It seems that the former longtime Frederick County Democrat is becoming quite effective at wooing voters from both parties.
A man of integrity, who is soft-spoken and unassuming, is how many describe Earl Robbins. He has been a part of the Frederick community since 1976 when the Eastalco aluminum plant hired him as a potline foreman. After 34 years with the company, he retired in 2011 as Director of State and Local Government Affairs. Since then, Mr. Robbins has given serious thought to running for County Executive.
In mid-March of this year, he decided to stop just thinking about it. He announced his intentions to take the plunge as an unaffiliated independent candidate for the county’s top leadership position. Initial reactions from many within the Frederick community was a quick roll of the eyes. The thinking at the time from many was that he doesn’t stand a chance, especially against the well-known and very seasoned politician that Democrat Jan Gardner has become.
But over the last 5 months, it seems that Robbins’ quiet but steady campaign strategy is causing a lot of nay-sayers to second-guess their initial scoffs and pay closer attention.
Let’s Do Lunch:
Just last week, CE Gardner asked her Government Affairs & Public Policy Director, Roger Wilson, to reach out to Robbins and arrange a lunch meeting for Wednesday, August 15th. Yes, you got it right, the County Executive who often takes to texting, Facebook posting, and emailing individuals at all hours of the day and night, “had to” ask one of her staff members to arrange the engagement.
So why did Ms. Gardner want to meet with Robbins? And what was Ms. Gardner’s reason for reaching out to her opponent?
It seems that both Gardner and GOP candidate Kathy Afzali have been running their own polls, and according to claims from both camps, results are showing each holds a very credible lead over the other … hmmm? Well, they both cannot be right … at least one party’s data is not correct! Or is it just spin?
So, yes, the lunch took place. I happened to speak with Mr. Robbins afterward, and he was kind enough to share some of the highlights of the get-together.
Gardner’s key question over lunch with Robbins was to inquire about his real motivations for running for her seat at Winchester Hall.
“Why are you running?” she asked. Phrases such as “nobody knows you” and “all of your business and community accomplishments were so long ago, nobody remembers that far back” were tossed out.
“There must be another reason,” she stated. She inquired further by asking if he had some kind of personal vendetta against her.
The cool and calm 70-year-old Robbins responded with a simple statement that he has no issues with her personally. He told the incumbent CE that he feels that he possesses a number of skills and talents that he can contribute to improving the operations and leadership of Frederick County government.
He did not contribute much more to the conversation, and in further response to similar inquiries, Robbins reminded Ms. Gardner that she requested the meeting with him and stated that he was there “to listen.”
The frustrated County Executive finished up by reminding Robbins that “Come September, I’m all in!” His response was, “Well, I’m already all in, and I think I can win.”
The independent challenger left the meeting with the feeling that his candidacy has the County Executive worried that he may be winning over some voters that she is counting on.
He asked me, “Why else would she want to meet and ask such questions?”
Even though the nearly universal opinion “on the street” has always been that Gardner’s victory is a fait accompli, let’s consider some of the reasons why she (and her other opponent) may have serious concerns.
Ms. Gardner’s constituency is a very diverse lot, and while she has a strong and very loyal base, there are factions of her 2014 supporters who are not so sure anymore. Just to name a few here:
The County Executive has always shared less than enthusiastic support from the local business community, and Robbins’ history of personal involvement has been deep and significant. He has not only served as a past board of directors’ president for the Frederick County Chamber of Commerce, the local United Way and Board of Associates of Hood College, but he also was chairman of the Downtown Hotel Advisory Committee where he served for 6 years. So, in his own quiet way, the leadership he has given to the business community has earned him a great deal of respect and recognition.
In addition, with Afzali as the GOP candidate and Robbins being more of a political centrist, it is hard at this point to know how moderate business leaders, registered with either party, votes will swing. While Afzali is proud to tout her pro-business platform, many Chamber members who were (and still are) strong supporters of the downtown hotel and conference center project have not forgotten that she voted against any public funding for it.
Incumbent Gardner burned a few bridges not only with the business community, but also with residents of the City of Frederick and some members of its government, when in last year’s county budget, she chose to deny the City’s request for $100,000 in assistance to the operations of Frederick Municipal Airport, and instead opted to give over $900,000 to some of her favorite charities. In addition, she has feuded with other county municipalities over a number of issues, including a series of very difficult water and sewer negotiations with the town of New Market. How strong are those memories?
Parents and Teachers:
It’s all well and good that Ms. Gardner has already received an endorsement from the Frederick County Teachers Association (FCTA), but Mr. Robbins has a deep track record in the community’s educational arena. It may seem like a long time ago, but he did serve as a member of the Frederick County Board of Education from 1986 to 1996, which included two years as president.
The former Democrat was honored by the Maryland State Education Association for his community involvement as a Minority Recognition Award Winner in 2011. That was the second time he won the award.
In 1995, Robbins was a founding member of a high school program known as the Necktie Club, which is still active in several county schools. Its purpose is to act as a mentoring group for male students, encouraging a professional code in order to prepare them for future careers. At meetings, students wear shirts and ties, practice public speaking and use Robert’s Rules of Order.
He is a founding member of the Board of Directors for Eliminating Achievement Gaps, Inc., and served as board president. Currently, in honor of all of his contribution to the organization, he was given Emeritus status. According to its website, the Frederick County organization was founded in 2003 “to address the problem of at-risk groups in our schools, such as African American, Hispanic, and students in poverty, who achieve at a significantly lower rate on the reading and math tests for the NCLB accountability, High School Assessments and elementary school standardized tests.”
And not to be discounted, Robbins’ wife of 48 years, Olivia, was a highly regarded teacher in the county public-school system for many years and maintains lasting connections.
While one may refer to the African-Americans who live in Frederick County as a single community, there are many and it is diverse. But not unlike African-Americans throughout Maryland, a vast majority tend to vote Democratic. Robbins, as a formerly registered Democrat, has never shied away from vocalizing his support for candidates who will best serve the causes for which he believes. In the past, he has supported and campaigned for many Democrats, including many for Jan Gardner, but not anymore.
The candidate has become a very familiar face on Sundays as he makes the rounds to the local black church services around the county. For him, it is not just a “one and done” visit to each, because it was in these houses of worship that he garnered many of the over 1,800 signatures he needed to be placed on the November general election ballot. It seems that they believe in Robbins!
Recently, he visited the First Missionary Baptist Church on Jefferson Pike. This happens to be the same church of which Roger Wilson is a member. Having caught the wind that the candidate would be visiting that Sunday, Mr. Wilson quickly called upon CE Gardner to be in attendance that day, too. …And he made a point of introducing her to his fellow parishioners. With that came her well-crafted campaign talk. To offset the potentially awkward moment, the Reverend Dr. William H. Graham, Pastor, took the opportunity to make Mr. Robbins’ attendance known and also offered him the opportunity to speak.
Republicans for Gardner? Really? The short answer is “sure,” there are always some. But this time may be different for two reasons.
The first is obvious. There are many GOP voters who are very unhappy with President Trump, and these Never-Trumpers, while they may not care who the Democrats are on the ballot, will just vote blue all the way down line out of protest. How many will do that in Frederick County is unknown, especially when one considers that the very popular Maryland Republican Governor Larry Hogan is up for re-election.
But there is another more local factor that could not only be for Ms. Gardner but for Kathy Afzali as well.
The three-way primary race that determined the GOP County Executive candidate was less than amicable. The victor, Afzali, only garnered 43% of the Republican votes cast. Should she be concerned?
Well, even before the day votes were cast, challenger Kirby Delauter made it clear that if he lost his bid for the GOP CE slot, he would not throw his support to Afzali, but to former Democrat Robbins. As for Regina Williams who earned the fewest votes in the GOP primary, she was quick to support Afzali, because she stands for the success of the Republican party in Frederick County.
In a telephone interview last week, Afzali made it clear that she is very confident that her campaign is on a winning trajectory. And she says her polling data confirms that. For that matter, when has Kathy Afzali ever been anything but confident?
As yet, Earl Robbins has not run a poll; so, he has no scientific data to tout (or spin) about where he stands in this three-way race for the county throne. But it is clear, with his independent bid, he is making waves in some camps…and with 83 days of campaigning left in this race, his impact is yet to be in clear focus.
Rocky Mackintosh, President, MacRo, Ltd., a Land and Commercial Real Estate firm based in Frederick, Maryland. He has been an active member of the Frederick, Maryland community for over four decades. He has served as chairman of the board of Frederick Memorial Hospital and as a member of the Frederick County Charter Board from 2010 to 2012. He currently serves as chairman of the board of Frederick Mutual Insurance Company. Established in 1843, it is one of the longest enduring businesses in Frederick County