In 2010, 46,000 people in four counties on the upper Eastern Shore participated in electing the state senator for District 36, and less than half of them were registered Republicans. Yet 29,000 of these voters chose to reelect Republican Sen. E.J.Pipkin, giving him 63% of the vote.
Pipkin, who became the Senate minority leader, resigned his seat Aug. 12. By Sept. 10, 32 people or less, all of them members of the Republican Central committees from the four counties, will get to choose his successor. Each county central committee gets one vote, and if they can't agree on a single successor, Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley gets to choose one from the names they submit to him.
Maryland's aversion to special elections
This procedure is spelled out in the Maryland Constitution, which makes no provision for special elections for almost any vacancy. In at least Prince George's and Montgomery counties, by charter, voters get a say in replacing members of the county councils when vacancies occur. And the U.S. Constitution requires a special election to replace a member of the House of Representatives, though not a senator.
But when a member of the legislature must be replaced, the responsibility falls to these little-known members of the central committee from the same party as the departing legislator.
These members are chosen by registered voters of their own party during the gubernatorial election.
On the Democratic side, a similar process is going on in District 15 in the Germantown area of Montgomery County, where Sen. Rob Garagiola, the majority leader, is resigning.
Appointed members on central committees
In the case of District 36, at least 10 of the 32 central committee members have been appointed internally after elected members resigned.
Special elections are of course expensive, although voting by mail is a possibility. Turnout is likely to be low, with the advantage going to the candidate with the most money, which is true in any election.
Because the process is so closed, partisan and undemocratic, campaigning is relatively easy. There are only 32 people to contact, and all a candidate needs is a majority of the votes in each county.
Two of the current District 36 delegates, Mike Smigiel of Cecil County and Steve Hershey of Queen Anne's County, have already said they want the job, as does former Del. Richard Sossi, whom Hershey beat in the 2010 Republican primary. See Friday’s story.
Wargotz in the race
Dr. Eric Wargotz, a former Queen Anne's County Commissioner, told MarylandReporter.com on Sunday that he has applied, likely one of several candidates submitting letters of qualification by the close of business Monday.
Like Smigiel and Hershey, Wargotz too has run in the district. As the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in 2010 against Democratic incumbent Barbara Mikulski, Wargotz got 34,700 votes in the four counties, winning all but Kent County. (Only a small part of Cecil is in District 36.)
Three-term Smigiel is considered by many to be the frontrunner, and his chief of staff, Andi Morony, chairs the GOP Central Committee in Queen Anne's.
Large and loud, Smigiel is often the belligerent foe of the Democratic establishment in Annapolis. An attorney and an ex-Marine, Smigiel has battled the Democratic leaders on the floor and in the courts. He has been an especially vociferous defender of Second Amendment gun rights.
But he has detractors as well because of his abrasive tactics. He has been chastised by the Legislative Ethics Committee for his treatment of witnesses. Just last year, he lost miserably when he ran for Circuit Court judge in Cecil County, challenging the two sitting judges, including a Republican. And Hershey got 6,000 more votes than Smigiel in 2010, but Hershey had no Democratic opponent.