Q&A With Jim Ireton, Salisbury Councilman Weighing Congressional Run

Q&A With Jim Ireton, Salisbury Councilman Weighing Congressional Run
Ireton column mug

SALISBURY — Salisbury City Councilman Jim Ireton may not be mayor anymore, but if his recent public hints and actions prove to be true, he might be taking on Republican Congressman Andy Harris for the right to represent Maryland’s First District in the US House of Representatives.

Ireton, a progressive Democrat, who became Salisbury’s first openly gay mayor in 2009, has amassed a legion of supporters and critics over the years for his sometimes abrasive style and his proclivity to trade verbal jabs with anyone from political opponents to the various media outlets. But that style may help Ireton take on Harris, who is no shrinking violet himself when it comes to public political catfights.

Ireton has been mum on whether or not he will run, but in his conversation with The Dispatch this week, he certainly sounds like his mind is all but made up.

Q: There’s been a bit of transition in your life recently as you’ve gone from being the mayor of Salisbury to a councilmember in Salisbury. Do you see the position change as a big difference for you, because some people see the change as not a big deal? Some would even argue that you can actually instill more change as a councilmember because you have a vote rather than acting as the sort-of city’s figurehead?

A: That’s true, but it’s true and … and I’m still sending in the numbers on the street lights that are out, still calling public works to come and pick up trash that people dump on the corner of Division and Isabella streets. I’m still watching our crime numbers go down left and right, a 1.4 percent drop this year in Part 1 crimes. All those things are still happening. So, it’s not like a change in office from the mayor’s office to the city council office or a change in seat, which for all intents and purposes, was just a move one seat to the left from where I sat before; so public service is public service regardless of what office you are in.

Q: There has been a lot of talk recently about your future ambitions, and even though you and I have talked about it before, there seems to be a growing feeling around the region that you may step forward and take on Republican Andy Harris in District 1 in Congress. Are you going to run?

A: Seventy-seven percent of the American people have a negative view of the US House of Representatives and in my view Mr. Harris is about 75% of that 77%.

So, why is that? Why would someone that has a great job at the wonderful Williards Elementary School and has won four elections here in Salisbury in the last 16 years and someone whose family just got him back after six years as mayor? Well, it’s because we haven’t been solving any problems. Why I would think about doing it is because we haven’t solved the problem of nitrogen and phosphorous and protecting our family farms and the Chesapeake Bay. We have to do both.

We haven’t solved the problem of gun violence and gun safety. We haven’t solved the problem of the ever increasing lack of healthcare on the Lower Shore. Rural health: things like primary care physicians, OGBYN’s, skin doctors, allergy doctors, we aren’t solving these problems. The high profile ones, such as the farming community and the gun community, are used by the far right and the far left to generate money for their two sides.

What I’m finding, and I have been visiting a boat load of the counties up and down the shore, and almost all of them on the west side of the district, is that they want Washington to work again. They are decidedly nonplussed with the service they are getting from the current Congressman. So yes, I have been looking at it, and I’ve been around this discussion about congressional races since I was 10 years-old, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility for a kid that was born in Salisbury and grew up in Salisbury politics, Salisbury, being the largest city in the 1st district and Wicomico County being the second largest county in the 1st district. But, I will tell you this, the apparatus is getting put in place so that if on Feb. 3, if that’s the way I decide to head, everything will be ready to go.

Q: We both know that the 1st District has only seen one Democrat hold the seat in 20 years (Frank Kratovil) and he only served one term. It’s a very red region, and you are deemed to be a very progressive Democrat. Are you sensing that the support for a candidate like you is there?

A: Let’s look at that historically over the past 100 years. It’s been 100 years since the last Salisbury city councilman was elected to the US House of Representatives — Jesse Dashiell Price. He’s buried two blocks from my house. This district has gone back and forth between the Democrats and the Republicans in the past 100 years. Some incredibly progressive Republicans and progressive Democrats have served. The thing that I find is that people aren’t looking, most of the time, for some ideological bent. They are looking for someone who wants to seriously get involved with the problems and the issues.

I think, besides my rocky relationship with slumlords in Salisbury, the record of reducing crime by 50%, leaving $16 million in surplus every year on a $54 million budget, the Wicomico River showing the first signs of rejuvenating itself in our history for three straight years while I worked on it as mayor. All of those things I think are calling cards to say to people here is a progressive guy who wants to sit down and look at the farm outside of Rhodesdale that is trying to figure out what to do with chicken litter and take a look at the farm in Cecil County that’s doing cow manure methane generation for power and heat, and let’s solve these problems and get them off the table so politicians can no longer use them to divide us. That’s what I’m hearing, but that’s not going to be the things the other side will put on television because we know the types of television ads have permeated the last two real congressional contests. I’m hearing that people in the district are tired of that, and I think America is tired of it, but there’s the nasty juxtaposition of whether or not a nasty campaign wins. And for all intents and purposes, let’s be honest, the type of campaign that the incumbent Congressman that we have right now will run, will be the nastiest type out there. But I will say this, after my two (mayoral) elections in Salisbury and running against ‘the machine’ in one election and the Delaware blogger in the other election, my skin is pretty tough.

Q: Very true, but the stakes are a little higher than a local election when we’re talking about Congress.

A: Of course they are, but when (the incumbent) makes $175,000 a year and doesn’t do anything for it, of course the stakes are very high. It comes down to service.

Q: So, let’s look at the matchup. You are going to run on your record and you are going to run on the idea of what you think you can bring to the 1st District that isn’t being brought there now.

A: You don’t vote ‘no’ on the farm bill because you don’t like poor people. That’s what has to be said here.

Q: Are you preparing yourself for a very cantankerous approach and campaign if you decide to run against Congressman Harris?

A: Congressman Harris will make the decision on what kind of campaign we run.

Q: I understand that, but if you look at what Congressman Harris stands for, you are essentially the antithesis of him politically speaking.

A: Fifty bucks right now, I’ll run a commercial that talks about his ‘no’ votes and he’ll run a commercial about my personal life. Every time you hear the word ‘liberal’, every time you hear the word ‘radical’, every time you hear the word ‘gay’. And every time you hear the word ‘police’, it’s because Mr. Harris doesn’t want you to know that he voted against the citizens of Crisfield with his vote for hurricane relief (after Hurricane Sandy). He voted against the farm act, the fact that he voted to take women’s health decisions away from them repeatedly. … 175,000 people in the counties of the 1st district now have health insurance that didn’t have it before. That’s the type of race that I will run, and the type of race that Mr. Harris will run will be the type of race that he ran against Congressman Gilchrest and Congressman Kratovil and they will be nasty and below the belt and beneath what the citizens of this district and this country deserve when people are running for the United States House of Representatives.

Q: So, in knowing that and experiencing how political campaigns can sometimes get off message because of personal attacks and mudslinging, how do you plan to prevail and what do you think will be the deciding factor in the race?

A: Whether or not either one of us wants to be able to sleep after the campaign is over. Mr. Harris will collect his check and if he sleeps well after running the campaigns he’s run in the past, that tells you a lot about him. I will sleep well at the end of this race. But let me be clear when you ask me these questions, I am not scared of him or his money that comes from all across the country from pharmaceutical companies and the Koch brothers. That’s how they play and this is how we play. The question is do we want the country to move forward?

Q: What would the first district look like under your tenure?

A: The first thing that I would do is begin to find out about and work with the emerging technologies that are coming out with what to do with chicken litter. Come on, this is the home of Perdue, this is the Eastern Shore of Maryland: our meat, our starch and our vegetable is chicken. It employs people and it creates a middle class for many people who work for the company. It’s what we do. We feed the world with this, so we have to figure out a way to protect it and protect the bay. We have to come up with that technology because 78 percent of all the bad stuff in the bay is coming from Pennsylvania. So what we have to do is market the technologies that people are coming up with and get that up into Pennsylvania so that we can stop using this issue to divide people. The present Congressman walks into a room of farmers and says ‘those radical people over there hate you, I need your campaign check and then walks out the door.’ Now, that may be what politics is, but I happen to have a loftier goal of what we can accomplish.

Q: How much will you look to a person like state Senator Jim Mathias, a democrat who has consistently won elections in a very “red” region for guidance as you prepare the next step in your political journey?

A: I think for Democrats, a lot of it has to do with our authenticity: ‘I know him, or somebody I know knows him’ or ‘this person helped me when nobody else would.’ I was in Pocomoke and a lady came up to me and said, ‘you know, Jim Mathias helped me when no one else would,’ and you get this sense that it is truly what is in the heart of people like Jim Mathias. I think our biggest problem is turnout. Everyone thinks this is a “red” region, and certainly it’s gerrymandered that way in the state of Maryland and that’s going to go to the Supreme Court of Maryland to see if it stays that way. But, I think in the end its authenticity and turnout.

(Editor’s Note: To listen to the entire conversation, click over to www.mdcoastdispatch.com/podcasts)

About The Author: Bryan Russo

Bryan Russo returned to The Dispatch in 2015 to serve as News Editor after working as a staff writer from 2007-2010 covering the Ocean City news beat. In between, Russo worked as the Coastal Reporter for NPR-member station WAMU 88.5FM in Washington DC and WRAU 88.3 FM on the Delmarva Peninsula. He was the host of a weekly multi-award winning public affairs show “Coastal Connection.” During his five years in public radio, Russo’s work won 19 Associated Press Awards and 2 Edward R. Murrow Awards and was heard on various national programs like NPR’s All Things Considered, Morning Edition, APM’s Marketplace and the BBC. Russo also worked for the Associated Press (Philadelphia Bureau) covering the NHL and the NBA and is a critically acclaimed singer/songwriter and composer.