would be a dark-horse candidacy.
Potential contenders for the Republican nomination were no less active. Blaine Young, president of the Frederick County commissioners, held an event Wednesday night. Harford County Executive David Craig was chatting up potential supporters from around the state and dropping in on others' events — including Young's. And Larry Hogan, who was appointments secretary for former Gov.Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., also was meeting and greeting.
"You've got to come down and pay homage to the people who are going to distribute your literature and put up your signs," said Don Murphy, a former Republican delegate and current party activist.
He said it's a must for a statewide candidate to mingle with the county council members, commissioners and other elected officials who flock to Ocean City each summer for the event. They are, he said, the "ground troops" of a successful campaign.
And it's not just gubernatorial candidates. Frosh is considering a run for attorney general. Del. Jon Cardin of Baltimore County, who is considering a run for the same office, also attended.
There's more to the conference than politics, of course. It attracts hosts of county-level appointed officials such as public works and social services directors who gather for policy workshops and meet with state officials about intergovernmental concerns.
Some veteran conference-goers say the summer gathering is smaller than in its heyday, before the recession savaged county budgets. But for three or four days in August each year, Ocean City still becomes the capital of Maryland, Baltimore City Hall and the seat of 23 counties.
It is a decidedly different affair from Maryland's other annual political event of the summer, the Tawes crab feast held in Crisfield. The Tawes event is politics at its gaudiest — with T-shirts and buttons and banners and booths for the various candidates.
The conference by the Maryland Association of Counties, known as MACO, is more subdued. A sign in the lobby of the Ocean City Convention Center proclaimed the conference a politics-free zone, and no campaign trappings were in sight on the premises. Overt politicking at nearby restaurants is fine, but on the convention premises it's frowned on.
In some ways, the conference is politics at its nicest — and a stark contrast with the presidential campaign. Republicans drop in at Democratic events, and vice versa.
"MACO frankly is the last bastion of bipartisanship in Maryland," said Ulman, who attracted a healthy crowd to his Thursday fundraiser at Hooper's Crab House. Like Craig, Ulman is a former MACO president.
Outside the convention center Thursday, Gansler was chatting up William Pickrum, a Democratic commissioner in Kent County. Gansler said he's been coming to the conference for about a dozen years.
"It's a time to see people and talk to people in a more casual setting," he said. From the convention center, Gansler went to Fager's Island, a popular local restaurant, where he held a fundraiser.
Among those dropping in on the event was Sen. James Rosapepe, a Prince George's County Democrat who is one of several Democrats considering a run for comptroller if Franchot decides to run for governor.
Rosapepe, who held his own fundraising event Thursday, said that as much as statewide hopefuls want to meet Eastern Shore county commissioners, local officials appreciate the chance to meet the candidates as well.
"It's like Facebook in real life," Rosapepe said.
Michael W. Farlow, a guest at the open Gansler event, said the conference gives statewide candidates an opportunity to tap into a pool of well-heeled Ocean City business owners.
"They're not going to go to Baltimore or Washington during the summertime," said Farlow, a former Worcester County prosecutor who's thinking of running for state's attorney in that county.