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The two ways Anthony Brown hopes to make history in Maryland

To make history, Anthony G. Brown (D) must buck history.

Brown’s campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor of Maryland has significant momentum. He has pulled ahead of his primary rival — Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler — in fundraising. He’s racked up a formidable list of endorsements from big-name politicians and influential organizations. And his political partner for the past eight years, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), has a vested interest in helping the Prince George’s resident prevail in the Democratic primary in June.

Combine all this with Gansler’s early stumbles, the paltry name recognition of a third Democrat in the race, Del. Heather Mizeur, and the Republican Party’s limited relevance in Maryland, and it’s clear that — if Maryland Live! Casino offered action on such things — Brown would be the odds-on favorite to take the reins from O’Malley a year from now.

But a cautionary note is needed: No lieutenant governor has ever managed to grab the top spot in Maryland. It happens in other states, of course, but in Maryland, the office has not served as a steppingstone to the governor’s mansion.

Granted, the state’s lieutenant governor history is short. Until voters ratified a 1970 constitutional amendment re-creating the position after a 100-year absence, the job existed only for three years, long enough to accommodate exactly one lieutenant governor: Christopher Cox, a Unionist, who served from 1865 to 1868.

Of the six men and one woman to serve as governor-in-waiting since 1970, only three even tried to climb to the next rung. They failed.

What happened?

Blair Lee III lost to Harry Hughes in the 1978 Democratic primary, even though Lee had been acting governor for more than a year because of Marvin Mandel’s health and legal problems.

●Melvin A. “Mickey” Steinberg, who served under William Donald Schaefer, lost the 1994 primary to fellow Democrat Parris Glendening. Steinberg and Schaefer had a public falling-out during their second term, with the irascible Schaefer stripping Steinberg of the bulk of his staff and rendering him a State House nonentity.

●Kathleen Kennedy Townsend won the 2002 Democratic primary easily, but she ran a lackluster fall campaign and was defeated by then-Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich (R).

After covering Annapolis for nearly 25 years, I’ve seen up close the challenges lieutenant governors face.

●Voter fatigue. Most Maryland governors since World War II have served two terms. (Only Ehrlich, Spiro Agnew and William Preston Lane did not.) Eight years is a long time in politics. By the end, voters often want a new face.

●The blame game. Lieutenant governors have trouble getting credit for things that go right for an administration, while the blame for the bad stuff seems to stick. Glendening and Schaefer both left office with low poll numbers. Townsend and Steinberg suffered accordingly.

●Little-brother syndrome. Once someone becomes entrenched in the public’s mind as the person standing dutifully behind the top dog (if they’re seen at all), it can be hard to close the stature gap.

If Brown wants solace, he can look across the river to Virginia, where lieutenant governors have had much success. In the Old Dominion, five of the last 12 governors served as lieutenant governor.

But there’s a big asterisk next to Virginia because of the state’s unique one-and-done rule. Since Virginia governors are barred from seeking a second consecutive term, their understudies are less likely to confront the fatigue factor mentioned above.

Maryland’s primary is still five months off, and a lot will happen.

Brown must weather the negative headlines generated by the balky health-insurance exchange Web portal set up in Maryland as part of the Affordable Care Act, which he was assigned to oversee by O’Malley. He must survive the upcoming debates, which will provide opportunities for his rivals to go after him in a live, unscripted setting. And he has to hope that the current controversy over in-session fundraising remains insider baseball.

If he can do all that, Brown — who would be the state's first African American governor — would make history in more ways than one.

The writer is host and managing editor of NewsChannel 8’s “NewsTalk” program.

 
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