CRISFIELD — — Republican Larry Hogan entered the 38th annual J. Millard Tawes Crab and Clam Bake to the sound of his name being chanted.
Because his opponent in the governor's race had a funeral to attend, Hogan was largely uncontested as he worked the crowd of about 4,200 of the most politically active people in Maryland. As a dozen or so supporters cheered him on, Hogan addressed reporters and accused Democrat Anthony G. Brown of not wanting to schedule enough debates.
"I think the people of Maryland deserve to a have a real clear choice for a change," Hogan said. "We hope we'll have the opportunity to show them that."
Brown was scheduled to attend the famed Eastern Shore clam bake, hosted by the Crisfield Chamber of Commerce at Somers Cove Marina, but he and his running mate, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, had a funeral to attend in Baltimore County. They were at services for Rita Sloan Berndt, a neurology professor and wife of attorney Rick Berndt, a major behind-the-scenes player in Democratic politics.
"Lt. Gov. Brown and County Executive Ulman were not able to attend Tawes today because they attended the celebration of life ceremony for Dr. Rita Sloan Berndt hosted at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County," said deputy campaign manager Jared Smith. "Dr. Berndt committed her life to scientific research to improve the lives of others and was a dedicated wife, mother and grandmother."
The Tawes event — where folks adorned with campaign paraphernalia chowed down on crabs, clams, french fries, corn and watermelon — was as much a tribute to Maryland's past as to the present, with several notable former lawmakers in attendance.
Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the Republican who lost a close gubernatorial election to Democrat Parris N. Glendening in 1994, said she used to stand in the food lines and shake every person's hand. She wondered whether Brown's absence could hurt him.
"It's about building excitement," she said. "If you're running for governor, it's almost required that you come here."
Still, some questioned how many undecided voters were there.
Crisfield resident Susan Phoebus, 70, has attended the event for each of its 38 years. Her late husband emceed the inaugural bake. She said the annual gathering provides a huge commercial boost to the town, which she called "depressed." With the money raised at the clam bake, the Crisfield Chamber of Commerce can fund the rest of the year's events.
"A politician doesn't miss this event," Phoebus said. "I don't think there are a lot of locals here, though. At $40, it's too expensive for most of the average folks here."
According to Val Howard, director of the Chamber of Commerce, 4,200 tickets were sold. In all, attendees consumed 28,000 clams, 200 bushels of crabs and 800 dozen ears of corn, she said. The weather was a cool 80 degrees, compared with the sweltering heat that sometimes marks the day.
An entourage of blue-shirted Brown supporters stumped for votes in his absence. Most guests were offered a Brown campaign sticker upon arrival, while Brown's tracker, Jeff Moring, used a video camera to silently record Hogan's every move. Hogan's supporters said Moring — who had tracked Democrat Douglas F. Gansler for most of the primary campaign — started following Hogan about two weeks before the June 24 election.
While Hogan made the biggest commotion at the event's entrance, lobbyist Bruce Bereano commanded attention at the back. Bereano's invitation-only tent held about 550 people, including a who's-who of Maryland politicos. Among the Democrats: Former Gov. Marvin Mandel and former state Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell hung out in Bereano's tent, as did current state lawmakers Del. Sheila Hixson of Montgomery County and Sen. Joan Carter Conway of Baltimore and Dels. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. and Dereck E. Davis of Prince George's County.
"It's like the Super Bowl of Maryland politics," said Bereano, who earned more than $700,000 last year lobbying the General Assembly. "If you're a political junkie, it's the place to be."
Bereano, wearing a shirt that said "Lobbyists Have Issues," schmoozed in his tent with Baltimore NAACP President Tessa Hill-Aston (offering to get crabs for her) and Wicomico County Sheriff Mike Lewis, joking, "My child support is up to date!"
Bromwell, a Baltimore County Democrat who was released from federal prison last year after serving six years on corruption charges, said he was glad not to be ostracized from politics.
"People see me and they don't cross the street," he said. "I've been laying low for a while. I feel comfortable enough now to come out to something like this. When you've been in politics for 30 years, it's good to get a little politics back in your blood again. It's all part of the healing process."
Many people in the audience play an active role in politics in their communities. Conway brought a bus from Baltimore with her supporters. Democrat Donoven Brooks, who ran unsuccessfully in the primary for Baltimore sheriff, rewarded 15 of his volunteers with tickets to the event.
Sen. Brian E. Frosh of Montgomery County, the Democratic candidate for attorney general, said energizing those politically active residents can be just as important to a campaign as winning over undecided voters or garnering media attention.
"Those are the people in the community that their neighbors look to for advice about candidates," Frosh said. "They're the people who say, 'Don't vote for him. He's a jerk.' "