Maryland’s Republican candidates for attorney general represent opposite wings of the party

Published on: July 08, 2022 6:00 AM EDT|Updated on: July 12, 2022 8:51 PM EDT

From left: Michael Peroutka and Jim Shalleck, Republican candidates for Attorney General.

Maryland’s Republican primary for attorney general features a retired Montgomery County lawyer who once prosecuted the serial killer known as the Son of Sam running against a former third-party presidential candidate from Anne Arundel County with ties to a white supremacist organization that has advocated for a second Southern secession.

These contrasting resumes, symptomatic of Maryland Republicans’ split between party members inspired by former President Donald Trump and the center-right represented by Gov. Larry Hogan, is even more consequential this year: the first time in at least a century that all three of Maryland’s top executive offices — governor, comptroller and state attorney general — do not have an incumbent running for reelection.

The position has become more important in a polarized political era. Attorneys general in recent years have fought legal battles not only against the federal government, but also their own state executive. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued the Biden administration to block airport mask mandates in February, while Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh sued the Trump administration over violations of the emoluments clause in 2017.

Frosh and Hogan have also disagreed about state legal issues the past eight years, such as when Frosh declined to represent the administration in a lawsuit challenging Hogan’s decision to end expanded unemployment benefits early.

And Maryland’s next attorney general could have considerable influence on a brand new governor and administration.

The candidate who is nominated will have an uphill battle: Maryland has not elected a Republican attorney general since 1919 (a Republican was appointed to the position in 1952).

Melissa Deckman, a political science professor at Washington College in Chestertown, sees moderation as the key for any successful Republican in Maryland.

“Larry Hogan has been very successful … he is pretty moderate,” she said, “[and] he’s tended to avoid social issues during his tenure.” This, she believes, will need to be a part of the winning formula for any Republican in the Old Line State.

One of the candidates has decisively eschewed this approach throughout his career. Michael Peroutka is representative of the shift in the mainstream American conservative party since the tea party movement of the early 2010s.

In 2004, Peroutka ran for president on the Constitution Party ticket, and was largely seen as a sideshow. The debt collection attorney ran on a platform headlined “Honor God, Defend the Family, Restore the Republic” that The Baltimore Sun reported was “bordering on naivete”; the Washington Post consigned him a longshot at the “fringes of U.S. politics.”

Peroutka tallied just 143,630 votes.

Peroutka would leave the Constitution Party in 2006 over what he saw as a too-permissive stance on abortion, according to his writing at the time, eventually winning a seat on the Anne Arundel County Council in 2014 as a Republican.

Peroutka, 75, has been a member of the League of the South, which the Southern Poverty Law Center says has secessionist, white supremist goals, and once sang “Dixie” — asking the audience to “stand for the national anthem” — at a 2012 League of the South conference. Peroutka told representatives of the Maryland State Bar Association in a March 16 interview that public education was started by “socialists” to “indoctrinate [children] away from the values of their parents.”

Where once he only felt his views were properly represented by a party whose registered members have never topped half a million nationally, Peroutka now feels at home enough in the GOP to seek statewide office on their ticket.

Deckman, who has studied Republican women and politically active evangelical Christians, doesn’t think Peroutka’s tack to the far right is a winning strategy for him or any statewide candidate.

“That kind of puts [him] in the Christian nationalist camp,” Deckman said, “and I think that that is something that just will not be successful in the general election.”

Jim Shalleck, Peroutka’s opponent in the primary, feels similarly.

“I don’t accept the philosophy of this group [League of the South] that he was a leader of. I’ve got zero tolerance for that,” said Shalleck, 75.

While Shalleck said he was only commenting on what he has seen reported in the media, he expects that Peroutka will have to answer to the voting public for these ties.

Shalleck’s resume is more in line with what Maryland voters have come to expect from their Republican candidates.

He spent decades as a prosecutor — first for the state of New York, then the federal Department of Justice — on assignments ranging from white-collar crime to homicide.

“I know the sound a mother makes when she learns her child has been murdered,” Shalleck said in a campaign video. After a sweeping prosecutorial career that included leading the case against David Berkowitz, better known as the “Son of Sam,” Shalleck has kept a private legal practice in Montgomery County since 1994.

Shalleck’s platform is laser-focused on crime in a desire to move away from the politicization of many state attorneys general.

“All these theorists talk about crime being caused by housing and education and poverty,” Shalleck said. “Yes, that may be true, but that’s not the job of the attorney general … [it’s] to get the worst of the worst, and the worst repeat offenders, off the streets for as long as possible.”

Shalleck realizes this may be seen as draconian by voters who support the decision of some state’s attorneys to stop prosecuting nonviolent offenders. He brushes these concerns off with a familiar adage: “If you don’t like it, don’t vote for me.”

Peroutka, who declined to comment to The Baltimore Banner, has a platform that is less clear. His campaign has no website or social media presence, and he has made precious few media appearances.

When former state senator Bobby Zirkin asked him in the March Maryland Bar Association interview how he would reconcile his personal beliefs with his duties to uphold Maryland law, Peroutka said, “There are two standards to determine whether something is lawful, whether it meets the constitutional limitations of government, and whether it’s … harmonious with God’s law.”

He used this reasoning to justify his refusal to enforce Maryland’s statutes on abortion and same-sex marriage, among others, should he be elected in November.

Shalleck, by contrast, is unequivocal.

“I think I have an obligation to support what the elected [legislative] representatives do — and same with the governor,” he said. This reasoning is the same, he said, whether his position is resuming prosecution of nonviolent marijuana-related offenses or enforcing Gov. Larry Hogan’s ban on companies that have supported boycotting, divesting from and sanctioning Israel from bidding on state contracts.

“It’s not up to the attorney general to decide which laws and orders to enforce,” he said.

Will general election voters want an attorney general that helps or hinders a new statewide administration? This question plays into the decisions of many Republican primary voters, said Brian Griffiths, CEO of The Duckpin, a right-of-center blog where he writes commentary on, and analysis of, Maryland politics.

He is proudly putting his full support behind Shalleck, saying, “I know many Republicans who would rather leave the AG line blank or write somebody in than vote for somebody with Peroutka’s troubling views and background.”

Jon Meltzer is a Maryland-based freelance writer.