A veteran Maryland lawmaker and a relative newcomer with a familiar name are locked in a tight battle to become the state’s next attorney general, according to a new Washington Post poll. With less than two weeks until the Democratic primary, enough voters are undecided for the race to swing in either direction.
Del. Jon S. Cardin (Baltimore County) narrowly leads Sen. Brian E. Frosh (Montgomery) among likely Democratic voters, the poll finds. Twenty-six percent say they support Cardin, compared with 20 percent for Frosh, within the poll’s seven-point error margin. But Frosh’s support has roughly tripled since February, while Cardin’s hasn’t budged. Del. Aisha N. Braveboy (Prince George’s) is running third, at 13 percent.
A whopping 40 percent of likely Democratic voters say they have no preferred candidate or are totally disengaged, leaving open the possibility of significant shifts before the June 24 primary. The winner will be heavily favored in November’s general election matchup against Republican Jeffrey Pritzker and Libertarian Leo Wayne Dymowski, given the high number of registered Democrats in the state.
“People are generally not paying attention,” said Donald F. Norris, chairman of the Department of Public Policy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. “I’m not sure whose advantage that is.”
A state delegate since 2003, Cardin, 44, has based his campaign on fighting Internet crime, saying that he is best prepared to be the state’s chief lawyer in the digital age. Frosh, 67, is trying to energize voters based on his 28 years in the State House, where he has built a reputation for solid leadership even as he has angered some interest groups for his deliberate approach.
The subtext has been Cardin’s name recognition and his infamy — the former because of his uncle, U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), and the latter because of several judgment lapses, starting with the use of an on-duty police patrol boat to stage a marriage proposal in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor in 2009. Frosh has tried to score points by questioning Cardin’s conduct in Annapolis. But he is struggling, despite strong fundraising and a raft of endorsements from his party’s establishment, to grab voters’ attention.
“It’s probably too close to call,” said Irwin L. Morris, chairman of the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland at College Park. “I wouldn’t be willing to put money on it — if I were a betting man.”
For three terms, Cardin has held the same legislative seat in Annapolis that his uncle, grandfather and great-uncle held before him. Cardin also works as a general practice lawyer in downtown Baltimore, in the brick building where his uncle once practiced law.
“It is clearly possible,” Norris said, that Cardin’s lead in the polls “has eroded as people learn he is not Ben Cardin.”
As a delegate, Cardin successfully sponsored bills that criminalized online bullying and sexual harassment, including “Grace’s Law,” named in honor of a Howard County teen who killed herself after being taunted on social media. He says he is eager to lead Maryland’s fight against online crime, rooting out Internet scammers and preventing identity theft.
“It really gets me crazy when children are the victims,” Cardin said. “Cybercrime is destroying lives.”
Cardin, who chairs the House of Delegates’ election-law subcommittee, helped pass laws to enfranchise voters, advocating for same-day registration and blocking voter-identification measures.
“Jon talks through issues and tries to build consensus,” said Del. Eric M. Bromwell (D-Baltimore County), who said Cardin convinced him of the merits of a campaign finance law.
Del. John A. Olszewski Jr. (D-Baltimore County) said Cardin is “a good guy, a hard worker, and is more than just a last name.”
But Frosh and many of his colleagues say Cardin lacks the judgment and experience that an attorney general needs. They were outraged when Cardin welcomed, then rejected, an off-the-cuff endorsement from a rapper with a long rap sheet. And they excoriated him for missing 75 percent of committee votes during this year’s legislative session but requesting nearly full reimbursement for meals in Annapolis.
Cardin said he did all the work required for the bills under consideration but often left in the evenings to help his wife through a difficult pregnancy. His committee votes “would’ve made zero difference,” he said, because the bills in question passed unanimously.
Del. Sheila E. Hixson (D-Montgomery), chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee, agreed that Cardin never neglected his job but said his absences were unusual. “No one comes close to that number,” Hixson said.
Frosh’s supporters point to the senator’s work on landmark legislation — gun control, cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay and repealing the death penalty, among others — as proof that he should become attorney general.
“He’s never been accused of not using good judgment,” said Gov. Martin O’Malley (D). “And each and every time we faced some issues that had the capacity to pull us apart, Brian Frosh always found a way to bring us together.”
Frosh learned politics from his father, Stanley B. Frosh, a former Montgomery County judge who took on Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy and pushed for racial integration in county government. He was known for giving first-time offenders alternatives to jail time.
“It was his example that taught me the importance of fighting for justice,” said Frosh, a civil litigator from Bethesda who was first elected a state lawmaker in 1986 and now chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Watching his father take hits for his progressive stances emboldened the younger Frosh during tough battles in the State House. The hardest, he said, was pushing for stricter gun-control measures.
“We had 2,000 people testify, and 1,950 were opposed to it,” he said.
In the Post poll, Frosh runs strongest among Democrats with post-graduate degrees. He has seen a jolt of support from white Democrats, though Cardin outperforms him overall in that demographic group, as well as in the Baltimore suburbs and in rural parts of the state.
Cardin has criticized Frosh for using his power as a committee chairman to kill bills he didn’t like. Detractors say Frosh can be dismissive of those who have different views. Colby Simon, a child-abuse survivor, said she got a frosty reception when she sought help drafting a bill to punish those who fail to report abuse.
“Frosh holds so much power,” Simon said. “He can control what gets voted on and what doesn’t.”
Frosh angered some advocates by helping to kill a version of “Jessica’s Law” proposed in Maryland in 2007 as part of a national push to set mandatory-minimum sentences for sex offenders. Frosh said he believes mandatory-minimum sentences are bad policy and wants judges to have discretion in sentencing.
But in 2010, a different version of the bill passed with Frosh’s support. “You are balancing victims’ rights with due process,” said Del. Kathleen M. Dumais (D-Montgomery), vice chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee. “And many times, nobody is happy.”
Frosh “has been an ally,” said Lisae Jordan, executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “He hears thousands of bills. Some are strong, and some aren’t.”
Baltimore resident Kathleen Rivelois, 70, said she plans to vote for Frosh because “he has earned the respect of many.” But she added that she could change her mind if she finds out Cardin is “anything like his uncle.”
Braveboy, who is far behind in the three-way primary race, is a star in Prince George’s County — where she worships, where she graduated from Largo High School and where her base, middle-class black families, is anchored. In the Post poll, she won the support of 18 percent of black Democrats, compared with 3 percent of whites (Cardin performs similarly among blacks, with 20 percent support).
The 39-year-old real-estate lawyer has represented her district in the legislature since 2007. She chairs the Legislative Black Caucus and has focused her lawmaking efforts on a minimum-wage increase, efforts to boost minority business participation and legislation to protect homeowners. Her constituents love her for it.
As attorney general, Braveboy said, she would hold banks accountable for predatory practices. When Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert Bell called on lawyers to take foreclosure cases free during the height of the housing crisis, Braveboy responded — aware that the crash had struck Prince George’s as hard as anywhere in the state.
Braveboy also helped launch a program run by the nonprofit Olde Mill Foundation that has diverted about 3,000 juvenile offenders out of the criminal justice system.
Cardin and Frosh “don’t have the community connection Aisha has,” said Phil Lee, executive director of the foundation. “She knows. She understands. This what she does. It’s something she was destined to do.”
On a recent afternoon, Cardin was greeting constituents at a Baltimore County Jewish women’s luncheon when a family friend approached, looking for a hug. “Why haven’t I seen your signs up?” a bewildered Cathy Litofsky asked. “Are you not running?”
Cardin sighed before turning to a reporter and saying, “I get this all the time.”
For the first time in 50 years, the state is asking voters to turn out for a summertime election, which experts expect to draw historically low numbers.
The Post poll finds that significantly fewer Democrats are following the primary races this year than in 2010. On average, the attorney general’s contest nets about 200,000 fewer votes than the governor’s race, according Maryland State Board of Elections data.
Of the three attorney general candidates, Frosh seems best positioned to benefit from a low-turnout contest. Nearly three-quarters of registered Democrats who support him say they are “absolutely certain” they will vote, compared with just more than half of Cardin’s supporters.
Retired mechanic Tex Miller of Salisbury said this year’s primary sneaked up on him. Without a computer at home, the 66-year-old relies on listening to the radio at the shop where he restores antique Jeeps for information about candidates.
“I’ve heard all the names, and I heard tidbits,” Miller said. He said he considers the attorney general’s race important but so far has “sort of ignored” it.
“I shouldn’t do that,” Miller said. “But it’s the way it is.”
Mark Weaver, of the Southwest Baltimore County Democratic Club, is backing Frosh. But given Cardin’s name recognition, he thinks the senator’s chances of winning are iffy.
“Everyone is worried about turnout,” said Weaver, who is e-mailing all his friends to remind them about the primary. “That makes the races hard to predict.”
Peyton M. Craighill and Scott Clement contributed to this report.