Speaking before a handful of voters in a community hall last week, Michael Anthony Peroutka gave his pitch for why he should be elected to the Anne Arundel County Council.
His message appealed to fiscally conservative voters. The recently retired lawyer said he's concerned about being overtaxed. He wants to get rid of what he and others call the "rain tax," or fees for stormwater drainage.
On other days in other gatherings, he pushes a different message. At an American Legion hall weeks earlier, he told members of a Republican club that "the greatest lie ever perpetrated on the American people" is the concept of the separation of church and state. God is intrinsically part of government, he said, because citizens' rights come from God.
Amid a hotly contested county executive race, County Council races and marquee contests for the State House and governor's mansion, the District 5 council tilt between Peroutka, 62, and Democrat Patrick Armstrong has gotten more attention in Anne Arundel than any matchup on Tuesday's general election ballot.
Dan Nataf, a professor and director of the Center for the Study of Local Issues at Anne Arundel Community College, says Peroutka has garnered attention, in part, because of his wide-ranging views.
On the one hand, he says, Peroutka promotes fiscal conservatism and wants to cut taxes and government red tape. On the other hand, Peroutka has supported teaching the Bible in schools, believes the existence of the Environmental Protection Agency is illegal and, until recently, belonged to a Southern secessionist organization.
"Peroutka is defined … at a local level as somebody who is going to be a fiscal conservative. But there is this other Peroutka, who is defined as an extremist," Nataf said
Armstrong, 31, has seized on Peroutka's more controversial statements as he runs a long-shot campaign to be the first Democrat in more than two decades to represent District 5, which includes Severna Park, Arnold and the Broadneck Peninsula.
The district's registered voters are 43 percent Republican, 35 percent Democratic and 21 percent unaffiliated.
Armstrong frequently closes his stump speech claiming that with his platform of no tax increases and support for schools, police and firefighters, he's more Republican than Peroutka.
"Are you voting for someone who is going to work for you, fix your potholes, fix your roads, get your schools going?" Armstrong asked voters during a forum at the Cape St. Claire community hall. "Or are you going to vote for someone who has an ulterior agenda?"
In an interview, Armstrong said he thinks having Peroutka as a councilman would be "devastating for the community. It's going to be hard for us to get anything done."
Peroutka ran for president in 2004 as a Constitution Party candidate, and switched to Republican this year. About a year ago, he sharply criticized the GOP in an online commentary for "worthless, Godless, unprincipled conservatism."
The 2014 campaign has brought scrutiny. News accounts have detailed how Peroutka and his brother, Stephen Peroutka, run a family charity that donated a fossilized dinosaur skeleton to the Creation Museum in Kentucky, an organization that challenges theories of evolution and promotes teachings of a flood 4,500 years ago.
Until this fall, Peroutka belonged to the League of the South, an organization that wants Southern states to eventually secede. The league has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and that organization labeled Peroutka an "extremist" candidate.
A videotape of Peroutka playing "Dixie" at a league event — after introducing it as the "national anthem" — circulated online this summer. Peroutka defended it, though he later acknowledged that he knows the national anthem is "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Generally, Peroutka dismisses talk of his past and affiliations as the strategy of Democrats to distract from campaign issues such as taxes and business regulation.
"I've been called a racist and it's been said that I don't like women," Peroutka told voters in the community hall last week. "I can assure you that none of these things are true. I believe they're just kind of a typical leftist slander that's occurred. I want to move past that because I think they're just distractions from what's really important — and that's we're taxed out."
'Apply these principles'
Peroutka frames his story as one in which he woke up to the realities of the world after plugging away through law school and an early career in government.
He felt America was drifting away from its constitutional foundation, and after learning more on the subject, quit his government job, joined his brother's law firm and eventually started a study group, which evolved into the Pasadena-based Institute on the Constitution. The institute offers seminars and forums on the subject.
"One of the things I've been saying to people along the way — 14 years — is one of the things you can do is you can run for office. You can try to apply these principles in the body politic. … It seemed like it was time for Michael Peroutka to take his own advice and do it," Peroutka said.
Peroutka says the run for president on the Constitution Party ticket was part of that philosophy.
"I never thought that it was a high probability, but I felt called to do it, and I felt it was my duty to do it," he said. "Likewise, I feel like it's my duty now to do this at this part of my life."
Some Republicans have distanced themselves from Peroutka — most notably, GOP gubernatorial nominee Larry Hogan — but Nathan Volke, chair of Arundel's Republican central committee, said the party is "big tent," and there's room for Peroutka in it.
Democrats attack Peroutka, he said, because they can't argue against his core campaign messages. "You can't go after him for the fact he's against the rain tax," Volke said.
Armstrong, who quit his job as a manager with Party City this fall to campaign full time, previously ran unsuccessfully for a House of Delegates seat while he was a Salisbury University student in 2006.
Armstrong says he can work with both parties, while Peroutka has been a polarizing figure. He says he won't raise taxes and believes a rising economic tide will bring more money into the county government.
He pledges support for police officers, firefighters, schools and teachers, and backs staffing and wage increases for government employees.
Peroutka questions how Armstrong can promise so much — and how he'll pay for it. He also questions what Armstrong has promised to police, fire and teacher unions for their endorsements.
"The only thing I've promised is to listen," Armstrong said. "They want to have input on the issues."
Armstrong's campaign is heavily funded by donations from unions and fellow Democrats, as well as small donations. Peroutka has largely funded his race himself, with $190,000 in personal loans to the campaign.
Peroutka and others have raised the issue that Armstrong has been pulled over for speeding four times in the past 21/2 years. On Oct. 24, he was cited for using his cellphone while driving on Ritchie Highway in Arnold.
Regarding the citations, Armstrong campaign manager Susan O'Brien said, "This election is not about speeding tickets or using a cellphone — something that we've all done, and Patrick has paid his fines for. This election is about who supports public schools, who supports our public safety and first responders."
Armstrong said he regrets he's been overshadowed in the race by Peroutka. He says when he goes door to door, his opponent has greater name recognition.
"I'm not the headline story," Armstrong said.
Patrick Armstrong, Democrat
The Morning Sun
Occupation: Former retail manager
Michael Anthony Peroutka, Republican
Family: Married. Three grown children and two grown stepchildren with his former wife. Current wife has one grown child.
Occupation: Retired debt-collection attorney; founder of Institute on the Constitution