Acting Wicomico Co. Exec John Psota defeated by teacher Julie Giordano in bid for full term

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Acting Wicomico County Executive John D. Psota — appointed on an interim basis to fill the position following the July 2020 death of County Executive Robert “Bob” Culver — has fallen short in his bid to win election to a full term in the job.

Final results certified by the county’s Board of Elections show Julie Giordano — a 40-year-old teacher in the Wicomico County Public Schools and local Republican activist making her first run for elected office — defeating Psota for the GOP county executive nomination by 3,774 to 3,495 votes in the July 19 primary, 52% to 48%.

In November, Giordano will face Wicomico County Councilmember Ernest F. Davis, 59, who is currently the council’s vice president and was unopposed for the Democratic nomination for executive. Muir W. Boda, vice president of the Salisbury City Council, is running on the Libertarian Party line.

In a Twitter post, Giordano said Psota had called her after the vote was certified to concede. “I really appreciate his phone call and a hard fought campaign,” said Giordano, adding, “I hope we can work together to reach the common goal of bringing active local leadership to our county.”

Psota — who had been named as the county’s director of administration shortly before Culver’s death — received more votes than Giordano during the pre-primary early voting period, as well as from mail ballots tallied following the primary. But Giordano’s 279-vote margin of victory was produced by the turnout on Primary Day itself, during which she bested Psota by nearly 500 votes.

Giordano, an outspoken social conservative on issues ranging from gun control to education policy, appears to have been boosted by her endorsement of controversial Del. Dan Cox for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. Giordano shared some campaign advertising with Cox, who appeared in Salisbury with Giordano during early voting, the Salisbury Independent reported.

In Wicomico County returns, Cox — who was endorsed by former President Donald Trump — came out far ahead of Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan’s choice for the gubernatorial nomination, Kelly Schulz. Cox received 4,517 votes to 2,433 votes for Schulz in Wicomico, a 62% to 33.4% margin — and a significantly greater spread than the 52.1% to 43.4% primary victory that Cox scored over Schulz statewide.

By the same token, Giordano’s political embrace of Cox during the primary may provide her with challenges during the general election campaign — given the split among the so-called Trump and Hogan wings of Maryland GOP. Add that to the fact that Democrats enjoy an edge among registered voters in Wicomico, even if the county has been seen as tilting Republican in recent years.

According to the State Board of Elections website, Democrats had a registration advantage of more than 3,000 — 26,943 to 23,922 Republicans — as of the end of June in Wicomico County. Another 13,500 Wicomico voters are unaffiliated with any political party.

Giordano sought to tiptoe through this potential political minefield during a candidate forum sponsored by Salisbury University’s Institute for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement in May, two months prior to the primary.

Asked about her endorsement of Cox and the latter’s unsuccessful attempt to impeach Gov. Larry Hogan (R) earlier this year – arising from Cox’s objections to Hogan-imposed mandates at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic — Giordano said she was supporting Cox because “he stands for a lot of the things that I stand for,” while quickly adding: “I didn’t really love the impeachment of Hogan. I found that it was a little ridiculous.”

She went on to pledge at the time: “If it’s Kelly Schulz, that’s fine. I’ll be knocking on every door for Kelly Schulz if Dan doesn’t win.”

Schulz held two cabinet positions in the Hogan administration. A day before the July 19 primary, Giordano announced she would name another Hogan administration official, Bunky Luffman, as her director of administration — the No. 2 position in the executive branch of county government — if she is elected. Luffman, currently director of legislative and constituent services at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, was the Eastern Shore field director for Hogan’s 2018 re-election campaign.

Giordano and Davis will be vying for the leadership of a jurisdiction that, with 106,000 residents, is the largest county on the Eastern Shore, with nearly one-third of that population — about 33,000 — living in the rapidly growing city of Salisbury.

The Salisbury business community was largely behind Psota during the primary, according to local insiders, and is now expected to shift its support to Davis — a Salisbury resident and small business owner who has crafted a reputation as a low-key politician during two terms on the County Council.

When the executive candidates were asked about their strengths and weaknesses at the May candidate forum, Davis replied: “My weakness is that I’m going to talk short. I’m going to tell you what I’ve got to say, and that’s it.”

At the same time, Davis — who is Black and the only minority group member on the seven-person county council — vowed: “I’m going to be the cheerleader. As long as the county’s running, you’ll see me out promoting the county.

“This county does not promote what this county has to offer,” declared Davis, noting that Wicomico has the state’s second largest airport and seaport within its borders.

Giordano — a resident of the town of Hebron a few miles northwest of Salisbury — faced one former Maryland state trooper, Psota, in the primary, and now faces another, Davis, in the general election. She has reached out actively to law enforcement, and Monday released a letter from the president of Wicomico County Lodge #111 of the Fraternal Order of Police saying that “in a recent poll, the membership voted unanimously” to support Giordano.

Psota, who has continued to serve as the county’s director of administration while also acting as county executive for the past two years, was elevated to the latter post by the county council after a weeks-long standoff over who should get the job following Culver’s death from cancer.

The early frontrunner for the appointment, Del. Carl L. Anderton Jr. (R), was blocked by a 4-3 vote of the county council — with three Republicans and one Democrat, Davis, providing the votes against Anderton.

None of the four council members offered public explanations — during that episode or since — on their decision to oppose Anderton’s appointment. However, multiple sources have indicated that Anderton — a former mayor of the town of Delmar, just north of Salisbury — had upset some fellow Republicans due to working relationships with Salisbury Mayor Jacob “Jake” Day and other Democrats.

For his part, Anderton, who in February decided to seek re-election to the House of Delegates after nearly 18 months mulling a run for executive, has publicly suggested that Davis’ opposition two years ago came because Davis was eyeing the job for himself.

“We’ve seen one of the folks who voted against me is running for executive, so now I understand that vote more clearly,” Anderton said earlier this year after Davis announced, adding with a chuckle, “I wouldn’t want to run against me, either.”

The 59-year-old Psota spent a portion of his 25 years with the Maryland State Police in administrative positions, and then was city manager of Fruitland — just south of Salisbury — before moving to his post in county government. But this was his first time seeking elected office, and observers said his discomfort at being out in front showed — and hindered his candidacy.

Psota himself acknowledged as much in responding to a question at the May candidates’ forum.

“I quite frankly am not a politician,” he said, adding: “Unfortunately, this position is an executive position that you have to be elected for. I don’t do well in the politics end of it.”

This article was written by WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters and republished with permission. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

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