Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler arrived at last week’s gathering of the Central Baltimore County Democratic Club ready to talk about educational disparities, tax policy, renewable energy and other issues key to his campaign for governor.
But the first question he got was on another topic altogether: his response to a teenage beach-house party he dropped by where there was underage drinking.
“What that was about was being a parent,” Gansler told the audience as he sought to explain one of two major controversies that have shaken has campaign since he formally joined the Democratic primary to succeed Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) in late September.
After preparing for years to run for governor, and amassing a multimillion-dollar war chest to do so, the weeks following his long-anticipated debut have been near-disastrous. His appearance at the South Bethany Beach party, where he said he was just checking in on his son, made national headlines, and Gansler became the butt of late-night television jokes.
Less than two weeks before, he traded accusations with the Maryland State Police over allegations that he had ordered troopers assigned to drive him to speed, run red lights and drive on the shoulder to routine appointments.
In an interview Saturday, Gansler acknowledged that he had taken some lumps but said he is confident that he can regain his footing and “win comfortably” in a June primary against Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D) and Del. Heather R. Mizeur (D-Montgomery).
“The last six weeks have absolutely been a distraction and a distortion from what I’d like this campaign to be about, and what I want this campaign to be about, and I think it’ll get back to that,” Gansler said.
“People don’t like negative political stories,” he said. “They want to hear, ‘What are you going to do for me?’ and ‘What is the other person going to do for me?’ We’re happy to make that comparison every day.”
On Friday, Gansler and his running mate, Del. Jolene Ivey (D-Prince George’s), filmed a video that will be part of the campaign’s effort to connect with voters on issues.
In the first in a series of “Front and Center” segments that will be distributed through social media, Gansler and Ivey highlight a proposal to provide vision screenings and subsidies to help disadvantaged families afford glasses for their children.
Gansler said the plan is one of numerous initiatives he will be highlighting to help close a racial and economic achievement gap in Maryland schools.
“If you’re 6 years old and you can’t see the blackboard in your class, and your parents can’t afford to buy you glasses . . . that might not seem like a big thing to everybody, but that’s a huge thing to that child,” Gansler said.
Since summer — before formally announcing his campaign — Gansler has rolled out other policy initiatives, including incentives to encourage in-state manufacturing, steps to ease the transition of prisoners back into society and ways to make state government more “transparent” to citizens.
Gansler said Saturday that he remains convinced that voters will ultimately see the race between him and Brown, his chief rival, as one between “the status quo and the potential for our state.” And he argues that his record in public office will stand up to scrutiny better than Brown’s.
As evidence of a growing campaign, aides say that Gansler is hiring more staff and will soon be opening several field offices across the state, including one in Prince George’s County.
But in the seven months that remain, the question is whether voters will focus on more than Gansler’s early missteps.
“Is the damage fatal to Gansler? I don’t think so,” said Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College in Westminster, Md. “But it’s much more of a hindrance than a help.”
Gansler dominated headlines in recent weeks, and not the way he would have hoped. Meanwhile, Brown’s campaign continued to churn forward, rolling out endorsements and policy proposals. And while public opinion polls show large numbers of undecided voters, Brown has the lead.
Brown also has most of the state’s big-name Democrats on his side, as well as a growing stable of labor unions and other interest groups that traditionally play a role in statewide elections.
During the past week alone, Brown announced the backing of AFSCME Maryland 3 Council, the largest state employees’ union in Maryland; 1,000 Maryland Women, a statewide advocacy group with roots in Prince George’s; and two of Gansler’s predecessors in the attorney general’s office, J. Joseph Curran Jr. and Stephen Sachs.
Justin Schall, Brown’s campaign manager, said his candidate has continued to execute his plans without regard to the controversies surrounding Gansler.
“It honestly has not affected our strategy at all,” Schall said.
Mizeur has been competing for recognition as much as she has been against Brown and Gansler. But that may be starting to change. Last week, she made an out-of-the-box pick for a running mate, announcing Delman Coates, a Baptist pastor in Prince George’s, as her lieutenant governor candidate.
Mizeur has also put forward some bolder policy proposals than her two Democratic opponents, including a plan to cut personal income taxes for an estimated 90 percent of Maryland’s residents.
A large part of the focus in coming weeks for all the campaigns will be raising money. In January, candidates will have to disclose for the first time in a year how much money they have in the bank. Gansler had $5.2 million on hand at the beginning of the year compared with $1.6 million for Brown. Mizeur had about $380,000.
That gap between Gansler and Brown is expected to have closed considerably. In June, Brown named Howard County Executive Ken Ulman (D), who had been contemplating his own gubernatorial bid, as his running mate. At the time, Ulman had $2.1 million in the bank, which can now be used to benefit the ticket.
On Saturday, Gansler said he is confident that he will have enough money to be competitive in the Democratic primary but would not predict whether his ticket would have more on hand in January than Brown and Ulman.
But last week’s meeting of the Central Baltimore County Democratic Club may have underscored the challenge Gansler faces in rebooting his campaign.
Club president Anne Neal picked up a set of index cards on which audience members had written questions. “We’re just going to get right to this and get it out of the way,” Neal said before starting with the beach-party question.
Gansler was asked to explain what he had meant when he had told the Baltimore Sun that parents might view underage drinking differently depending on the gender of their child.
Gansler rehashed the broader controversy as he tried to answer.
“As a parent, you may think differently if you walk into that party and you’re the parent of a daughter versus the parent of a son,” he said, adding that not all parents think that way.
The rest of the questions at the forum covered a wide range of subjects, including his views on the death penalty, college affordability, the achievement gap in Maryland schools, identity theft and business recruitment.
Gansler took several jabs at the current administration, of which Brown is a part, including criticizing “40 straight tax increases” during O’Malley’s tenure. Gansler said he found a recent gas tax hike “particularly egregious.”
Neal later acknowledged that the question about the beach party was an unusual way to start a session with a potential governor.
“I can’t say we’ve kicked off a forum with a question like that before,” she said, adding that she, personally, remained bothered by Gansler’s response. But Neal said that she and others were eager to move on to more substantive topics.
Bob Lever, a member of the club, said he thought that Gansler handled himself “very well” and probably helped himself with the group. But Lever, a retired schoolteacher, said he also thought that the controversies over the troopers and beach party are likely to dog Gansler for the foreseeable future.
“I think he has a tough road ahead of him right now,” Lever said. “He certainly has an opportunity to recover, but I’m not sure if he realizes the damage he’s caused himself.”
Lever said he was particularly troubled by recent news reports that Gansler took 16 months to pay a speed-camera ticket issued to his state-owned vehicle at a time when the Maryland State Police say Gansler was behind the wheel.
“You know, I’ve gotten a speed-camera ticket,” Lever said. “I didn’t like, but I paid it.”