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Personality, with some to spare, dominates Maryland primaries

Tuesday is Election Day in Maryland, where there are roughly two Democrats for every Republican but those Republicans are making noise.

BALTIMORE (CN) — Michael Anthony Peroutka promises that if elected he will criminally prosecute government officials for closing churches and businesses during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“So I am running for attorney general because of all these atrocities,” he tells the crowd of 50 “We The People” activists at a Harford County winery, many of whom were fresh from a board of elections meeting in which they claimed the 2020 election was stolen. “Do you think they’re done with you?”

“Nooo!” the assembled voters shout.

Peroutka, a retired debt collector from Pasadena who ran for president in 2004 on the U.S. Constitution Party’s ticket, is one of two candidates vying for the Republican nomination for Maryland attorney general, an office no Republican has held since 1954. His opponent, Jim Shalleck, is a former New York prosecutor whose claim to fame (“this will be the first thing in my obituary,” he told a reporter decades ago) is his small part prosecuting David Berkowitz — the infamous “Son of Sam” serial killer. 

Shalleck also pledges to beef up his office’s criminal prosecutions. But he wants to turn its attention to the shocking murder rate in Baltimore City, not public health officials or the former governor. “No deals for these violent and repeat offenders,” he says in a campaign video. 

As it goes in the AG race, so too in the governor’s race, where a pair of Republican candidates — one traditionally conservative, the other reactionary — vie for the right to battle one of an array of milquetoast Democrats whose solid credentials and gleaming smiles are as alike as their policy prescriptions.

“All of the candidates in both [Democratic] races are 98% the same DNA,” said Todd Eberly, an associate professor of political science at Saint Mary’s College of Maryland. “Voters will be making their decision on personality and electability.”

On the Republican side there are contrasts.

Dan Cox, an ineffectual state legislator endorsed by former President Donald Trump, says that as governor he will prohibit public health measures, ban the teaching of “critical race theory,” increase police funding and reduce taxes as part of a “Contract to Maryland.” Last year he filed articles of impeachment — which Peroutka says he wrote — against Governor Larry Hogan. The Legislature ignored him.

Cox is polling even against Lt. Governor Kelly Schulz, stoking fears among members of the Republican establishment, which has enjoyed eight years of smooth patronage under Hogan, a commercial developer with high approval ratings, presidential ambitions and a moderate reputation. 

“This race is Schulz's to lose and somehow she’s figuring a way to do it,” said John Dedie, a political science professor at the Community College of Baltimore County. “She should have cut off Cox’s oxygen months ago.” 

If the election turnout is low, as expected, Dedie noted, Cox’s advantage in signs throughout rural parts of the state could be telling. “I don’t think he has a shot in hell of being elected governor,” he said. “But you see all this rhetoric about a stolen election. I think you will embolden far-right groups in Maryland if Cox is the nominee.”

They’re already emboldened, having filed a federal lawsuit based on specious claims of a debunked documentary. Election day is Tuesday, July 19, but absentee ballots counting won’t start until Thursday, then go on for 10 days, because Hogan vetoed a bill that would have started the count earlier. Elections officials — already under fire from “Stop The Steal” activists — are expecting a rough time.

Democrats denounced Cox with $1 million in television ads, but Schulz claimed it would boost his prospects.

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“Two weeks ago, our campaign predicted that national Democrats would spend millions of dollars to prop up fringe candidate Dan Cox so they would not have to face me in the general election,” Schulz told reporters outside the Maryland State House.

“I wouldn’t be shocked at all if he wound up winning this,” Eberly said. “But there’s not a single potential Democratic nominee who would even come close to losing to Dan Cox.”

Nine Democrats are running for governor, including Ralph Jaffe, a schoolteacher who accepts no campaign contributions, Ashwani Jain, who wishes to become America’s youngest governor and takes no money from corporations, and John King, former President Obama’s secretary of education. 

But the four frontrunners, all polling in low double digits as of mid-July, tend to fit the Clinton- and Obama-era mold: Ivy education, long public service, progressive early career followed by neoliberal orthodoxy airbrushed with a post-Ferguson social justice patina. 

They’re all for better education, racial equity, access to abortion, gun control and the environment — generally a winning array in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 2-1.

Tom Perez was a civil rights lawyer at the Department of Justice and served as labor secretary under President Barack Obama. His most effective campaign tactic has been to tie himself to the former president, who has not endorsed him. 

Peter Franchot spent 20 years in the state Legislature before beating former Governor and famed Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer to become state comptroller, one of three state officials — with the governor and state treasurer — who oversee budget expenditures. Such is Franchot’s reputation for sharp-elbowed ambition that the widow of the late Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, who primaried Franchot in the 2018 gubernatorial race, released a video, personally urging people not to vote for him.

Doug Gansler, the former Maryland attorney general, is the only Democrat in the governor’s race focused on violent crime, making him an outlier — and a long shot.

Wes Moore would be the state’s first Black governor. The author, nonprofit executive and political neophyte appears to have the momentum. 

“He’s not bland,” said Dedie. “I think the African-American electorate will be more interested in Moore, interested to make history. A lot of Democrats don’t like Franchot much.”

Moore weathered early controversy over passages in his first book, and remarks he made on the book tour, that left the false impression he’d grown up in Baltimore just blocks from “The Other Wes Moore,” a drug dealer sentenced to life for murder whose name and story he used to illustrate how systemic inequality and racism shaped both of their lives. A polished public speaker and military veteran with a Rhodes Scholarship under his belt, Moore’s back story resonates with voters and politicians alike. Just last week Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger and Oprah Winfrey endorsed him.

“Moore is the guy to beat, but he and Perez may divide the anti-Franchot vote,” Dedie said. "The Dutch endorsement was huge.”

The Democratic attorney general race is between U.S. Representative Anthony Brown and retired Baltimore District Court Judge Katie Curran O’Malley, neither of whom is focused on crime (the office traditionally does more civil enforcement). “The interesting aspect of the AG race is we have a former lieutenant governor running against the wife of the governor he ran under,” Dedie noted. “They’re very similar candidates [so] it comes down to personality.”

Dedie gives O’Malley the edge. As a local judge, she also claims more relevant experience.

O’Malley is the daughter of Joe Curran, the state’s longest-serving AG. Dedie thinks she’d be running stronger if she ran on her maiden name. 

Eberly is not so sure. “The thing to remember about Brown: He was the candidate who lost to Larry Hogan [in the 2014 gubernatorial election],” he said. “If there is an O’Malley albatross, it might be hanging around his neck as well.”

Neither of the Democratic candidates plans to prosecute health directors.

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