At a recent candidates’ forum at Morgan State University, moderators Micheline Bowman and Marsha Jews were only partway through their warm-up chatter when Doug Gansler suddenly burst on stage from behind the curtains.
“So we have with us tonight…Oh, no. We didn’t even get to introduce you,” they scolded.
Gansler was shunted off stage for a few minutes as the moderators finished their introductions. Then they brought him back, only to hear him fumbling with adjustments to the podium. “Is this good? How’s this," he asked. "It’s got this little step thing like I’m…so how we doing? Whatever you want. Remember, I don’t work here.”
This silly interlude seemed to encapsulate the qualities that people love and hate about the two-term attorney general who is challenging Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown’s claim for the top job as governor.
At 51, Gansler is ambitious, accomplished and sharp-tongued, yet affable, admirers say. But friends and foes see a man who can be rudely impatient and clueless about the sting of his remarks; a loose cannon who suffers self-inflicted wounds.
“Gansler is going to be someone who is going to take the bull by the horns,” said Delegate Luiz Simmons, another Montgomery County Democrat and kindred spirit of Gansler’s. “The question is: does the public want that? And I don’t know." He added, “if everybody likes you and everybody says you’re a nice guy and everybody says you’re a wonderful person, it’s because you’re not taking a position that offends anybody. And if you’re not doing that, all you’re doing is treading water.”
Gansler has fashioned his career as an outsider taking on the vested interests. As a young lawyer, he successfully challenged the hand-picked successor of a 30-year incumbent—as well as Martin O’Malley’s father--to become State’s Attorney in Montgomery County.
Eight years later, he launched a bid for attorney general before 20-year incumbent Joseph Curran—O’Malley’s father-in-law--announced plans to retire.
Former U. S. Sen. Joseph Tydings, a long-time Gansler mentor, said Maryland’s Democratic leaders did not want Gansler to become attorney general because they resent his independence. “They wanted somebody that would go along,” Tydings said. “You’ve got the same thing today. Why do you think all of the machine of the home state are against him or are for the other candidate? They don’t want the boat rocked in Annapolis.”
During his 16 years as the top legal officer in Montgomery County, and then for the state, Gansler compiled an impressive record. To the county, he brought innovations such as prosecuting crimes by neighborhood rather than by the nature of the offense. He also set up drug courts, gang units, and special units to deal with domestic violence and elder abuse. At that time, Gansler was the only state’s attorney in Maryland’s major jurisdictions to personally take cases into court.
As a candidate for attorney general, Gansler promised to aggressively prosecute polluters and seek innovative ways to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. Despite some high profile cases, the results, he acknowledged, may take years to be seen. “I think we’ve done more certainly than any attorney general has ever done, probably in the country, in terms of our enforcement actions and environmental progress,” Gansler said.
On marriage equality, Attorney General Gansler was a ground-breaker, advising Governor O’Malley in 2010 to recognize same-sex marriages of state employees performed out of state. Some legislators were outraged, Gansler recalled for WYPR’s Dan Rodricks. “They tried to impeach me. My wife was hoping they would be successful so I could get a real job,” he quipped.
Gansler’s years in public service have frequently been fractious. He hit a low point in November 2003, when the Maryland Court of Appeals reprimanded the state’s attorney for comments to the press that could have tainted three pending cases. But Gansler contends the high court’s action was merely payback for his criticism in an earlier case of a Montgomery County judge who let a sex offender off with a light sentence, telling parents of the 11-year-old victim that “it takes two to tango.”
“And so I criticized the judge and so the judges banded together and brought this complaint to the Court of Appeals,” Gansler said. “I was a public official publically reading a public document and they reprimanded me for that. So, it was actually a badge of honor for me.”
Gansler’s criticism of the “tango” judge is now featured in his gubernatorial campaign ads.
As the June 24 primary looms, Gansler has also emerged as the chief Democratic critic of the O’Malley administration. He says it has vastly inflated its accomplishments in education, the environment, and fiscal restraint. Lou Simmons says these complaints need to be heard. “I think that Gansler has the intellectual honesty to look at the data and to follow the numbers wherever they lead,” Simmons said. “I think he is less interested in justifying the status quo than he is in examining the status quo and making responsible changes.”
For front-runner Brown’s competitors in both political parties, the botched health insurance program has been a gift of almost daily ammunition against the lieutenant governor. But a Baltimore Sun poll in February suggests voters are less alarmed by Brown’s role in the health care debacle than they were by a photo of Gansler in the midst of a beach party last summer where teenagers appeared to be drinking.
The attorney general, who stopped by the party to talk to his son, earned particular scorn on social media sites for his contention that breaking up the party was not his job. Also offensive to some voters was a report leaked to the Washington Post in which state police officials complained that Gansler urged his police drivers to turn on sirens and flashing lights in order to speed past traffic on his way to routine appointments. He apologized for backseat driving that made some troopers uncomfortable, but the story was a reminder that Maryland politics can be a blood sport.
It also fostered the narrative that O’Malley has no fondness for Gansler. Remember, he defeated the governor’s father in his first state’s attorney race, and then appeared to have nudged Joe Curran –O’Malley’s father-in-law--into retirement before he was ready.
Gansler says that’s all hogwash. He gets along with O’Malley just fine. But, he added: “obviously, as we come toward the next election, he did what I view to be a relatively unseemly thing, which is to endorse in his own party’s primary for his successor.”
Joe Tydings, now 85 and a run-against-the-grain-guy himself, says Gansler could employ a bit more tact, but he should not shrink from the fight. “I try to keep pushing Gansler because everybody tells him you’re getting too far out in front.” Tydings said. “I’ve always encouraged him because we need people that are willing to get up and rock a few boats if necessary.”
The trick may be to avoid capsizing his own vessel.