Bedrock Beliefs

How polarizing politico Michael Peroutka got elected to the Anne Arundel County Council.

By Peter Crispino - April 2015

Bedrock Beliefs

How polarizing politico Michael Peroutka got elected to the Anne Arundel County Council.

By Peter Crispino - April 2015

Michael Peroutka poses with the fossil casting in his home. -Photography by David Colwell

Michael Peroutka has been called a lot of things: a racist, a blessing, a secessionist, a scholar, a theocrat, and even a "wackypants anti-gay crusader." All those labels are up for debate. But one thing that can be said for sure: Michael Peroutka is the first Anne Arundel County Councilman ever to donate a $1-million Allosaurus named Ebenezer to the Creation Museum. Technically, Ebenezer was a gift on behalf of the Elizabeth Streb Peroutka Foundation—named in honor of his mother—and, to be clear, he's a fossil, not an actual dinosaur. Ebenezer died a long time ago. Just how long, however, is the subject of some debate, as there is a 65-million-year disparity between the creationist theory and that of the scientific community. When Peroutka donated Ebenezer last year, he announced that the 30-foot-long, 10-foot-high T.rex look-alike would serve "as a testament and witness to the word of God."

The fossil, according to the museum, serves as key evidence of the catastrophic flooding of the earth about 4,500 years ago. It also provides valuable insight into Peroutka, his evangelical faith, and his disdain for the theory of evolution. The missing link, however, is what Ebenezer means for Peroutka's new constituents in Severna Park, Arnold, and Broad Neck.

"Some have declared my ideas and principles to be extreme, but they are not extreme," Peroutka said during a debate in the fall. "They are the bedrock principles of our founding. They are our heritage."

Peroutka is not just an ardent creationist. He is also a Republican. That's how he emerged victorious in a primary for the council seat last June, defeating runner-up Greater Severna Park Council president Maureen Carr-York, by 38 votes in a race in which more than 7,100 ballots were cast. But he registered as a Republican just weeks before filing to run for the seat, and six weeks after winning the primary he wrote, "If we want something different, it seems to me we need to stop electing conservatives—they are only yesterday's liberals."

"In my opinion, he's not truly a Republican," says Amy Leahy, a Severna Park resident and staunch Republican, who chose not to vote rather than pick between Peroutka and his Democratic opponent. "I had a very hard time with the process. . . . I couldn't bring myself to vote for either one."

Peroutka is also the only Anne Arundel County councilman to run for President of the United States. The Constitution Party, which believes the nation was founded on the basis of the Bible, chose him as its candidate in 2004. Listen to Peroutka deliver a speech and it's easy to see why. The councilman speaks with a professorial eloquence—the byproduct of 30 years practicing law. He's warm, and his words are steeped in self-deprecating charm and aw-shucks humility.

"Of all the people I've met in the conservative movement, Michael is amongst the friendliest, warmest, and the most willing to go the extra mile," explains Steve Deace, the host of a nationally syndicated radio show on which Peroutka had a recurring segment called "Constitution Weekly."

"Some have declared my ideas to be extreme, but they are not extreme."

During his presidential run, Peroutka pledged to restore America's biblical principles and reel in the federal government. He vowed to abolish the IRS, ban women from the armed forces, and shut down the Department of Education.

"Our public schools are a cesspool of politically correct, condom-dispensing, sodomy-promoting sewage that calls itself education," he wrote on his presidential campaign blog at the time.

Peroutka's name appeared on the ballot in 36 states and he garnered 143,630 votes, or .12 percent of the popular vote, finishing fifth, ahead the Green Party candidate. A framed "Peroutka 2004" T-shirt still hangs prominently in his Pasadena office.

Even in casual conversation, Peroutka, 62, is effortlessly dignified in his demeanor and thoughtful as he chooses each word. Tall, stocky, and neatly dressed, he shares Joe Biden's ability to be both stately and unpretentious, though it is likely their only shared trait.

A native of Baltimore County, Peroutka was an altar boy and graduated from Towson Catholic and Loyola University, where he played striker for the Greyhounds soccer team alongside his younger brother Stephen. The two went on to law school at the University of Baltimore and eventually worked together at a Pasadena law firm.

They also founded the Institute on the Constitution in 2000 as a way to explore the documents and the principles that guided them—and to help others do the same.

"Even though people give lip service to the Constitution, nobody's read it," Peroutka says. "I think people are very hungry for a restoration of those principles."

Those principles, according to the Institute, are explicitly Christian. The separation of church and state, to oversimplify the course's teaching, has been misconstrued and used to keep God out of modern government.

Author and speaker Ricki Pepin has taught Constitution classes for nearly two decades and joined the Institute in 2009. Like Peroutka, she travels the country spreading the group's message, and occasionally runs into strong opposition from school districts and other groups.

"People are so offended, and it's almost laughable because the Christian content that we're bringing in is what the founding fathers wrote," she says. "It's not what I said, it's not what Michael said—it's what is in the Constitution."

Fifteen years after the Institute's first class, Peroutka estimates that courses have been used in all 50 states to teach tens of thousands of people.

"We're not trying to turn back the clock a couple-hundred years," he says, "but we're trying to restore an order, a way of thinking, that has been lost."

In his commentary on the Institute's website, Peroutka attributes the culture's corrosion to a range of factors, such as same-sex marriage, political correctness, and multiculturalism.

Peroutka's strongest criticism is usually reserved for public schools, which he refers to as "indoctrination centers."

So how did a politician with such polarizing beliefs end up on the Anne Arundel County Council? He did it the old-fashioned way: by focusing on taxes. Backed by his wife, Natalie, his Institute on the Constitution supporters, and a legion of national conservatives leftover from his presidential run, Peroutka retired from his law firm after 28 years and aimed for county government.

Running in a strongly conservative district that had not elected a Democrat since the 1980s, Peroutka positioned himself to the right of his primary opponents and correctly wagered that the voters would agree with his small-government ethos. In the wealthiest, most highly educated, and whitest district in the county, Peroutka anchored his campaign on an appeal to overtaxed voters. Campaign signs peppered throughout the district promised to "Repeal the Rain Tax."

He also outspent his opponents and deployed those resources with strategic brilliance, releasing a swarm of ads and robo-calls in the final days of the primary. The late push worked perfectly: He finished third in early voting with less than 25 percent of the popular vote, but soared ahead with 35 percent on election day. At no point in the primary campaign did any of Peroutka's opponents attack him or call attention to his views. They didn't realize he was a real threat until it was too late.

"We're trying to restore an order, a way of thinking, that has been lost."

"It's wholly an embarrassment," says Judy Moylan-Forman, a Democrat in Peroutka's district. "I can't believe people did not really look into the guy. The people running against him didn't do their job. The Republicans let this happen."

In the general election, Peroutka survived his opponent's efforts to paint him as a racist extremist. Patrick Armstrong, an enthusiastic but inexperienced Democrat who left his job at Party City to focus on the race, drew particular attention to Peroutka's affiliation with the League of the South, a Southern nationalist group. Armstrong shined a spotlight on a 2012 YouTube video of Peroutka leading a league conference in the song "Dixie," which Peroutka referred to as "the national anthem."

Peroutka rejected claims that the League of the South was racist, or a hate group, as the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled it, and said the "Dixie" incident was mischaracterized. A week before the election, he informed The Sun that he had left the league.

After another late push, Peroutka won the general election with 53 percent of the popular vote. He was sworn into office on December 1 in Annapolis.

Throughout the campaign, Peroutka rejected attempts to paint him as an extremist, repeatedly calling such claims a "distraction." And, to a certain degree, they were. As a county councilman, Peroutka can't rewrite school district textbooks or impose a ban on same-sex marriage.

"He can say whatever he wants—I won't agree with it," says local resident Leahy. "But by the same token, the position that he's in has no legal impact on what happens in those [larger] issues. But it is a pulpit."

A few months into his term, Peroutka has primarily used his pulpit to urge the council to adhere to proper procedure and give the public time to review bills—not exactly the scandalous agenda his opponents promised.

The councilman has also provided the lone dissenting vote against several bills—including a resolution aimed at curbing tobacco use among minors—on the grounds that they lacked constitutional authority.

"I wonder where the authority comes from for the county to be involved in trying to keep people from using tobacco products. I think that's a family issue," he said during its hearing.

The bill passed, 6-1.

"If the way he's acted to date is any indication of what he's going to do over the next four years, I'm not sure that we have anything to be terribly concerned with," says council chairman Jerry Walker. "There will be some 6-1 votes, but he was elected by the people of Severna Park and he's accountable to them."

Peroutka has been active in his new role since taking office, attending community meetings, speaking with constituents, and handling legislation. In an effort to provide transparency, Peroutka created a 10-question template for explaining his stance on every bill that comes to the council, which he intends to post online after each vote.

For every one of the Institute on the Constitution supporters cheering Peroutka on, there is an equal number of opponents waiting to pounce if he slips. Few local legislators across the country are under so much scrutiny.

"People need to really be aware, and I think a little bit afraid, and speak up. Don't think he's going to go away, because he is not going away," says Moylan-Forman.

When budget deliberations begin in May, his constituents should get a good look at the practical application of his small (nearly non-existent) government philosophy. He has cited such things as Anne Arunel County groups for women, mental-health advocacy, and children's theater as examples of local government overreaching its authority.

"I'm not arguing that these things aren't good things to do," he once told his class at the Institution of the Constitution. "But it [shouldn't be] my authority to do them."

Which begs the question: If a constituent calls him to complain about a pothole, will he tell her that he lacks the proper authority to act on potholes or will he put in a call to the Department of Public Works?

Even more pressing, will he vote to continue funding the new, $134-million Severna Park High School currently under construction? Peroutka himself may not yet be sure.

"I fully intend to do my job to the best of my abilities," he says in his best political speak, which was bookended by pregnant pauses as he carefully considered his words. "I would ask my opponents to wait and see. Let's see how I do."





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