Gansler’s controversy could distract from his unorthodox views in Md. governor’s race

Correction: An earlier version of this column said inaccurately that Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler said 70 percent or more of Baltimore City school graduates needed remedial help in English or reading. This column has been revised to show that Gansler in fact said the graduates needed such help in English or math.

Columnist October 23, 2013

It would be a shame if Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler’s reckless back-seat driving and cocksure style killed his bid for governor so quickly that he missed a chance to rattle the complacency of the state’s Democratic establishment.

Gansler’s challenge to Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown for the party’s gubernatorial nomination in 2014 offers the best opportunity in years to force the Democrats to deal seriously with questions about taxes, spending and schools that Maryland typically brushes aside.

Robert McCartney is The Post’s senior regional correspondent, covering politics and policy in the greater Washington, D.C area. View Archive

The feisty attorney general, who prides himself on winning elections as an outsider, is openly espousing what amounts to heresy for the state’s Democrats. High taxes are driving jobs to Virginia! Government spending needs more oversight! Baltimore City schools are so bad you wouldn’t wish them on your worst enemy!

“Virginia has a billion dollars they’re putting in a rainy day fund. Our legislators go to Annapolis every year, and we have a billion-dollar deficit. There’s a lot that needs to be done on the fiscal side,” Gansler told me in an interview Tuesday.

I don’t agree with everything he says, but I certainly welcome the robust debate he proposes. Such a discussion has an impact in Maryland only if it takes place within the Democratic Party. The state GOP is so weak that it borders on irrelevance.

Unfortunately, Gansler hasn’t been generating attention recently for his views. Instead, he’s been in the news for credible allegations that he behaved like an irresponsible jerk toward state troopers assigned to drive him.

According to The Post scoop, Maryland State Police said in written accounts that Gansler directed his drivers to speed, run red lights and bypass traffic jams by using the shoulder.

Gansler didn’t handle the controversy well. He tried to deny he had done anything wrong, saying he technically didn’t have authority to give orders to the troopers. But does anybody believe a state trooper wouldn’t feel pressured by requests from the state’s top law enforcement official?

Then Gansler dug his hole deeper by portraying the story as a sleazy political plot staged in part by a police official whom he labeled a “henchman” of his enemies in Annapolis. That prompted the state police to issue a news release calling his comments “unseemly and unacceptable.”

Gansler was defiant when I asked him about the “henchman” remark. He said his only regret was giving the news media the chance to do the reckless driving story again.

Such stubborn bravado doesn’t work well in the middle of a scandal. On the other hand, the same spirit drives his audacious criticism of the Democrats’ stewardship of the state under Gov. Martin O’Malley, who is supporting Brown.

“Over the last seven or eight years, they’ve raised 40 taxes in a row and 32 fees,” Gansler said. “Not a day goes by where I don’t meet somebody from a business — small, medium or large — who’s either left, or thinking about leaving, or is going to leave our state. And they go to Virginia, which is why Virginia is so economically solvent.”

He’s urging a cut in the corporate income tax to create jobs, along with more state support for the biotech, cybersecurity and manufacturing industries. He says more transparency in state spending could save 5 percent of $18 billion a year in procurement and contracting. He criticizes the Democrats for being too cozy with plaintiffs’ attorneys and teachers unions.

Gansler faulted Maryland schools for what he said was the nation’s second widest minority achievement gap. He said 70 percent or more of Baltimore City school graduates needed remedial help in English or math.

“How is that sustainable? You wouldn’t send your worst enemy’s child to these schools,” he said.

Gansler knows he’s up against a powerful political operation. With the primary still eight months away, Brown has lined up endorsements from top Maryland officials including O’Malley, who is term-limited; state House Speaker Mike Busch (Anne Arundel); state Senate President Mike Miller (Calvert); Sen. Barbara Mikulski; and Rep. Steny Hoyer.

Gansler claims to be unfazed, saying he ran successfully as an insurgent in 1998 for Montgomery County state’s attorney and in 2006 for attorney general. He is much better financed than a typical outsider, benefiting partly from affluent supporters in his base in Montgomery.

“It is true that [Brown] has gotten six or seven or eight entrenched Democratic politicians to endorse him. I will go and knock on six or seven doors on my block, and then we’ll be tied,” Gansler said.

Gansler is on target to the extent that he nudges Democrats out of their comfort zone. But he needs to tone down the self-righteous pride lest it get in the way of his message.

I discuss local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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