On a map tucked away in Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown’s office, there are 68 red dots — indelible reminders of his time in Iraq.
The document shows Baghdad’s Green Zone, where Brown (D) was stationed nearly a decade ago as a lawyer with the Army Reserve, working with Iraqi officials to help displaced citizens after the U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. Each dot marks a place where a bomb or other explosive detonated during the 10 months he was there, sometimes with deadly consequences.
“It’s kind of a motivator,” said Brown, 52, the front-runner in the race for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in the June 24 primary. “You know, it just reminds you of the sacrifices that people made for a larger cause.”
Brown’s military service — no longer common for politicians — has become central to his campaign, adding a patriotic narrative to a résumé filled with impressive credentials but lacking the high-profile accomplishments that often define rising political stars. His early television ads included footage of him in uniform. An old photograph of him and his young son in fatigues has circulated on social media. Veterans groups offer vocal encouragement, in part because of steps Brown has initiated as lieutenant governor to ease their transition to civilian life in Maryland.
But his focus on long-ago service has also provided fodder for his critics, who ask why Brown does not have more of his own accomplishments to tout from his eight years as lieutenant governor. They criticize his oversight of Maryland’s health-care reform effort, and the online insurance exchange that was riddled with technical glitches from the time of its launch.
“He’s been M.I.A. from our perspective,” said Maryland House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County). “He was a figurehead to take the credit when they anticipated it would be a huge success. It begs the question, who was in charge?”
Brown, who walks with the swagger of the platoon leader he once was and has a reputation for occasionally barking orders, says his time in uniform has shaped him as a person and informed the way he would govern. He believes in the delegation of authority and says he values accurate reporting of information up the chain of command.
With regard to the health exchange, he has said he delegated responsibility for launching the Web site to the health-exchange staff and never received reports from an independent auditor that foreshadowed potential problems.
Analysts say Brown’s military service is bolstering him in a primary in which voters are weighing leadership qualities as well as policy proposals and records. Brown earned a Bronze Star for his efforts in Baghdad and, as a sitting member of the House of Delegates, was among the highest-ranking elected officials in the nation to serve in Iraq.
“That alone is not enough, but it has become a real advantage to run as a veteran,” said Mike Morrill, a longtime Democratic strategist in Maryland. “It speaks to a time when serving the country was something more people did.”
At a recent campaign event, Brown told a group of military veterans that his stint as an active-duty Army helicopter pilot after college was “the best job that I’ve ever had in my entire life.” He is more animated discussing that period than most anything else, including his years representing Prince George’s County in the state legislature and serving as the understudy to Gov. Martin O’Malley (D).
“The military — it’s a very mission-focused organization,” Brown said. “A clear set of values, an understanding of roles and responsibilities, a sense that everybody plays an important role individually and in the larger organization.”
When Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D), Brown’s chief primary opponent, spoke dismissively of Brown’s leadership skills this month, including a reference to his time in Iraq, the episode sparked criticism of Gansler and a burst of sympathy for Brown.
“You know, his ads are about how he was a lawyer in Iraq, and that’s all fine and good, but this is a real job, and we need to have somebody who actually has leadership experience,” Gansler had said. He later explained that his remarks were referring to the failure of Maryland’s health insurance exchange.
VoteVets.org, a national group, pounced on Gansler’s remarks about Brown’s leadership experience and turned the incident into a fundraising appeal for Brown. Even some high-profile Gansler supporters were at a loss to understand why Gansler spoke dismissively about Brown’s military service.
Del. Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. (D), who is chairing Gansler’s campaign in Baltimore, said military service “adds value” to any candidate’s résumé, regardless of party. “You look at the way vets are treated when you go to the airport or a sporting event,” Mitchell said. “People take notice.”
Brown’s military career will end in July, when he reaches the point of mandatory retirement from the reserves.
It began with a false start. He enrolled at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point the summer after graduating from high school in 1979 but left two weeks into the academic year.
It was “too much military too soon,” he said.
After working the rest of the year at a service station near his home in Huntington, N.Y., he matriculated at Harvard University. By the end of his sophomore year, Brown said, he felt the pull of public service once more and joined the ROTC, earning a scholarship.
Harvard had suspended ROTC classes because of faculty opposition in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, so Brown made the short trip to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology two to three times a week. Brown said he remembers being told he could wait to put on his military garb until after he arrived at M.I.T. But he decided to wear the uniform as he rode the bus there.
“I was so pleasantly surprised,” he said. “People were really supportive.”
After graduation, he spent five years on active duty, most of it as a helicopter pilot in Germany during a period where Cold War tensions were waning. He then returned to Harvard for law school. When he finished, he enlisted in the Army Reserve.
“I was like, man, I can’t just walk away from this,” Brown said. “You put on that uniform, it’s hard to describe how you feel.”
Brown spent two years with an aviation unit based at Fort Meade, then transferred to the Army’s legal branch, the Judge Advocate General’s Corps.
It was in that capacity that he was called up for deployment to Iraq in 2004, shortly after he was promoted to majority whip in the Maryland House.
Upon his return home, his political stock increased dramatically.
Dozens of colleagues from Annapolis streamed to a “Welcome Back From Iraq Block Party” held in his Mitchellville neighborhood. So did the two leading Democratic candidates for governor, O’Malley and Douglas M. Duncan.
Three months later, O’Malley announced Brown as his running mate.