CRISFIELD — With the sun beating down on the hot pavement, Gov. Larry Hogan shook hand after hand Wednesday at one of the state's premier political events: the J. Millard Tawes Crab and Clam Bake in Crisfield.
Hogan, like many other politicians and political hopefuls, ventured to the lower Eastern Shore to make the rounds among thousands of people picking steamed crabs and sipping beer less than a year before the state's next primary election.
"It's just a great slice of Maryland," said the Republican governor, who was mobbed everywhere he went by well-wishers seeking pictures. "It's a lot of people from here on the Lower Shore, but people also come from across the state. I've talked to people from Hagerstown, Montgomery County, Southern Maryland, St. Mary's County. It's just a great group of people. I love coming."
The popular governor was joined at the annual gathering by several hopefuls vying for the chance to knock him out of his job next year.
Four of of the announced Democratic gubernatorial challengers, all seeking to increase name recognition and maybe knock Hogan down a peg, worked the crowds: Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker, state Sen. Richard Madaleno, tech entrepreneur and author Alec Ross and Jim Shea, former chairman of the Venable law firm.
Former NAACP President Ben Jealous, the other announced Democrat in the June 2018 primary, was not present. Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, former Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, Rep. John Delaney and policy consultant Maya Rockeymoore Cummings are also considering a run for their party's nomination.
"The fact that we have eight-plus gubernatorial candidates on the Democratic side is reflective of the energy among Democrats," said Kathleen Matthews, chairwoman of the state's Democratic party.
Tawes is a place where thousands of voters — many of them politically savvy — gather in one spot, giving candidates considerable exposure.
The event — now in its 41st year — is a fundraiser for the Crisfield Chamber of Commerce and is named for the 54th governor of the state, who was born in this Eastern Shore town.
For the Democrats at Tawes, improving name recognition and hearing voters' concerns were at the top of their agenda as they also tried to survive in the broiling heat on the blacktop at Somers Cove Marina.
Madaleno sipped water from a Maryland-themed water bottle and said he thought he could engage with Eastern Shore voters on the issue of offshore wind power as a tool for economic development. And he hoped his message of "presenting people an optimistic view of the world" would help, too.
Baker said few people seemed to recognize him last year, when he was starting to think about running for governor. But this year, more people asked him about the campaign and his ideas.
"This is a very politically astute event," he said.
Shea, while politically connected through his law firm and as a former member of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents, acknowledged he has a low public profile. So he was gratified to find some people knew about him.
"Increasingly, if they don't recognize me, most know my name," he said.
Shea said he tried to keep conversations with voters light, keeping with the casual nature of the event. He stayed cool by drinking Diet Pepsi. "I learned a long time ago that heat and beer don't mix very well, at least for me," he said.
Ross, also a new face to the public, made his first pilgrimage to Tawes in the service of his campaign. In addition to meeting voters, he met his competitors for the Democratic nomination.
"I know I'm not supposed to like them, but I do," Ross said, cooling off from the heat at the Wicomico County Democratic Party's tent, where many Democrats sought refuge.
Sam Caldwell said he was impressed by Ross when he came by his table, finding him personable and intelligent. Caldwell, a 73-year-old retired schoolteacher from Southwest Baltimore, made his second trip to Tawes for the combination of seafood and politics.
"I think it's an opportunity to meet the candidates and get a feel for them in person," he said.
Ted Bryant, meanwhile, was all in for Hogan, affixing two bright orange "We Love Our Gov!" stickers to his glasses and another to his shirt.
Bryant, a 59-year-old flight instructor from Cambridge, gave Hogan high marks for improving the economy and lowering tolls. "He is a man that cares about the United States and particularly the state of Maryland," he said.
Candidates for all levels of elected office also made the rounds. Some attended even though they represent districts far from the Shore.
"You've got heat, you've got sweat, you've got pols, you've got crabs — and a whole lot of energy," said Del. Shelly Hettleman, a Democrat who represents Baltimore County.
Michael Pullen said he sweated through three shirts while pushing his candidacy for the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1st Congressional District, which includes the Eastern Shore and parts of Harford and Baltimore counties.
Wearing a T-shirt with his campaign slogan, "Pullen for the Shore," the Democrat helped pack up a canopy tent for guests as the crab feast wound down.
"It's wonderful to be here to connect with folks," he said.