Taking it to the Beach

Summer Events Part of Political Tradition

Posted July 3, 2003 at 5:12pm

Recipe for a midsummer’s day political dream: Take plentiful food, add beer, sun and heat, factor in glad-handling politicians busing in zealous supporters and you’re ready for one dazed walk in the woods.

Not every state has a big-tent, folksy event that’s a must-attend for politicians keen on boosting their statewide profile — west of Tennessee, the states become too big — but along the Atlantic Seaboard the political class is intimately familiar with the barbecue, seafood fest or fish-smoking marathon that everybody who’s anybody attends.

In Maryland, it’s called the J. Millard Tawes Crab & Clam Bake, named for a former governor. It takes place on the third Wednesday of July in the small Eastern Shore community of Crisfield, this year for the 27th summer in a row.

Described by some as the Super Bowl of Maryland politics, the Tawes festival is held in a parking lot during the dead of summer when “it’s 105 degrees in the shade, and humidity is in the 80s,” according to Len Foxwell, a longtime attendee and Maryland political operative. “It’s like a political convention without the air conditioning or identification badges.”

About 5,000 people annually cross the Bay Bridge and drive down Route 50 to attend the all-day eating and drinking bout, and the results are not always pretty.

Dehydration sets in and more than one person “hasn’t made it back without having to pull over and get sick,” Foxwell said. “Like politics, it’s an endurance contest.”

Politicians bypass the event at their peril, said John Willis, a former Maryland secretary of state.

“If you miss it, it will be said in the [newspaper] article that you weren’t there,” he said. “People will speculate as to why.”

Willis disagreed with the Super Bowl simile. The event is more of a “command performance,” he said, because “I’m not sure if it determines winning and losing.” Speeches and other platform-oriented forms of politicking are off limits at the Tawes festival, leaving little room for obvious gaffes. Some people might become affected by the combination of excessive alcohol consumption and oppressive heat, but “It’s always supporters [not the politicians],” Willis said.

Kentucky Rhetorical Derby

Not so in Kentucky.

The annual Fancy Farm Picnic, held in the unincorporated town of Fancy Farm in the southwestern corner of the Bluegrass State, has proved a partisan battleground. Stump speeches begin around 2 p.m. and go on for hours.

“Usually we’ll try to shout down the opposition,” admitted Derek Cohns, state director of the Kentucky Young Republicans.

About 15,000 people make the annual trek to Fancy Farm to attend a local Catholic Church pork and mutton barbecue held on the first Saturday of every August. The event has been going on since 1880.

“It’s where all the politicians come to kick off their campaigns,” said Bob Spalding, who has helped organize the picnic for a quarter-century.

Al Gore spoke there in 1992, and Vice President Cheney is rumored to be attending this year.

Russ Maple, a Democratic candidate for Kentucky secretary of state this year, characterized the event as a “political arena that is no holds barred.”

Both sides heckle opposing candidates, although organizers have clamped down in recent years on noisemakers and have told politicians not to “throw things, not to use props,” according Mary Goatley, a picnic organizer.

Still, that doesn’t prevent audience members from decking themselves out in costume and chanting insulting slogans. One year, the Republican Party “had kids dressed up as Buddhist Monks,” as a taunt against then-President Bill Clinton’s re-election fundraising campaign, said Ellen Williams, Kentucky GOP chairwoman. Another year, Republicans showed up wearing Al Gore masks.

Both parties agree that the GOP takes the lead on organizing heckling in advance.

This year, Cohns said the Young Republicans are considering doing something that plays on the name of the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in the Bluegrass State, Attorney General Ben “Happy” Chandler.

“We might use something like ‘Slappy Chandler,’” he said.

Chandler said last week that Republicans are “welcome to do whatever they want to do.”

In 1998 the GOP used an edited clip of Democratic Senate candidate Scotty Baesler pounding the podium at Fancy Farm to their electoral advantage. Baesler “got pretty real wrapped up in the theatrics of his speech” Maple said, and came across as ranting and raving when the speech was broadcast statewide in a Republican TV ad.

Adam Koenig, a Republican candidate for state treasurer, said politicians have to remember that, with media present, the ultimate audience for stump speeches is the entire state. Chandler said politicians can’t respond to the heckling.

“You just be yourself and enjoy it. I don’t worry about heckling,” he said.

Maple said the event isn’t really about “what you say, it’s more about surviving.”

Down Home Down East

The Rockland Lobster Festival in Maine is less cutthroat, but also less mandatory for politicians to attend.

A two-hour parade leads into the grounds of the lobster festival, where, since 1947, politicians are free to work the crowd over a five-day period in mid-July during which 12,000 pounds of soft-shell lobster are gulped down.

Still, despite crowds of around 100,000 people, it’s not quite a Super Bowl of Maine politics. “It might be a first-round playoff game,” said Sandy Maisel, a Maine political observer.

A significant portion of the crowd at the festival tends to be from out of state, so while Maine politicians generally attend, if they don’t, people know Maine “is a large state and people understand that some of the candidates have to cover other parts,” said Dwayne Bickford, executive director of the Maine GOP.

Former Maine governor and Sen. Ed Muskie (D) would demonstrate his lobster-hypnotizing skills at Rockland.

“He just had this way of approaching this lobster and having it just go very still,” recalled event organizer Chuck Kruger.

The large crowd also tends to be a presidential candidate draw. Kruger said one year Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) attended during his short-lived presidential campaign, but apparently mistook a crowd gathered for a rock concert for a stump speech audience. The music lovers weren’t in the mood for a speech, however, and began shouting at Lugar, “Where’s the wicked good band, bring on the band,” Kruger said. “It was pretty funny.”

Where Have All the Shad Gone?

In Virginia, the big annual event that brings out all the politicos has already occurred. The Wakefield Ruritan Club’s Shad Planking festival has taken place on the third Wednesday of every April since 1949. Shad fish are tacked to wooden boards and left to slow cook next to a smoky fire.

The event is still the premier political outing in the Old Dominion, but times have changed. Attendance was lower than expected at the April gathering, and Virginia’s depleted shad stocks means the fish is now imported from other states.

“It’s just a lot of people taking a break at the first April opportunity and had some comradeship and some shad, for those who eat the shad,” said Anthony Troy, a former Virginia attorney general, who noted that the fish are pretty bony.

Back in the days when Virginia was solid Democratic territory the event “was more an indication of what the dominant party was forecasting and thinking,” Troy said. Today both parties attend — and women and minorities, once banned from Shad Planking — and the event has become “a big contest of who can put up more signs, who can pass out more stickers and beer cups,” according to Ron Butler, a Republican operative.

Butler said the event has never made or broken any politician’s career. Nonetheless, “from a perception standpoint, it’s always good to have a good presence there,” he said.