He was denounced by Governor-elect Larry Hogan; he was asked by several members of the GOP to break ties with a secessionist organization that has been labeled as a neo-Confederate hate group; he sang “Dixie” at a Southern secessionist conference; and he believes the word of God and the Bible should guide civil law.
And with his election to the Anne Arundel County Council, Michael Anthony Peroutka’s rise to elective government has raised alarm from religious leaders in the county’s Fifth District. Although his power to affect civil law is limited at the county council level, some worry that he will sidetrack council business. His election, some observers say, reflects voter apathy, with turnout in the county at less than 50 percent.
“Certainly as the rabbi of a Reform congregation and therefore one who doesn’t take the Bible word-for-word, to have a person who focuses his attention on the Bible and God’s word as ultimate authority, that is not what I consider to be something which a person in my congregation can accept, regardless of their political affiliation,” said Rabbi Ari Goldstein of Temple Beth Shalom in Arnold. “Not to mention that we certainly have strong, strong aims toward social action and strong aims toward equality; and in the way I have experienced [Peroutka]o this point, I am concerned he does not share those same values.”
Peroutka was elected with 53 percent of the vote in the Nov. 4 election, defeating Democrat Patrick Armstrong for the seat, which represents Severna Park and Arnold.
Susan O’Brien, who managed Armstrong’s losing campaign, still considered the election somewhat of a victory.
“It should have been a slam dunk for the Republicans,” she said, noting that a Democrat hasn’t been elected to the council seat in the historically Republican district in decades. She added that “barely a penny” should have been spent to win this election during the Republican wave that was seen nationwide. According to an Oct. 19 campaign finance report, Peroutka spent $190,000 of his own money on his campaign.
O’Brien said District 5 is “one of the highest educated, wealthiest, whitest districts in the state of Maryland” and a lot of people move there for the schools – four of the state’s top 10 elementary schools are in the district.
“We did our best to make sure people knew the risk and what was at stake with this election,” she said. “When you have such a connection to the public school system that you move … when we try to explain to people that this is a gentleman who’s called public schools a ‘cesspool’ and wants to bring creationism into schools … then they still vote blindly down the ballot for all ‘R.’”
The Peroutka campaign did not respond to requests seeking comment.
Peroutka, a 62-year-old attorney, ran for president in 2004 as a candidate for the Constitution Party, and has called Maryland’s General Assembly “ungodly” because of its legalizing same-sex marriage. According to reports, in October 2013, he referred to the Republican Party as “worthless, Godless, unprincipled conservatism” and told Tea Party activists to withdraw from it, although he joined the GOP this year.
Peroutka is involved with the Tuscaloosa, Ala.-based League of the South, an organization that seeks “to protect the Anglo-Celtic core population and culture of the historic South” by establishing “a free and independent Southern republic,” according to its website. The Southern Poverty Law Center, whose website notes a pro-slavery quote from a League of the South board member, considers it a neo-Confederate hate group.
The newly elected councilman also runs the Pasadena-based Institute on the Constitution.
According to its website, Peroutka believes: “There is a God, the God of the Bible. Our rights come from Him. The purpose of civil government is to secure our God-given rights.” On the day of the election, he posted a column titled “No Jesus, No Rights!”
His candidacy inspired the StopPeroukta.com PAC, which spent $25,000 on brochures, according to a campaign finance report.
A robo-call presumably from the Peroutka campaign told residents to thank Armstrong “for his bravery in coming out of the closet” and supporting the Fairness to All Marylanders Act, which prohibits discrimination based on gender identity. Armstrong, 31, is openly gay.
“Transgenders can now openly and freely go into any bathroom of their choice based on their confused gender identity,” the call said. The number it told residents to call was Armstrong’s mother’s phone number.
Armstrong is an active member of the Anne Arundel Young Democrats and County Democratic Central Committee. He decided to run after David Whitney, a pastor who works with and shares the views of Peroutka, announced his candidacy for the council seat as a Democrat. Armstrong left his job at Party City, where he traveled to struggling stores to help turn them around, to run in the race. O’Brien expects him to return to that job.
The battle between Armstrong and Peroutka had faith leaders who don’t normally endorse or denounce political candidates breaking character. Goldstein said this election may have been the first time he spoke to his congregation about politics in and out of the sanctuary other than conversations about President Barack Obama and his Middle East policy. (Peroutka has said the United States should not be intervening in Israeli affairs.)
At least one Christian leader in the district also got political.
“I did let [congregants] know that one of the candidates in District 5 is a member of the League of the South and held some otherwise extreme views,” said the Rev. Stephen Tillett, pastor at the predominantly African-American Asbury Broadneck United Methodist Church. “He is essentially expecting our civil government to function as an arm of the church.”
While Tillett, who is president of the Annapolis Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, chocks up the election to uninformed voters voting on the party line, he can’t help but remember Anne Arundel County’s checkered past, which includes at least two Ku Klux Klan marches in Annapolis in the 1920s and ‘30s.
“The comported racial history, as Secretary [Condoleezza] Rice termed it, ‘America’s birth defect’ with respect to racism in the U.S., there was unfortunately a strong strain of it in Anne Arundel County,” he said.
He also mentioned the Anne Arundel County Fraternal Order of Police’s donation to the defense fund for Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo.
The $1,070 donation was the largest at the time. With that in mind, Tillett said this piece of recent history, along with Peroutka’s election, indicates “an environment that has racist undertones at the very least.”
“We’re working to overcome that, and there are certainly people in the community of all views who understand that there’s no place for that, but it’s a process and we’ve got a long way to go,” he said.
Goldstein similarly noted some “under-the-curtain” anti-Semitic views in Anne Arundel County, but he thinks Peroutka’s victory can be attributed to uninformed voters and party-line voting.
This troubles O’Brien, who hopes the election is a wake-up call to voters.
“If you can’t get the highest-educated, wealthiest community to wake up, what will we do?” she said.
“Maybe it’ll make people realize that maybe you need to do a Google search for five minutes before you vote for someone.”
One member of Beth Shalom who considers himself Republican and conservative, said Peroutka’s power to employ his views as a councilman will be very limited.
“Some of the things he believes in are really irrelevant on the local level,” said Dave Fox, who added that he did not vote for Peroutka.
“At this point he just needs to care for the people of his district,” said Tillett.
Marc Shapiro is senior reporter for WJW’s sister publication, the Baltimore Jewish Times.