CRISFIELD - If this was an off-year for politics or crabs at the J. Millard Tawes Crab and Clam Bake, someone forgot to tell the folks in this bayside town that still bills itself as the seafood capital of Maryland.
Forget the pundits, ignore the cynics. The state's premier seafood and political schmooze festival hasn't lost a bit of luster - even in a year when there are no statewide elections, even in a year when no one is predicting a turnaround for the slumping crab industry.
Political leaders, including Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, were clearly at ease among stalwart backers on the conservative Eastern Shore. Members of the rural region's General Assembly delegation and former Gov. Marvin Mandel worked a large crowd assembled under a collection of tents set up near the town marina.
"The bottom line is that there is never an off-year in Maryland politics," said Ehrlich, who as the state's first Republican governor in more than 30 years has widespread support throughout the rural peninsula. "We really have so few real political traditions left in the state, and this is a place where we have a lot of friends, a place where we click."
Undeterred by overwhelming pro-Ehrlich sentiment, Democrats from three Lower Shore counties gathered under the shade of a red-and-white tent, staking out a familiar location of the festival grounds.
"This is our corner, no matter what," said Carl Bloodsworth of Salisbury. "We're some hard-nosed Democrats, and we're here every year."
Election or not, organizers from the Crisfield Chamber of Commerce figured they would sell close to 6,000 tickets, the most in years. At $30 a ticket, chamber leaders expected to clear more than $60,000, easily filling the budget to run the business group for another year.
Despite diminishing returns for Chesapeake Bay watermen, organizers were able to buy enough local crabs, along with some from the northern end of the bay, to handle thousands of appetites without having to supplement the supply with crabs from out of state, as they had to do in recent years.
All told, the numbers were impressive: 275 bushels of crabs (that's about 75 crabs to a bushel), 41,000 clams (all trucked from North Carolina because they are out of season here), 200 watermelons, 1,250 pounds of trout fillets (bought frozen for convenience) and 800 dozen ears of local corn.
And that's not counting untold gallons of soda, bottled water and beer sloshed down from glass mugs handed out, along with wooden crab mallets, as people entered.
Cooled by a breeze off the bay, festival-goers stood patiently in lines to load up cardboard beer boxes before settling under canvas shade to chow down, piling mountains of steamed crab carcasses on tables covered with brown wrapping paper.
Ken Sibal, 66, a retired electrician from Binghamton, N.Y., shared a table with a busload of friends from Myrtle Beach, S.C. (where he spends winters), all crammed under a white tent top with a red martini glass flag.
"This is my first year here, and it couldn't be better," said Sibal. "We've got a tent full of people from Elks Lodge No. 852 from New York and then a bunch of members of the Carolinas Italian American Association. This is great fun for us to meet here."
Organizers were at a loss to explain the big crowd this year. Some speculated that recent publicity about a plan to begin cross-bay ferry service from Crisfield to Reedville, Va., had piqued interest. Others wondered whether a half-dozen development plans for projects along Crisfield's long-neglected wharves might have lured prospective condominium buyers.
"Obviously, there's a lot happening in Crisfield right now, a lot of prospects for the future," said C. Frederick Lankford, a business leader and booster of ferry service. "But I tell you, after the winter and spring we've had, I think today is just pent-up demand for the summer. It's a great summer day to be here."
The only politician on hand with a race coming up soon was state Sen. Richard F. Colburn, who is challenging seven-term incumbent and fellow Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, who was in Washington yesterday attending to business in Congress.
Some Gilchrest supporters groused that the clambake's political mystique is a myth, but Colburn disagreed.
"I don't care about this being an off-year," said Colburn. "This is always a who's who of Maryland politics. If you're even interested in Maryland politics, this is the place to be."