Josh Kurtz: Shock and Tawes

With the incomparable J. Millard Tawes Clam and Crab Bake slated for Wednesday in Crisfield, the center of the Maryland political universe moves temporarily to the Eastern Shore.

Much of the shore is reliably Republican territory, so it will not be surprising to see former Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R) win the “sign wars” over Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) on the road to Crisfield — a bragging right at the festival, and no doubt a harbinger of things to come in November.

But the shore is also where many of the state’s environmental challenges lie. It’s where the rubber meets the road, so to speak — and surely someone can come up with a more environmentally friendly metaphor — on conservation policy. Just as Crisfield is the center of the political universe once a year, it wasn’t too long ago that the lower shore became the center of the scientific universe with the pfisteria outbreak in the in the Pockomoke River.

Maryland’s environmental policy — and standing — has come a long way since then, and both Ehrlich and O’Malley (along with their predecessor, Parris Glendening) can claim a measure of the credit. Though neither may be talking about it much at Tawes or at the other events they build around the crab feast that day — chances are, they’ll be talking an awful lot about jobs and the economy, in one of the most depressed regions in the state — both have environmental accomplishments to boast about.

For Ehrlich, it’s the so-called “flush tax,” the sewage and septic tank surcharge that helps pay for wastewater treatment plant upgrades. Ehrlich’s proposal was rather out of the blue, but he stuck with it and worked it skillfully. Once he embraced it, it seemed harder for Republicans and moderate Democrats to oppose it.

O’Malley has tried to claim some of Glendening’s green legacy, and has even rehired many of his fellow Democrat’s key environmental appointees. But he also has policy achievements to crow about, whether it’s strengthening and expanding the state’s critical areas program, which protects the most environmentally sensitive and significant lands near the Chesapeake Bay, or fully funding the state’s Project Open Space program. Additionally, Maryland’s crab harvest has rebounded under O’Malley’s watch (though chances are most of the thousands of crabs that are consumed at the crab feast will be from elsewhere; the question is, where?).

Often, and particularly in troubled economic times, the environment is left out of the political conversation. We’re seeing that especially at the national level, where even the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, while it’s reminding the public that the U.S. needs to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels, isn’t doing much to propel the Obama administration’s energy and environmental agenda. But when they’re swilling their beer and pounding their crab shells into submission on Wednesday, voters who encounter O’Malley and Ehrlich might want to thank them for the things they’ve done to help the environment.

Of course, to insiders, Tawes is pure political theater, and the level of schmooze and political gamesmanship is more heated in an election year than any other time. That’s fine, and fun — and it’s great to see the top elected leaders of the state sweating out there in that ungodly heat along with everybody else (question: how come an event right by the water always has zero wind?).

But it’s also hard to deny that the event has become more “corporate” over the years.

For the uninitiated, most of the crab feast takes place on a sun-baked parking lot. That’s where the food and beer is distributed, where long tables are set out for the festival-goers to eat, and where a local band pounds out country and rock standards.

But in a grassy area off to the side, dozens of interest groups — from businesses to unions to political parties to ubiquitous Annapolis lobbyist Bruce Bereano — set up tents, where they also offer beer and some food. These tents are the biggest magnets for the politicians who attend, and increasingly they are spending more time at this part of the festival, chatting with each other, than they are with the real people who are getting their hands dirty wrestling with the shellfish.

You could argue that maybe it’s just as well. Most of the people who have come to Crisfield are there to eat and drink and don’t give a damn about the insufferable politicians. But it does seem as if, more and more, special interests are using the crab feast to reach policymakers in an unregulated venue and fashion. Bruce Bereano and his clients are potentially getting an awfully big bang out of his presence at Crisfield (and not just because he will inevitably remind assembled reporters that the crab feast is “the Super Bowl of Maryland politics”). Score one for the business-as-usual crowd at the expense of good government.

In all, though, the event is so irresistible that it’s hard even for a cynic to complain. Hope to see you there — and please pass the crabs!

Josh Kurtz is a managing editor at Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper. He can be reached at

Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Uly’s Gold

Death and Deadlines

Bad News for Democrats From Washington to Washington County

Mr. Smith Goes … Where?

End of the Line for Vallario?

Mission: Control

Post Plays Favorites

Red Storm Rising

Michael & Me

Wanted: Fresh Blood


Black and Blue?


Take Me Back to Old Virginny

The Political Lives of Peter Franchot

Bob and Weave

How to Make Prince George’s County King

Kane is Able

To Be Frank

Gay Rights and Political Wrongs?

The Washington Post Goes to War

Snow Job

Unsolicited Advice for Ehrlich — Wait Till 2014

The Early Bird Gets the Worm?

Wayne’s World May Be Another Planet

Miller Time Comes Early

Owings Owes an Explanation