Gay marriage announcement puts Gansler back into spotlight

By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 14, 2010; C01

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."

Gansler said he was driven by policy, not politics. He moved when the 45-page decision was ready, he said, and he had an obligation to explain it to the public. "I literally signed it the afternoon before," he said.

Yes, the gay marriage policy put him back in the spotlight. But the idea that he'd been lying low, he said, is wrong. Open government requires leaders to talk publicly about their work, he said. Which he does. It's just that the issues he has tackled as attorney general don't attract much media attention.

He's trying to change the way Circuit Court judges are elected. He has pushed for tougher enforcement on environmental issues, created a gang prosecution unit and led a fight to limit smoking in films. And on the same day as the single-sex marriage decision, he won his first case before the U.S. Supreme Court, which unanimously supported Gansler's position in a case involving when police may interrogate criminal suspects.

Having campaigned as the green attorney general, his top priority is to bring a power plant to Maryland that would convert 500 million pounds of chicken manure annually into energy.

But NBC isn't about to book him on "Meet the Press" to discuss chicken manure.

"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," he said in an interview.

Gansler still speaks his mind, often in unfiltered staccato bursts. Here he was last year in the Baltimore Sun on the Senate's attempt to limit the death penalty: It's "ill-prepared, ill-thought-out, awkward and clumsy."

Certainly, there was a more diplomatic way to characterize it, no?

"But that wouldn't be accurate," he said. The plan was a mess: "It was written on a paper napkin. I was like, 'You've got to be kidding me.' "

Pleas to watch his words

Friends and allies have pleaded with Gansler for years to watch what he says. Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery), Gansler's longtime friend, said a politician's ambition should be like a shirt sleeve sticking out from under a suit jacket: "It should show a little, but not too much. Doug has taken his whole jacket off."

Raskin sees a "refreshing honesty and candor" in his friend's political style, but it has also gotten Gansler into trouble. As state's attorney, he lashed out at judges whose sentences he disagreed with. Criticized as a media hound, he ended up negotiating an agreement with the police over who would speak about major arrests.

Then came the sniper shootings. Gansler was the first to file murder charges against the suspects, even though federal authorities eventually said the case would first be tried in Virginia. And when Gansler went on ABC's "This Week" to defend his decision, host George Stephanopoulos greeted him by saying, "Well, you've raised quite a ruckus."

That was a long time ago. Since then, "Doug has indeed matured a lot," Raskin said. "You are subjected to so many new forces and considerations, and it does improve your judgment and your vision."

Throwing punches

Gansler can still throw a punch. At a recent meeting in Rockville with the Young Democrats of Maryland, he said Del. Donald H. Dwyer Jr. (R-Anne Arundel), who called for his impeachment after the same-sex marriage decision, didn't understand the law and hadn't gone to law school -- or even, he added with a smirk, college.

He went on to tell the Young Democrats how he was active in the National Association of Attorneys General -- or as, he joked, the "National Association of Aspiring Governors."

That's an aspiration Gansler clearly shares. It's not appropriate, he said, to talk about 2014 when this year's campaigns have barely begun. But he has $2 million in the bank, and no one is challenging him for attorney general. His job lets him travel the state and get his name out there -- the perfect platform from which to launch a gubernatorial bid.

"I'm against criminals, I'm for consumers and I don't vote" on bills voters might disagree with, he said. "It's a pretty good spot to be in."

Gansler said he has "the deepest and most profound admiration for Joe Curran," who held the job for two decades.

"But I'm not going to be attorney general for 20 years."

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