Gay marriage announcement puts Gansler back into spotlight

"When I became attorney general, there were fewer and fewer cases that a) the media is interested in and b) the Washington media is interested is in," Douglas F. Gansler says. (Susan Biddle For The Washington Post)
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By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 14, 2010

The old guard in Annapolis greeted the election result with a measure of dread. Replacing J. Joseph Curran Jr., a lion of Maryland politics with 20 years as attorney general, was Douglas F. Gansler, the brash, unpredictable young Montgomery County prosecutor with a reputation, not all of it good.

Word was the new guy was fiercely ambitious and prone to controversy. The former state's attorney was said "to practice law by press release" and "for his own personal self-aggrandizement," as Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. put it.

Gansler won statewide and national attention by grabbing hold of such high-profile cases as Mike Tyson's road-rage attack in Gaithersburg and the sniper shootings in 2002. His photo ran in Time magazine, he made the rounds of the Sunday TV talk shows and his many media appearances had defense attorneys asking for gag orders.

It didn't seem out of character last month, then, when Gansler held a news conference smack dab in the middle of the legislative session to announce that Maryland would recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere and that state agencies should immediately begin affording gay married couples the same rights that heterosexuals enjoy.

But news of the unilateral announcement came as something of a shock to legislators who had seen a different Gansler in the three years since he had entered statewide office. Having girded themselves for showboating from the new attorney general, Maryland politicians instead got to know a more subdued Gansler, a lawyer who took pains to be responsive and respectful.

From the start in Annapolis, Gansler debunked the caricature he knew would follow him from Rockville. He went out of his way to be obeisant to legislators. Suddenly, they were talking about how well-behaved he was, how he had matured into a statewide job that requires gravitas instead of grandstanding.

"I think he surprised each and every one of us in terms of the serious manner in which he's taken on his role as attorney general," said Miller (D-Calvert), who endorsed Gansler's opponent in the 2006 campaign.

Gansler, 47, defended the timing of his announcement on gay marriage, saying he was responding to a request from a senator for an opinion on the issue. But the news immediately cast a shadow over the General Assembly's other work and injected a controversial issue into an election year in which his fellow Democrats feel threatened.

Lone wolf image

The announcement put Gansler back in the limelight, helping to solidify the impression that he's the front-runner to succeed Gov. Martin O'Malley as Maryland's Democratic flag-bearer in 2014. But the timing of the news conference also produced a backlash in Annapolis, reviving the image of Gansler as a lone wolf with a passion for media attention.

"It took the oxygen out of the room," said a Democratic strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter candidly. Instead of focusing on the economy or crime, "it's suddenly all about the state of Maryland's approach to gay marriage."

Del. John L. Bohanan Jr. (D-St. Mary's County) said some legislators "are upset" by the timing of Gansler's move because it could galvanize conservative voters. "Certainly there are people who are motivated by that issue; it gets them to the polls," he said.

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the former Republican governor who will probably be challenging O'Malley, seized on the issue, saying in a Washington Post opinion piece that it symbolized how "our political leadership in Annapolis is regularly enacting policies that conflict with mainstream sentiment in Maryland."

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