ELKTON — It’s August, which means that most state legislators are back at their private careers, spending time with their families, attending political conferences, or making appearances at largely low-key events around their districts.
For State Senate Minority Whip Stephen Hershey Jr., R-36-Upper Shore, however, it’s been a very different time as his comments on racism and gun violence in the wake of massacres in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, have drawn widespread attention in Maryland.
He was in Nashville, Tenn., attending the National Conference of State Legislatures convention when he learned of the two shootings across the U.S. on Aug. 3 and 4. Less than 10 hours after the Dayton massacre ended, Hershey sent out the first tweet to grab headlines.
“I’m done with the thoughts and prayers. I’m done with the phony outrage from scores of politicians. I’m angry. I’m horrified. I’m devastated. Our American culture is suffering. Let’s call this what it is: A white nationalist committed an act of terrorism,” he wrote.
A few hours later, Hershey followed up his initial tweet, writing, “How many more times are we going to use ‘mental illness’ as the standard response to a mass shooting? That crutch has been worn thin. Here’s what happened in #ElPaso: A guy drove hundreds of miles and committed an act of terrorism. This guy is a hateful white nationalist. Period.
“Why are so many politicians afraid to call a spade a spade? White supremacy & white nationalism is on the rise in America. And now it has manifested into mass shootings. A pattern becomes a data point. We know the who, the what & the why; we have to prevent the next when & where.”
It wasn’t exactly a speech that the public hasn’t heard from a politician before, but what made it unique is that Hershey is the second-highest ranking Republican in the State Senate and represents a largely rural district, encompassing Cecil, Kent, Queen Anne’s and Caroline counties, that overwhelmingly backed President Donald Trump in 2016.
A day later, Hershey wasn’t backing down from his initial frustrations though, tweeting directly at the president to implore him to tackle the issues at hand.
“Mr. President: The El Paso gunman is a wicked man. He’s also a terrorist and a he’s a white nationalist. The first step in solving any problem is admitting that we have one. We have a white nationalist and white supremacy problem in America. Call it out, @realDonaldTrump,” Hershey wrote.
Earlier in the day, Trump targeted the media for blame in mass shootings, writing, “The Media has a big responsibility to life and safety in our Country. Fake News has contributed greatly to the anger and rage that has built up over many years. News coverage has got to start being fair, balanced and unbiased, or these terrible problems will only get worse!”
To that, Hershey responded that “Politicians have a ‘big responsibility’ not to pass the buck. Unfair media coverage isn’t the culprit of mass shootings.”
Nearly 48 hours after his first public comments, Hershey was beginning to draw interest from the media in discussing his thoughts. Following conversations with WBAL radio and a Maryland news website, he began to receive more praise and scorn.
Republican Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford wrote on Twitter to him, “Thank you Steve! The FBI shutdown the Klan in the ‘70s they can do this to these groups now.”
Meanwhile, Democratic Baltimore County Del. Clarence Lam tweeted, “Thanks to my Republican colleague @SenatorHershey of MD’s Eastern Shore for standing up: “I’m done with the thoughts and prayers … Let’s call this what it is: A white nationalist committed an act of terrorism.” As the Minority Whip, he is putting meaning in the word LEADERSHIP.”
It hasn’t all been praise for Hershey though, as he’s been enduring a backlash from some conservatives who believe he is kowtowing to the demands of gun control activists.
“Tell Senator Hershey that you refuse to give an inch to the far-leftists that want to take your 2nd Amendment rights! Tell him you demand that he opposes any future gun control measures,” the Maryland Campaign for Liberty, a conservative advocacy group, wrote on Facebook along with a picture of the legislator.
Hershey also tweeted out screenshots of social media responses that railed against his comments and questioned his loyalty to the Republican Party.
“A few days ago I called out white supremacy. Now, apparently, that makes me a ‘RINO’ (Republican In Name Only) in the eyes of some. This is what I was talking about — the toxicity of politics,” he tweeted. “To some of my Republican friends attacking me today for my recent comments on gun violence and its causes: I’m going to work with you, too, to ensure your families are safe from gun violence. I’m going to continue to fight for all responsible gun owners.”
“Why is it that when a Republican like myself — a proud conservative, a small businessman, middle-class guy — speaks out on gun violence and cultural corrosion, some of these hard partisans begin to assume I’ve transformed into a ‘leftwing agent?’ Thats nuts,” he tweeted. “We cannot allow our political system to be co-opted by irrational partisan hacks. There is nothing more American than putting aside partisanship and working with people — not political parties — to end mass shootings. We’ve got to get past the politics and work together.”
Hershey is no political novice, having served three years in the House of Delegates from 2010-13 before being appointed by then-Gov. Martin O’Malley to fill a vacant Senate seat. In 2014 and 2018, he was easily re-elected in District 36 where Republicans outnumber Democrats.
But with such a pointed backlash from many conservatives in a district that backed Trump by a nearly 2-1 ratio, it’s worth considering the impact of Hershey’s comments.
Todd Eberly, a leading political scientist in Maryland and an associate professor at St. Mary’s College, said in an interview that it was an interesting conversation to watch in the past week.
“First and foremost, you just have to stand back and marvel at this. You have a politician who has condemned white nationalism and yet we are discussing whether he may be vulnerable to not being re-elected,” he said. “Who would have predicted this 10 years ago? But here we are.”
Eberly noted that social media, often with falsely perceived information, can drive critics following mass shootings.
“For some crazy reason, many believe that if you condemn white nationalism then you support a national gun confiscation registry,” he said. “That’s how polarized our politics has become.”
Despite those critics, Eberly doesn’t believe that Hershey will suffer much of a political hit from the comments, particularly because he hasn’t backed a proposal that would directly oppose the party ethos.
“For someone to challenge him, the question is what is the challenge predicated on? Opposing white nationalism?” he said. “It’s hard to imagine a challenge on these comments alone, without a vote or policy to tie to him.”
Close to Home
In an interview Tuesday, Hershey said he was thinking about the shooting at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis that killed five and the shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival — Hershey had worked in Gilroy, Calif., for more than a year developing a shopping center — that killed three, when he made his comments.
“How desensitized are we to these attacks of domestic terror?,” he said. “We need to stand up and take a look at gun ownership and how we can safeguard against future tragedies. We can only address these things if we talk about them.”
While he has received his fair share of criticism, Hershey said he’s been touched by the many who have reached out by social media, text, phone or in person to encourage him.
“I had an official from a county in Maryland approach me at the conference in Tennessee and say, ‘I just wanted to say thank for taking that position and taking that stance against gun violence,’” he said. “And that really meant a lot to me.”
It was Hershey’s comments in a radio interview that in order to pass legislation, politicians need to come to “middle of this (issue)” that particularly inflamed conservatives though.
A few Republican state senators were concerned that such comments from a caucus leader would represent all of the members and Hershey has tried to emphasize that the comments are his thoughts only, he said. At the same time, he said he’s heard from other Republicans who were glad he spoke out.
Hershey said that he remains committed to the Second Amendment and responsible gun ownership, despite what some may think, but he also believes that many gun owners’ opinions are changing on what restrictions are acceptable.
“There are many different subcultures of gun owners and I believe the vast majority want to address this too,” he said. “The responsible gun owners want to make sure that guns don’t end up in the hands of the wrong person.”
On Tuesday, State Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings, R-7-Harford, said that he was “proud that Steve said what he felt and had the courage to do so.”
“The way that Steve and I run our caucus, we feel that every senator can speak their mind,” Jennings said. “We’re not toeing the party line on every issue, we’re doing what we feel is in Maryland’s best interest. There is no retribution from our side of the aisle.”
Jennings said he agreed with “some of what (Hershey) said,” but added that he believes mental illness is a component that is going unaddressed.
“Sane people do not go and commit mass murder,” he said, noting that with dwindling health care resources in many areas it can be more difficult for families to get help for at-risk members.
When asked if he believed legislation in reaction to the latest mass shootings may come up in the 2020 General Assembly, which is nearly five months away, he said he believed it would.
“Like anything, time does fade, but I do think it will come up,” he said. “After Parkland, I remember that, as a parent with kids in school, I got up the next day and I was sick to my stomach. I went to the Senate president and said, ‘Mr. President, we are in the position to do something,’ and we were able to do something, passing a bill that required armed resource officers at state schools.”
What a bill may be in 2020 is a different matter though, as Eberly, the political science professor, noted.
“It’s hard to see what the legislation would be because Maryland already has fairly strict gun control laws and a ‘red flag’ law that’s being discussed in Congress now,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine what even a moderate Republican could back in Maryland in terms of gun control that hasn’t already been done.”
But Jennings noted that there is more to the equation that just potential firearm restrictions.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a discussion on guns, it could be about mental illness,” he said. “And if we’re going to talk about mass shootings, we also have to look at all of the killings in Baltimore, where last year more people were killed than in all of the mass shootings combined.”