Given a choice between two conservative Republicans to fill a vacancy in the Upper Eastern Shore's state Senate district, Gov. Martin O'Malley chose the less confrontational legislator.
O'Malley said Wednesday that he has appointed Del. Stephen S. Hershey Jr. of Queen Anne's County to replace former Sen. E.J. Pipkin, who resigned and moved to Texas. Passed over was Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr. of Cecil County.
The choice of which Republican would replace Pipkin was left to O'Malley, a Democrat, after the GOP central committees of the four counties that make up the 36th District split between the two lawmakers. Smigiel won Cecil and Queen Anne's, while Hershey took Kent and Caroline.
Normally, the governor is required by the state constitution to honor the choice of the central committee of the departing lawmaker's party when appointing a midterm replacement, but when central committees deadlock, the choice goes to the governor.
In this case, O'Malley chose the low-key, first-term Hershey, 39, over the outspoken Smigiel. Smigiel, 55, had argued that his record of accomplishment in his three terms made him better qualified for the Senate seat.
O'Malley explained his choice in terms of political support, not philosophy.
"I am guided not by which candidate I would prefer, but rather by which candidate has demonstrated the broadest electoral support in the district," the governor said in a statement. "In both the Central Committee balloting and the last general election, Delegate Hershey has demonstrated a broader base of support, and therefore, I have decided to appoint Delegate Hershey to fill this Senate vacancy."
Smigiel disputed that explanation, saying he had received 3,000 more votes than Hershey in the 2010 primary. Hershey released a conciliatory statement, thanking Smigiel for agreeing to continue to work together on behalf of the district.
By choosing Hershey, O'Malley virtually guarantees a bitter Republican struggle for the seat next year, when Hershey will face re-election. Smigiel reaffirmed Wednesday that he plans to compete in the Senate primary.
O'Malley's decision could be a mixed blessing for Hershey. While he will hold whatever advantages a year of incumbency brings, his association with the governor could backfire. Though both men sat for interviews with O'Malley on Friday, Smigiel signaled that he will use the Democrat's blessing to tar Hershey's Republican credentials in the conservative district.
"The citizens of the 36th District are not going to be happy being represented by somebody who is the choice of Governor O'Malley," he said.
History might be on Smigiel's side. In a previous case in which O'Malley resolved a tie between two Republicans, the governor's choice later lost his seat to the candidate he had rejected.
O'Malley could face a similar choice if the GOP central committees were to deadlock again when choosing a new delegate to replace Hershey.
Pipkin also served as Senate minority leader, a position filled by a vote of the chamber's Republicans. They have not yet chosen his successor for that post.