September 23, 2007

The Crab Feast

The political culture of Maryland's rural Eastern Shore revolves around the local Democratic and Republican clubs and central committees in each of the 9 counties. In the old days--before the Bay Bridge was built from the "Big Cities" of central Maryland to the chicken farms, fishing villages, and antique shops of the Eastern Shore--if you wanted to politick on the Shore for a state senate or delegate race or race for the U.S. Congress 1st District you didn't knock on strangers' doors, you went to a crab feast. You went to a crab feast because the number of crabs in the Bay doubled or trebled the number of voters on the Eastern Shore.

You brought your mallet and bashed a barrel of blue crabs with your buddies, hoping that you got a couple dozen votes by the time the summer sun or the stink of rotting crabs got to you--whichever came first.

The crab feast culture worked because pretty much everyone went to the feast, and a glad-handing politician could meet almost everybody in town. He or she could give a quick nod to their pals, then sit down with the ones they didn't know and talk about which part of the crab they preferred, whether they liked Old Bay spice or not, and maybe even whine about the ever-escalating price of crabs compared to last season--and blame all of it on Pennsylvania.

Today, even the aspirants for attorney general, comptroller, and governor come to the Tawes Crab Feast in Somerset County, Maryland since it draws upwards of 3,000 folks every year.

The regular Shore crab feasts, for campaign events, for teachers' union meetings, for just about any old summertime meeting still go on. But the politicians are chasing more and more voters and fewer and fewer crabs. The more hardened suburbanites from New Jersey, New York, and Montgomery County settled into newly carved suburbs on the Shore, the more the crab feast culture becomes a museum piece just like the old oyster work-boats in harbors from Port Deposit to Crisfield.

The fewer votes you can get at the feast, the more you've gotta scrape out of a massive, blistering, all-consuming walkathon door-knocking campaign to reach everyone who doesn't go the the crab feasts.

In the Florida Panhandle, circa 1970, you had much more than a crab culture--you had the Washington County possum festival, watermelon festivals, chicken feeds, fish fries, and pig and bull roasts.

Lawton Chiles went to them all in his first bid for U.S. Senate in '70, and could have gone home and slept well at night because he got lots of votes. But he wanted to win. So he went to the watermelon festivals, chicken feeds, fish fries, and pig roasts and then walked 10 miles and talked to a few dozen more people each day.

To me that defines political risk: going an extra mile after the crab feast.

The more extra miles, the more the legend grows.

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