Home » In Wicomico, three novel contenders face off in protracted, fractious contest for executive

In Wicomico, three novel contenders face off in protracted, fractious contest for executive

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A new county executive will soon take the helm at the Wicomico County government building in Salisbury. Google Street View image.

It hasn’t attracted the same attention as a couple of competitive county executive contests in “Big 8” counties west of the Chesapeake Bay. But this year’s race for executive of Wicomico County on the Lower Eastern Shore has featured three novel candidates, along with numerous twists and turns, on the way to Election Day.

Wicomico — the most populated county on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, with about one-third of its residents living in the fast-growing city of Salisbury — has been without a permanent county executive since July 2020, when Republican Robert “Bob” Culver died of cancer midway through his second term.

The cast of candidates vying to fill that post on the Nov. 8 ballot features:

  • Republican Julie Giordano, 40, a career middle/high school teacher making her first run for public office after several years as a Wicomico County Republican Central Committee member and conservative activist — a background that may have helped her to an upset victory in the July primary, but which also has presented some obstacles as she seeks to appeal to a broader electorate.
  • Democrat Ernest “Ernie” Davis, 58, a two-term Wicomico County Council member and former Maryland state trooper, who — in contrast to the loquaciousness generally associated with those holding elected office — appears to pride himself on saying as little as possible in public, as he has mounted a low-key campaign consistent with his political persona.
  • Libertarian Party nominee Muir Boda, 49, vice president of the Salisbury City Council and immediate past president of the Eastern Shore Association of Municipalities. While chosen for his city council post in a nonpartisan election, Boda is a long-time Republican who earlier this year considered seeking the Democratic nomination for executive; he has garnered the endorsement of Democrat Rick Pollitt, Wicomico’s first county executive, who served from 2006 to 2014.

Boda entered the general election contest prior to the July 19 primary, but said he would have dropped out if the Republican nomination had gone to acting County Executive John Psota. After a two-month standoff over choosing a successor to Culver, the Wicomico County Council opted in September 2020 to put Psota — the county’s director of administration — in the executive post on an acting basis, pending the 2022 election.

Psota, another former Maryland state trooper who went on to serve for six years as city manager of the Wicomico municipality of Fruitland, was by his own admission awkward in the public eye — acknowledging during the primary, “I don’t do well in the politics end of it.” In the July primary, he lost narrowly, 52%-48%, to Giordano, who had tied herself closely to Republican gubernatorial aspirant Dan Cox — campaigning and appearing in advertising with Cox, now the party’s nominee.

In part, Giordano may owe her selection as the GOP nominee to the controversial Cox’s coattails, notwithstanding his anemic poll ratings statewide. “Whether you love him or hate him, Dan Cox won my county by 30 points” in the primary, Giordano noted in a recent interview, referring to Cox’s 62%-33% margin in Wicomico over GOP rival Kelly Schulz. “And I’m very confident he’s going to win my county again [in November].” (In 2020, then-President Trump narrowly carried Wicomico, 50%-48% over now-President Biden.)

Giordano’s ties to Cox were underscored two weeks ago, when she and a close political ally, outgoing Wicomico County Councilmember Nicole Acle (R), journeyed to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla., to attend a Trump-hosted fundraiser to benefit the Cox campaign. Word of the trip, which was not publicized in advance by Giordano’s campaign, spread in Wicomico political circles after Acle posted photos on social media. Giordano’s latest campaign filing with the State Board of Elections shows a payment of $3,552 for two tickets to the event, at $1,776 apiece.

Unlike Cox — who has done little to try to broaden his base heading into the general election — Giordano has been regularly reaching out in an effort to assuage skeptics, with vows to be inclusive. “Once we are elected, the political aspect is set off to the side,” she declared during a candidate forum at Salisbury University in late September. “When it comes to leading…you have to make the best decision for all people, not just people in your party.”

Giordano has met with Salisbury’s high-profile Democratic mayor, Jacob “Jake” Day, as well as leaders of the city’s business community, which was largely behind Psota in the primary. Donors to Psota’s primary bid included Jacob Day’s father, Randy Day — CEO of Wicomico County’s best-known business enterprise, Perdue Farms — along with officials of another prominent Salisbury-based employer, Chesapeake Shipbuilding Corp., according to campaign finance disclosure reports.

“They always try to get me on the far-right Republican thing,” Giordano said during an interview shortly before her Mar-a-Lago trip, adding, “I do want to [govern] as a Republican and as a conservative, but when it comes to making smart decisions for the county, it might not be the most conservative.”

She pointed to her choice of Bunky Luffman to be the county’s director of administration if she is elected; most recently, Luffman has served as the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ director of legislative and constituent services under GOP Gov. Larry Hogan. “He’s part of the Hogan administration [and] he’s a lot more moderate than I am,” Giordano said of Luffman. But she tapped him for the post, she added, “because he brings such strengths and he does such a great job of balancing.”

While Giordano has emerged as the generally acknowledged favorite in November in a county that has trended Republican in recent years, she is the nominee of a local GOP in which divisions have been apparent; Psota did not endorse her following his primary loss. Meanwhile, the prospect of a Giordano administration in Wicomico County continues to create discomfort within the local political and business establishment — owing to her lack of previous experience in elected office as well as her ideological leanings.

At a time when conservatives nationwide have targeted public school governance, Giordano triggered a nervous reaction when — during September’s candidate forum — she criticized Davis for what she characterized as his lack of involvement in the county school system.

“Councilman Davis has at numerous times stated there’s nothing we can do but write the maintenance-of-effort check for over $50 million and, as the executive, we don’t get involved in school business. I’m sorry, we could not think more differently when it comes to this,” Giordano declared, adding: “In our schools, we need to be teaching children how to think — not what to think. We need parent involvement. We shouldn’t be limiting how many parents get to speak at school board meetings. Our parents’ voices matter.”

In a later interview, Giordano insisted she had no intent of seeking to impose policies on the schools via budgetary restrictions or legislation if elected. “I’m not going to go in and tell our superintendent how to spend his money or what to do,” she said. “ My goal is to show the superintendent I do support him, and ‘Hey, if you need me for something, let me know’…I just want them to know that they have a person who is supportive of education in the executive role.”

But skepticism remains, particularly given Giordano’s ties to several conservatives seeking school board seats. “The X factor [is] ‘How much of this MAGA stuff will she try to introduce in a legislative way?’” observed one veteran of local politics, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. This person added, “We think we are going to have a workable majority of good people on the County Council — a combination of [Republicans and Democrats] who may be able to counterbalance whatever cultural things she might wish to introduce.”

A controversial course on the Constitution

Wicomico County Democrats are seeking to paint Giordano as an “extremist” due to her ties to Cox as well as a recent report in the Salisbury Daily Times that Giordano and several other conservative candidates from Wicomico and adjacent counties had taken classes in 2021 and earlier this year taught by an Anne Arundel County-based pastor, David Whitney. When contacted by the newspaper, Whitney confirmed he once served as a chaplain to the League of the South — identified as a “neo-Confederate hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The classes were offered by the Institute on the Constitution, a group founded by Maryland Republican attorney general nominee Michael Peroutka — who has acknowledged previous ties to the League of the South. The Institute on the Constitution is described by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website as having an “anti-government ideology.”

Giordano told Maryland Matters she was not “whatsoever” aware of the information reported about Whitney’s background prior to her taking the class, in which she enrolled because “I had never read the Maryland constitution” prior to deciding to run for executive. She added: “At no point in time did Pastor Whitney derail his weekly lessons from the Maryland constitution and instill his own personal feelings…I did not see anything where I would think ‘this person is racist’.”

Continued Giordano: “Looking back, do I regret taking a Maryland constitution class? Absolutely not. Would I have taken it with a person who was controversial or had this controversy? Probably not. I probably would have rethought it because of what people are saying about me because of taking the course. I’m not about any sort of racism — especially with my students, I’m just not OK with that at all.”

Davis, currently the only Black member of the seven-person Wicomico County Council, said in an interview that he thinks Giordano’s participation in the Institute on the Constitution controversy “is going to play a big part in this race…because it ties her in with Cox, who we all know tried to get Hogan impeached and who sent buses to the Jan. 6” rally that preceded the storming of the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump demonstrators.

But Davis also said he has no plans to raise the issue directly against Giordano in speeches or advertising. “I’m going to stay my course and tell you what I’m going to do and how I’m going to do it. I’m not going to go shoot negative things at her or anybody,” he said.

Davis’ introverted campaign persona, along with the political headwinds facing his party this year, have installed him as the underdog on Nov. 8 in the view of most local insiders. Throughout July and August, his campaign took in just $2,300 in contributions, barely 10% of what Giordano collected during the same period.

He managed to level the financial playing field during the period from late August through the third week of October: Davis raised just over $30,000 to about $35,500 for Giordano during this period, according to newly filed disclosure reports. Davis was boosted by a $6,000 donation from the campaign committee of Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks (D); Davis’ wife and a couple of small businesses he operates that offer transportation and power washing services contributed a total of almost $10,000.

If Davis, a Salisbury resident, has a path to victory, it appears to lie in turning out Democratic voters — there are 3,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in Wicomico County, despite a GOP trend in recent county elections — along with attracting Republicans uncomfortable with Giordano’s ties to the Trump-Cox wing of the party.

Such a strategy is complicated by Boda’s appeal to disaffected voters in both parties. “As I’m knocking on doors and just talking to people, there’s almost an equal amount of Republicans and Democrats who aren’t satisfied with either choice,” Boda said in interview.

“The current situation in the Republican Party here is that they are split,” Boda, a former member of the county’s Republican central committee, said, adding, “There’s a group that Ms. Giordano is affiliated with, and they’ve split the party” — a reference to the Delmarva Conservative Movement, an organization that lists Giordano among its endorsed candidates along with a couple of school board contenders.

Intraparty tensions were on display earlier this month, when Democratic County Council at-large candidate Brad Gillis — a former Republican who left that party after the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection — posted a photo on Facebook with state Del. Carl Anderton (R-Lower Shore), thanking Anderton for his backing.

That prompted Giordano ally Acle to repost the photo of Gillis and Anderton, with the comment: “When a Republican State Delegate supports a corrupt establishment Democrat…we are in trouble in Wicomico County.”

‘If Muir had an R or D next to his name, he might be the favorite’

Anderton — for whom Giordano’s designated director of administration, Luffman, is a former campaign manager — has not publicly endorsed Giordano. When former County Executive Culver died in 2020, Anderton sought appointment as Culver’s successor — but was blocked by a 4-3 vote against him on the county council.

Three of the council’s four Republicans voted against him, including Acle. Anderton’s close working relationship with several Democrats in the county, including Salisbury Mayor Day, was said to have played a role in the Republican resistance to his appointment. The one vote against Anderton’s appointment among the three Democrats on the council came from Davis.

Anderton has publicly suggested that Davis voted against the appointment because of not wanting to run against Anderton in 2022. In a recent interview, Davis said he opposed the appointment because Anderton had “shown nothing he had done for Wicomico” in two terms in Annapolis, adding: “If we had put him in [as executive], I still would have run against him. I think I’m the better candidate, and still can win whether he’s in there or not.”

After nearly a year and a half of considering a 2022 run for a full term as county executive, Anderton opted in February of this year to seek re-election to a third term in the House of Delegates, leaving Giordano and Psota as the two contenders in the Republican primary.

Boda, a regional Walmart manager tasked with overseeing security matters, said he decided to run on the Libertarian line after watching a May candidate forum with the two Republican primary contenders and Davis. Referring to Davis and Giordano, Boda said: “I didn’t see enough that made me feel they had a grasp of the issues or a vision for the county.  I told John Psota ‘If you win the primary, I’ll drop out. If you lose the primary, I’m going to stay in’.”

Giordano has swiped at Boda as well as Davis, declaring during her opening statement at the September candidate forum, “We don’t need an executive who doesn’t say much, or who only represents the ideals and values of one municipality.”

In an interview afterward, Giordano explained: “When I talk about the ideals of one municipality, I’m 100% talking about Muir Boda. He’s the vice president of the Salisbury City Council, and so the ideal he’s bringing forward are the things that have worked in Salisbury. And what I need him to understand is that there is more to Wicomico County than Salisbury.”

Boda responded that he has lived in a couple of the county’s smaller municipalities — including Hebron, where Giordano resides, and Sharptown — while representing the interests of 56 cities and towns along the Eastern Shore as head of the Eastern Shore Association of Municipalities. “That goes to a lack of historical knowledge about who your opponent is to make an errant comment like that,” he shot back at Giordano’s comments.

Former Wicomico County Executive Pollitt, now town manager of Snow Hill in neighboring Worcester County, praised Boda as “part of the great progress that’s been seen in Salisbury.” While declining to comment in detail on the other two candidates, Pollitt declared, “He’s far and above the most qualified to do the job…of the three running.”

Pollitt’s viewpoint is shared, albeit more quietly, in some other quarters. “If Muir had an R or D next to his name, he might be the favorite,” said another veteran of Wicomico County politics, speaking anonymously.

By the time Boda finally decided to run, the filing deadline for entering a major party primary had passed, although he said he had considered entering the race for the Democratic nomination earlier in the year. “I looked at my options; there are some who think I could have won the Democratic primary,” mused Boda. “I don’t know.”

Pollitt acknowledged that Boda faces “an incredibly steep hill” in next week’s election running as a third-party candidate. Boda — who ran as a Libertarian in the 1st congressional district in 2012 and was an unsuccessful contender in the Republican primary for county council two years later before winning his city council seat — raised about $2,500 in September and October. He is relying on online advertising, while both Giordano and Davis have gone on Salisbury area TV with paid ad spots in the closing weeks of the campaign,

Hovering over the contest are memories of the 2018 election, when there was also a three-way race for county executive. Republican Culver won, but with less than an absolute majority of the vote: The combined vote for the Democratic nominee, John Hamilton, and an independent candidate, Jack Heath — now president of the Salisbury City Council — together outpolled Republican Culver by about 900 votes.

Boda conceded that, when he was consulting with some friends and allies on whether to run, a number of Democrats advised him not to — fearing it could again create a split that would again benefit the Republican nominee. Next week’s outcome will determine whether history repeats itself — perhaps providing the latest twist in a long-running political soap opera on the Lower Shore.

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Enzo Smith