By Van Smith
Published by City Paper, July 30, 2014
Anne Arundel County’s Fifth Councilmanic District is the whitest, most educated, and richest of the county’s seven districts, and its voters lean heavily in favor of Republicans. If that pattern holds true in November’s general election for the council seat, the district’s 75,000 residents — 87 percent white, 97 percent with a high-school diploma, and about half with a college degree or higher, and with a median household income of $111,000, higher than any Maryland county — will be turning for constituent services and leadership on local issues to the GOP candidate, Michael Peroutka.
Peroutka, a highly successful debt-collection attorney whose brother and law partner Stephen Peroutka is a board member of the Babe Ruth Museum, also is white, smart, and rich, but it’s doubtful that many of his potential constituents have used their advantages in the way he long has: to advance a militant theocratic agenda.
A decade ago, Peroutka already had a record of supporting the formation of local militias when he ran for U.S. president under the Constitution Party banner, with a campaign slogan — “God-Family-Republic” — that dressed up his extremism with rhetoric that run-of-the-mill patriotic Christians might find innocuously attractive. Similarly, the name of Peroutka’s Institute on the Constitution (IOTC) fails to communicate its actual mission: creating theocratic governance based on both testaments of the Bible, similar to how extremist Muslims would like to establish states based on sharia law derived from the Quran.
Peroutka has now hit on a more pragmatic approach: run for something winnable, like a local race where the outcome is relatively malleable for someone like Peroutka, whose fundraising capabilities are virtually limitless within the usual legal constraints. He has more than a quarter-million dollars in his campaign chest as of late June, and surely much more has come in since. Top supporters include Roy Moore, the Bible-thumping chief judge of the Alabama Supreme Court who believes the separation of church and state is an attack on Christianity and to whom Peroutka has dedicated a field and monument at his 40-acre Prince George’s County property called Gladway Farm; prominent Christian evangelical lawyers William Olson and Herbert Titus, a former Constitution Party vice-presidential candidate; and ex-con Franklin Sanders, a Tennessee metals-trader with secessionist sympathies.
Peroutka’s campaign treasurer is Tom Pavlinic, a sex-crimes defense attorney who specializes in defending clients accused by very young victims. Pavlinic was Peroutka’s attorney when he unsuccessfully sued a social worker who had helped Peroutka’s step-daughters when Peroutka and his then-wife, Diane Peroutka, despite his strongly voiced belief that the state should not be in the parenting business, had placed them in the care of the government’s foster-care system after one of them had accused Peroutka of sexual abuse and then recanted.
Though the Fifth District is a pretty solid GOP stronghold, most of its voters recently came out in support of something that Peroutka is stridently against: same-sex marriage. When the Maryland General Assembly in 2012 passed the law extending the right to marry to same-sex couples, Peroutka reacted by stating that “no earthly government body can redefine marriage any more than it can redefine the law of gravity” and that therefore “there is no reason to consider this a valid legislature or this a legitimate governor. Other than fear, I can think of no reason to further obey their dictates.” Yet when the law went up for referendum that fall, nearly 55 percent of the Fifth District’s voters supported it. Only in four of the district’s 34 precincts, clustered in its far northern reaches near where Peroutka lives in Millersville, did majorities oppose same-sex marriage.
Even if he loses the council race to Democratic contender Patrick Armstrong, Peroutka still won an elected position in the June 24 primary election: he’s now a member of the Republican State Central Committee in his district, making him a leader of the local GOP faithful — whether they like it or not.
And clearly, some of the drivers of mainstream GOP thinking find Peroutka to be a philosophical pariah. In February, when Peroutka’s name was being bandied about as a possible GOP candidate for Maryland attorney general, Mark Newgent penned a blog at Red Maryland pointing out that Peroutka is an avowed Christian Reconstructionist. This God’s-law-reigns-supreme approach was birthed by Rousas Rushdoony, and Newgent summed up its goal: “a civil government whose first duty is to carry out a religious mandate to do what God requires as written in the Old Testament, including executions for adulterers and homosexuals.”
Cato Institute senior fellow Walter Olson has called Peroutka a “wackypants anti-gay crusader,” and on his Free State Notes blog in June he wrote that Peroutka’s IOTC “promotes a deeply erroneous view of the U.S. Constitution as an essentially religious document.” And in pointing out that the man is stridently anti-Republican, Olson quoted a Peroutka screed from last fall imploring “anyone, including those who identify with the ‘Tea Party,’ who loves America and desires real reform” to “disengage themselves from the Republican Party and their brand of worthless, Godless, unprincipled conservatism.”
In 2012, Peroutka, a prodigious donor to deeply conservative causes, gave $10,000 to the Maryland Marriage Alliance, which was working to defeat marriage-equality referendum question that ultimately passed muster with the voters. The donation drew the attention of the Human Rights Campaign, a pro-marriage-equality group, which promptly broadcast Peroutka’s strong ties to the League of the South, a Southern secessionist outfit that the Southern Poverty Law Center labels a racist hate group. Today, Peroutka’s ties to the League have become a serious concern for Maryland GOP leaders, including gubernatorial candidate Larry Hogan, who disavowed Peroutka after the campaign of his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, played up Peroutka’s extremism.
On July 30, Peroutka held a press conference at a Glen Burnie hotel to try to manage the fallout. He was flanked by two African-American men who support him and his candidacy: Republican state-senate candidate Eric Knowles (who lost in the primary, and has previously run as the Constitution Party’s candidate for governor) and Robert Broadus, who ran as a Republican for U.S. Senate in 2012. Peroutka refused to back down from his support for the League, which he called a “Christian, free-market group,” and, in response to a question, said he’d made no mistake when he sang “I Wish I Was In Dixie” and called it “the national anthem” at a League event in 2012, a YouTube video of which has drawn attention since his primary win. Peroutka sought to cast doubt on the SPLC, referring to “the dangers” of its endeavors, in which he said it engages in “smearing together obvious hatred, such as Neo Nazis or the Klan, with groups,” like the League, “where the SPLC simply doesn’t like their politics.”
Peroutka’s effort to separate the League from neo-Nazis is a blurry endeavor itself, though. As the Huffington Post’s coverage of Peroutka’s press conference pointed out, the YouTube video of Peroutka singing “Dixie” in 2012 “was shot by Michael Cushman, a former member of the National Alliance, a neo-Nazi group, who now leads the League’s South Carolina chapter.”
Newgent, meanwhile, saw all this coming when Peroutka was being discussed as a candidate for attorney general. “Imagine the field day the media, not to mention Democrats, would have” with a Peroutka GOP candidacy, he wrote, adding that it would be an “embarrassment and drag on other candidates.”
Some of the most intelligent analysis of Peroutka, though, is coming from the left.
On Huffington Post, Jonathan Hutson has chronicled Peroutka’s ongoing alliance with the League of the South, and quotes its president, Michael Hill, promoting guerrilla warfare and the deployment of “death squads” to obtain the League’s goals. “The primary targets will not be enemy soldiers,” Hill wrote on July 15. “Instead, they will be political leaders, members of the hostile media, cultural icons, bureaucrats, and other of the managerial elite without whom the engines of tyranny don’t run.”
Political Research Associates‘ Frederick Clarkson, meanwhile, writes that Peroutka’s run, as well as that of the GOP candidate for Anne Arundel County Sheriff, Peroutka and League of the South ally Joseph “Joe” Delimater III, “may signal a small, but significant, national trend in applied theocratic theory.”
Peroutka and his followers and allies “believe that holding local office empowers them to defy state and federal law under the rubric of an ancient concept called The Doctrine of the Lower Civil Magistrate,” Clarkson continues. He explains that this doctrine “has been adopted by conservative Christian leaders who are opposed to religious pluralism and separation of church and state, as well as such matters as abortion, LGBTQ rights, taxes, public education and gun control laws,” saying it empowers them “to overthrow ‘tyrannical government.'”
In an earlier post in June, Clarkson recalls an interview he had with Peroutka donor Titus in 1996, when Titus was running for vice president. Titus “told me at a press conference that lower-level government officials (called ‘lesser magistrates’ in the archaic language of the ideas on which his views are based), may refuse to enforce ungodly laws and policies of the government, and rise up against a government that has become corrupt or tyrannical.”
Given Peroutka’s attraction to militias and overthrowing the government, the highly educated voters of Anne Arundel County’s Fifth District could be forgiven if they worry that his candidacy presents a potential threat to civil society. If they happen to fall into debt that Peroutka’s firm tries to collect, though, they might also worry about his tactics.
Consider the case of Antonietta Serruto, who, after gaining bankruptcy protection in 2012, was still illegally targeted for collection by Peroutka’s firm, which took court action against her in 2013, despite her alerting the firm that the debt they sought to collect had been discharged. She ended up suing the firm (and quickly winning a $20,000 settlement, plus costs, expenses, and attorneys fees), after a processor server showed up at her home, where she lives alone, on Thanksgiving night last fall to pound on her door and demand she “open up,” according to her lawsuit. Serruto “was terrified by the pounding and the demands of the unknown male at her door,” the lawsuit states.
As Peroutka’s county-council campaign continues, gaining the attention it deserves, at least the district’s voters won’t be casting votes for or against an unknown male anymore. He is what he is: an extremist dressed up for mainstream appeal.