WYPR News
9:39 am
Wed June 18, 2014

Undecided Voters Make Md. Attorney General Race Unpredictable

Originally published on Tue June 17, 2014 11:54 am

Lawmakers vie for Maryland Democratic attorney general nomination.

The race to be the next Maryland attorney general has gotten progressively more heated. With the primary just days away and a large swath of voters undecided, three Democrats, all from the legislature, are vying to be the state’s lawyer.

But attorney general is a job that may not be terribly clear. So before the candidates, here’s what it does. If you were to post a job description for the Maryland attorney general, it might start something like this:

“The attorney general represents, as an attorney, all branches of government,” Larry Gibson is a professor at the University of Maryland’s Francis King Carey School of Law. “The attorney general is a lawyer for the governor, lawyer for the general assembly, the lawyer for all state agencies.”

The attorney general defends the state, its employees, and its laws in court. The office plays a key role in protecting the environment and consumers, and tackling anti-trust and civil rights issues.  And since the office is essentially the state’s biggest law firm, this person must have good judgment and good management skills

Oh, and a candidate must be willing to campaign for the job every four years.

“It’s an office that is elected but is expected, after elected, to be fairly non-political,” Gibson says.

But that hasn’t stopped candidates for the office from touting political agendas they’d pursue.

Del. Aisha Braveboy has positioned herself as the defender of civil rights and social justice on issues like foreclosures and education. At a candidates’ debate, Braveboy said the state has failed to adequately fund its historically black colleges and universities, or to protect programs at HBCUs from duplication by other state schools.

“We cannot continue to run a dual system of higher education in our state,” Braveboy told the audience. “It’s wrong, it violates the Civil Rights Act, and as a progressive state, Maryland must and should take the lead. And as attorney general I will counsel the next governor to do so.”

The two-term delegate from Prince George’s county is well-regarded in Annapolis. When the Baltimore Sun endorsed her opponent Brian Frosh, the editors went out of their way to say she has “poise beyond her years.”

But Braveboy is also the greenest of the candidates. She hasn’t raised enough money to run a competitive statewide campaign and she’s dwindled to the single digits in recent polls.

So the competition has really come down to two men: State Sen. Brian Frosh and Del. Jon Cardin.

And no, not the junior Senator from Maryland. That’s Ben Cardin – he’s Jon Cardin’s uncle, though he has thrown his weight behind his nephew’s campaign

“I know that his priorities deal with our children and future generations,” Sen. Cardin told a group of his nephew’s supporters. “He has made that his priority in public service – whether that’s in health care, in education, and particularly as it relates to safety issues.”

The senator made his remarks at Maria’s Sicillian Ristorante in Annapolis at an event where US Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger was to endorse Cardin. Ruppersberger says he endorsed Jon Cardin for his focus on solutions to high-tech problems. 

“We are considered the cyber capital of the world,” Ruppersberger told the crowd. “And the next attorney general will have to deal with a lot of issues on a state wide basis Jon understands the threats of today and the threats of tomorrow.”

This is the crux of Cardin’s campaign message – that he’s the best candidate because he can take on 21st century issues. But his message has been muddied by critics who say he has exhibited poor judgment  -- like when he used a Baltimore police boat and helicopter in a grandiose wedding proposal five years ago.

Cardin’s attendance record during the last legislative session has also sparked controversy. Cardin skipped 75 percent of his committee votes…and then claimed the full amount of a food stipend legislators get for the session. Cardin says he missed the votes for personal reasons, and cleared his absences with his committee chairman.

“My wife was pregnant and going through a rocky first trimester,” Cardin said. And he said he made sure that “none of the votes were effected” by his absence.

Cardin says focusing only on committee votes is spurious political theater. He says he made the vast majority of all the votes taken during this legislative session, which he characterized as the best he’s had. He pointed to legislation banning “revenge porn,” taking on patent trolls and a bill that makes CPR training a requirement for Maryland high school students as some of his victories.

“We had a tremendous year despite people wanting to see me fail,” he said.

Cardin has led in the race since the beginning, and it’s hard to deny that the power of the Cardin name has helped push the Baltimore County delegate to the top of the polls. Cardin says he’s proud of the reputation his uncle has built, but says he’s more than just a name.

“If having a famous last name is something that I have, it’s only given me an opportunity to springboard into my own career and my own reputation,” Cardin says.

Cardin’s chief competitor -- Brian Frosh – has been working to build his own name.

On a recent Saturday, Frosh was at the Waverly Farmers Market, introducing himself to anyone who’ll stop and talk to him. Delegate Curt Anderson – who represents Waverly – is with him to play something of a hype man, telling Baltimoreans perusing produce that this Montgomery County state senator has been a friend to Charm City.

“I’d like to introduce you to Brian Frosh,” he told people as he roped them in to shake hands with Frosh. “He’s running for attorney general”

Frosh is reserved by nature. He says he’d rather be out riding his bike on a sunny Saturday like this – but he says he likes campaigning. Still, in dress pants and a dress shirt, his pitch feels more timid than glad-handing.

But if Frosh seems a bit out of his element here, Curt Anderson says Frosh is absolutely comfortable working on creative solutions to the state’s problems.

“He has a remarkable reputation in the legislature,” Anderson says. “One of the most ethical, one of the brightest lawyers there and fair to both sides.”

Dozens of fellow lawmakers have endorsed Frosh. So has the governor, both living former attorneys general, as well as the major newspapers and pretty much all of the states powerful environmental, labor and progressive organizations.

“When people get to know, when they get to know who I am, get to know what I’ve accomplished, I think that they’ll find that choice is easier one,” Frosh says.

As chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, he’s overseen dozens of key pieces of legislation. He says one of the bills he’s most proud of came at the beginning of his legislative career  – a bill that set up recycling programs across the state. The other was last year’s Firearms Safety Act – one of the strongest gun control laws in the country.

“We were inches away from losing key pieces of that bill, from losing the bill itself,” Frosh recalls. “It was a tough fight all the way through. We walked in onto the senate floor not sure that we the votes and ended up with a couple extra.”

But nearly 30 years in the legislature hasn’t gotten Frosh the level of name recognition he’d need to win his party’s attorney general nomination. He’s raised nearly $1 million, which has allowed him to buy ads that play up his experience and endorsements and undercutting Cardin.

The two have also gone after each other at candidate debates. Cardin accused Frosh of massaging the facts to score political points; Frosh framed Cardin as derelict in his duties and unreliable.

Recent polls show the gap between Frosh and Jon Cardin has shrunk from double to single digits. But St. Mary’s college political science professor Todd Eberly says the Cardin name has proven difficult for Frosh to compete with, and Frosh continues to lag behind.

“On paper, there really is no contest, with regard to who is better prepared and has the experience necessary to be the attorney general,” Eberly said. “But he has just been unable to overcome the power of Cardin name.”

But with some 40 percent of voters are still undecided and turnout is expected to be low, so the race is far from settled.

You can find more of WYPR’s election coverage at wypr.org/elections.

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