Until a few weeks ago, Michael Anthony Peroutka belonged to the League of the South, an Alabama-based group that decries the presence in this country of “hordes of non-white immigrants” and wants the South to secede from the union and return to its “Anglo-Celtic” roots.
He is also the Republican candidate for a seat on the Anne Arundel County Council, facing an inexperienced and little-known Democratic challenger and widely believed to have a good chance of winning the GOP-leaning 5th District on Nov. 4.
Peroutka opposes gay marriage, says he believes in creationism and favors the dismantling of public education, which he has called “a plank in the Communist Manifesto.”
He sang “Dixie” at a League of the South conference in 2012, calling it “the national anthem.”
Officials from both parties were stunned by his narrow victory over an incumbent and three other challengers in the June primary.
And while Peroutka would be only one of seven votes on a body that deals with far less incendiary issues — such as zoning and street maintenance — prominent Democrats say having him in office in the back yard of the state capitol would be considered an embarrassment. GOP gubernatorial candidate Larry Hogan, an Anne Arundel County businessman, and Steve Schuh, the Republican nominee for county executive, disavowed him over the summer,
“We don’t need to go backwards,” said House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), who joined Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) at a news conference last week urging voters to reject Peroutka. In a brief conversation later, Busch called the Republican nominee “dangerous and disruptive.”
Peroutka dismissed the attacks. “I could think of no better endorsement than Mike Busch and Donna Edwards don’t want me to have the job,” he said at a candidates forum that evening.
Anne Arundel Council member Daryl Jones, a Democrat and an African American, said that Peroutka’s election would be more than an embarrassment.
“The real question is where the rubber meets the road,” Jones said. “If you are an African American in District 5, how comfortable are you going to be coming to him with your issues or concerns?”
Jones said that Peroutka’s election would be “an indictment” of voters in District 5 — the most affluent of the county’s seven districts — that stretches through Severna Park, Arnold and across the Broadneck Peninsula to the Bay Bridge. It also has the biggest white majority — more than 85 percent.
For years, Peroutka, a retired Millersville debt-collection lawyer, has run the Pasadena-based Institute on the Constitution, which offers classes and commentary promoting the view that government must hew strictly to biblical principles. The Web site’s archives are filled with essays in which Peroutka depicts an America in moral free-fall. One denounces the “dangerous, destructive and deadly agenda” of the pro-choice women’s health organization Planned Parenthood. Another asks in its title, “Multi-Culturalism: Good or Bad for America?”
In 2004, Peroutka was the presidential candidate of the Constitution Party, which promotes similar views. He joined the GOP shortly before filing as a County Council candidate this year.
Several factors worked in Peroutka’s favor in District 5. A five-way primary split votes for two mainstream contenders, incumbent Dick Ladd and Maureen Carr-York — neither of whom addressed Peroutka’s views on race or civil rights. Both candidates were outspent by Peroutka, who used $80,000 of his own money and out-of-state donations from far-right conservatives. Peroutka also capitalized on voter anger at Ladd over an unpopular storm-water runoff fee — dubbed the “rain tax”— which the state required the council to pass in 2012.
Ladd, 74, a retired Army officer and Vietnam veteran, said he didn’t look into Peroutka’s background — not even a Google search.
“I made the decision to run on my record, and not anybody else,” he said. “I’d never met the gentleman. Didn’t know anything about him.”
Carr-York, a lawyer and nurse, declined to comment on the primary. Other county political insiders said she had prepared a mailer on Peroutka’s extremism but in the end decided she could win without going negative.
Like Peroutka, Carr-York campaigned against the storm-water fee. But she refused to unconditionally rule out a future tax increase, prompting a late barrage of robo-calls and ads on conservative talk radio by Peroutka, charging that she had left the door open to new taxes. Peroutka beat Carr-York by 38 votes.
Democrats made their own miscalculations. Assuming that a Republican would win the general election, they fielded a novice candidate, Patrick Armstrong, 31, who left his job as a manager of a Party City store in Bowie to make the run.
“Residents are left with a young guy with a blank slate and a more-established guy with anything but,” said council member Jamie Benoit (D), who helped launch an anti-Peroutka PAC to bolster Armstrong.
Armstrong said his campaign is focused on bread-and-butter issues for residents, such as potholes and school construction. The Democrat, who cut his teeth as an Iowa organizer for then-Sen. Joe Biden’s short-lived 2008 presidential campaign, described himself as “more Republican” than Peroutka. “I actually support public schools. I believe in civil rights,” he said.
Peroutka announced last week that he had dropped his association with the League of the South over the summer, although he was vague about his reasons and said he “didn’t have any problem with the organization.”
At an Oct. 10 debate with Armstrong in Millersville, according to one news account, he drew gasps from the audience for his attack on the teaching of evolution in public schools.
“Our children are taught that their great-great-granddaddy was a hunk of primordial ooze in a pond somewhere and that their granddaddy was a slimy, eely thing . . . and their daddy was a monkey,” he said.
This week, he sandpapered the hardest edges of his message, emphasizing his anti-tax stance and pledging to be the guardian of constituents’ pocketbooks. He called questions about his political past a diversion created by opponents.
“I haven’t looked for these distractions,” he said. “The distractions found me.”