Douglas F. Gansler grew up in the leafy Montgomery County community of Chevy Chase, just north of the District and a short drive from the important federal jobs held by his father, a high-level Defense Department employee, and many other county residents.
Lowen’s toy store and Gifford’s ice cream, both in downtown Bethesda, were favorite destinations. After college and law school, Gansler returned to the county, raising a family just a few miles from his childhood home.
Now Gansler is trying to do something that no other Montgomery County resident has done: get elected governor of Maryland. He emphasizes this goal every time he appears in Maryland’s most populous county, sometimes with his wife and mother in attendance.
“We’re going to have a governor from here . . . who’s going to stand up for the interests of Montgomery County,” said Gansler, 51, as he opened a campaign office in Rockville on a recent Sunday.
The former county prosecutor, now the state attorney general, promised to stop what he called Annapolis’s practice of treating Montgomery as “the state’s ATM” and to advocate for more state spending in the county, which is increasingly diverse ethnically and economically.
To prevail in the June 24 Democratic primary, Gansler has to win big in his home county, most analysts say. At this point, he has a long way to go.
A Washington Post poll last month showed Gansler ahead of his chief Democratic rival, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, in Montgomery, but by only 10 percentage points.
In contrast, Brown had a 25-point lead over Gansler in Prince George’s County, his home base. The discrepancy in Gansler’s and Brown’s performances in their home jurisdictions — the two largest Democratic strongholds in Maryland — was a major factor in Brown’s 2-to-1 lead statewide.
“If I were Doug’s strategist, I would be saying we need to shore up our Montgomery County base, and we need to do it now,” said Mike Morrill, a veteran Democratic consultant who is not working for any of the Maryland gubernatorial candidates but helped elect Gansler attorney general in 2006. In that race, Gansler’s most recent competitive primary, he captured 71 percent of the vote in Montgomery and 55 percent statewide, defeating a lawyer from Baltimore.
To win this year’s gubernatorial primary, which has three major candidates, Gansler will probably need well over 50 percent of the Montgomery County vote, Morrill and other strategists said. The winner of the primary is heavily favored to win in November.
In the Post poll, Gansler had the support of 22 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents in Montgomery County, while Brown had 12 percent. A third Democrat in the race, Del. Heather R. Mizeur — who hails from the ultra-progressive Montgomery enclave of Takoma Park and is targeting the party’s more liberal voters — drew 10 percent. A majority of county voters said they remained undecided and had not tuned into the race.
While the face of Montgomery has changed considerably since the days of Gansler’s youth — it is now majority-minority — it remains one of the most affluent and highly educated counties in the nation, with large numbers of senior government workers, lawyers and lobbyists. The county has seen an uptick in independent voters but still boasts more Democratic voters than any state jurisdiction but Prince George’s.
Brown is hardly ceding Montgomery to Gansler. In recent weeks, he has made more public appearances in the county than his rival, including an event aimed at Latino voters in Rockville and a campaign office opening in Wheaton. In Wheaton, he promised to build on the successes of his boss, outgoing Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), and pledged to make a serious bid to win the county.
“Look around,” Brown told the crowd. “This is not a band of insurgents. We are not just going to be a meddlesome few in Montgomery. We are going to win.”
The track record of Montgomery residents running for governor in recent decades has been dismal. Then-county executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) mounted a serious bid in 2006 but dropped out before the primary, citing a struggle with depression. Then-acting governor Blair Lee III (D) was defeated in the 1978 primary, and then-state senator Mary Boergers (D) finished a distant fourth in the 1994 primary.
O’Malley, who is in his eighth and final year as governor, grew up in Montgomery and played up that connection in his successful 2006 campaign. But he was largely seen as a Baltimore candidate because he moved to the city and became its mayor long before he was elected governor.
Keith Haller, a political strategist and pollster with Bethesda-based Potomac Inc., said he is surprised that Gansler is not running stronger in the county where people know him best. During his eight-year tenure as Montgomery's state’s attorney, Gansler was regularly in the news for high-profile prosecutions that included the Washington area snipers and boxer Mike Tyson’s road-rage episode.
“You have this treasure trove of votes to be had in Montgomery,” Haller said. “The county is waiting for one of the gubernatorial campaigns to seize the moment.”
In an interview, Gansler said Montgomery residents often tune into state and local elections later than voters elsewhere, in part because they are more oriented toward the federal government.
“People in Montgomery County know me and they trust me,” Gansler said. So far, he has been endorsed by more than 40 current and former elected officials and party leaders from the county.
But nearly half that many Montgomery officials have sided with Brown, including state Del. Kirill Reznik (D).
Reznick said he was initially inclined to back Gansler, “the local guy,” whom he has known for years. But he said he is more closely aligned with Brown on policy.
Reznik supported the O’Malley administration’s efforts to raise the gas tax to pay for transportation projects, for example, and to adopt subsidies to jump-start the state’s offshore wind industry. Gansler has criticized both initiatives.
After meeting with Brown, Reznik said, he came away impressed with the candidate’s commitment to helping Montgomery secure more funding for school construction and his understanding of other county needs.
During a recent candidates forum at Leisure World, Gansler told his audience that he had probably been to the Silver Spring retirement community 50 times. He pointed out people he knew in the audience, including an old family friend whose daughter, the would-be governor said, used to take baths with him.
“We were very young,” he was quick to add.
Duncan, the former county executive, who is running this year to regain his old job, said county residents will tune in eventually and it is up to Gansler or his rivals to get their attention when they do.
“Montgomery County residents are very interesting,” Duncan said. “It takes them a long time to commit.”