CRISFIELD, Md. — Hours after announcing her candidacy for Maryland governor, Del. Heather R. Mizeur encountered three burly guys in baseball caps here — and found a few converts for her campaign.
Mizeur (D-Montgomery) — like much of Maryland’s political class — came to this once-thriving fishing town Wednesday for an annual clambake that still draws patrons by the thousands, and the newly minted candidate wanted to know where to get a beer.
“C’mon, hook a sister up,” she said playfully, kicking off a conversation that ended with the guys taking baby-blue campaign stickers and asking whether they could get “Mizeur for Governor” T-shirts as well.
Mizeur — who, if elected, would be Maryland’s first female governor and its first who is openly gay — quickly dispatched an aide to retrieve some from a nearby stash, assuring the men, clearly at least XLs, that “we’ve got them in your size.”
She was making her debut as a statewide candidate at the J. Millard Tawes Crab and Clam Bake, a political must-attend event that locals on the southern tip of Maryland’s Eastern Shore bill as equal parts seafood, sweat and schmooze.
And with an earlier-than-usual June primary next year in Maryland, the event, which is named for the former governor, felt like the real start to the campaign.
Besides Mizeur, no fewer than six declared or potential candidates for governor pressed the flesh on Wednesday, including Mizeur’s two better-known and better-funded rivals, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown and Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler.
Although many think she faces long odds, Mizeur, 40, starts with an enthusiastic base of liberal supporters and confidence that she can build a following based on ideas. As for the history she would make if elected, she said it would be “icing on the cake” to break multiple barriers. But, Mizeur said, “I’m running to make a difference, not to make history.”
Mizeur, who announced her candidacy earlier Wednesday in an e-mail to supporters, said she considers herself “the strongest candidate for governor of Maryland because of the accomplishments I have in the time I’ve had in office and the ability to bring people together to get that work done.”
As governor, Mizeur said, she would build on those efforts. Priorities, she said, would include tackling an achievement gap in education, expanding early childhood learning, creating “infrastructure banks” to promote environmentally friendly jobs and reforming the state’s judicial system to “break the cradle-to-prison pipeline” for many youths.
As a candidate, she said, “there will be no end to the amount of policy rollouts we do.”
The event offered a contrast in styles between the two other Democratic contenders.
Gansler arrived shortly after the event began, slipping through the main entrance without any fanfare and accompanied by a small handful of aides.
“Did you see all those illegal Brown signs on the highway coming down here?” he asked one of the first people he greeted, referring to a long row of yard signs Brown aides had assembled in the grassy median of the main drag leading into Crisfield.
Gansler quietly worked a few tents, chowing down on corn on the cob and oysters at one.
Brown showed up about two hours later, coming in through a side entrance to a staged chant by about three dozen supporters wearing T-shirts touting his ticket, which includes Howard County Executive Ken Ulman (D) as the lieutenant governor candidate.
“Ken and I are excited about being down in Crisfield,” Brown said to a throng of waiting reporters, who had been tipped off about his arrival time by his aides. “Obviously, it’s a political must-do.”
On the Republican side, the biggest splash was probably made by Harford County Executive David R. Craig and his brand-new running mate, Del. Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio (R-Talbot).
Craig was a walking billboard for his campaign, wearing a deep-blue polo emblazoned with his campaign logo, white shorts and docksiders without socks. Haddaway-Riccio, who was unveiled Tuesday as Craig’s lieutenant governor candidate, was more understated in her attire, donning a casual navy dress with a prominently displayed Craig sticker.
Everywhere one turned, there were candidates for other statewide offices, including attorney general, as well as a platoon of state and local lawmakers, some who traveled far from home.
Tawes “gives both ordinary folks and the political chattering class a chance to kick the tires and see how these folks will be campaigning,” said Len Foxwell, who works as chief of staff in the comptroller’s office and was attending his 20th consecutive clam bake in Crisfield.
“As far as practical, long-term significance, it’s modest, at best,” Foxwell said. “But everyone goes, because it’s what you do in Maryland politics.”
Among those in attendance with even greater longevity was Marvin Mandel, who served as Maryland’s governor during much of the 1970s. An associate said Mandel, 93, had appeared at all 36 previous annual Tawes events.
“I enjoy them a little more than I used to, because they keep getting bigger and there are more people to see,” Mandel said.
Mizeur enjoyed a bipartisan moment later in the afternoon when she bumped into Senate Minority Whip Edward R. Reilly (R-Anne Arundel). Reilly introduced Mizeur to his wife and expressed admiration for her travels across the state before the announcement of her candidacy Wednesday.
“I’m a friend of yours on Facebook,” Reilly told Mizeur. “You’ve very active. You’re everywhere.”