A Typically Sleepy State's Attorney's Race Wakes Up Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 11, 1998; Page B01
The Democratic primary race for Montgomery County state's attorney, typically a sleepy competition among a bunch of little-known lawyers, is suddenly the steamiest and, many say, most unpredictable race in the county.
"It's political talk. It's courtroom talk," said Steven VanGrack, a Rockville lawyer and Montgomery Democratic Party activist. "I think of all the races going on now, that's the most talked about, most critical primary election from the Montgomery County Democrats' perspective."
It's also increasingly the nastiest.
On Wednesday, less than a week before Tuesday's election, incumbent Robert L. Dean admitted that he had an extramarital affair with a female prosecutor he fired last year. The admission came one day after the woman, who has sued Dean for sexual discrimination, released two romantic poems and a note that her lawyer said Dean penned.
Yesterday, Dean's campaign faxed out a two-page news release listing quotes from prominent Montgomery Democrats describing glossy brochures by one of his challengers, Douglas F. Gansler, as "negative," "misleading" and an "embarrassment."
Gansler, meanwhile, said he mailed out the campaign literature -- criticizing Dean for taking campaign donations from his employees -- only after Dean sent out a brochure criticizing his experience as a federal prosecutor.
The late flurry of political gamesmanship follows a summer during which the candidates debated substantive issues at public meetings that drew small crowds. In general, Dean is running on his 21 years of work in the large state's attorney's office, as a deputy and now as the top prosecutor. Gansler, who has not worked in the county, is waging a well-funded campaign promoting a plan to assign prosecutors differently. Clarke, with the least financial backing, says his experience in Montgomery would help him provide more effective leadership.
Andrew L. Sonner was Montgomery's chief prosecutor for a quarter-century, but now he is an appeals judge. And the job is finally considered truly up for grabs. The Democratic candidates say that their polls show all three neck and neck but that most Montgomery Democrats, anywhere from 50 percent to 70 percent, still don't know who they're going to vote for, if they even recognize any of the candidates by name.
Dean, 46, has filled the post since Sonner vacated it in 1996. But Dean is hardly sweeping into this election as the heir apparent.
Yesterday, as Dean and the other candidates for state's attorney prepared to address about 90 lawyers at a Montgomery Women's Bar Association luncheon, heads turned when Teresa Whalen, the former prosecutor who is suing Dean, entered the room.
Dean turned visibly pink but appeared to ignore her and later told a gaggle of reporters that he didn't realize she was there.
"I don't think there's anyone in the state who can prosecute a case better than me because I've done it more than anyone else," Dean told the group as Whalen looked on stone-faced under the lights of two television cameras.
Besides the Whalen case hanging over him, Dean, who is widely considered a talented trial lawyer, has had trouble touting the courtroom performance of his office. The two cases that offered him the best chance to get his name before the voters have fallen flat.
The sensational murder-for-hire trial of onetime U.S. Senate candidate Ruthann Aron first ended in a hung jury, then in Aron's anticlimactic no contest plea.
An Israeli judge ruled Sunday that teenage murder suspect Samuel Sheinbein should be returned to Montgomery to stand trial. Although Dean declared victory, Sheinbein will remain in Israel pending his appeal, leaving Dean's prosecutors without even a glimpse of the teenager until after the election.
Early in the campaign, Dean made headlines mostly for apologizing. First, he drew criticism for hiring a private investigator to sniff around Gansler's background. Within weeks, he apologized again, this time for campaign workers who apparently violated county policy against campaigning in the workplace by stuffing internal police department mailboxes with Dean fliers.
In his campaign appearances, Dean has focused on his 21 years as a Montgomery prosecutor, touting the fact that he established a unit of prosecutors specially trained in child abuse and domestic violence cases. He also has emphasized the establishment of a Teen Court, a program he set up for first-time minor juvenile offenders in which their peers serve as their lawyers and juries.
But after two decades of trying some of the county's most notorious cases, Dean has been forced to step outside the courthouse and put his own case before the voters -- and he seems not to enjoy it.
Thrusting campaign fliers toward hurried Metro commuters one recent morning -- before his admission of the office affair -- Dean looked uncomfortable, his tight smile and chipper, "Hi, I'm Bob Dean!" met with blank or politely annoyed stares.
"I had no idea, no idea what it would be like to be a politician," Dean said one day last week. "I thought you could just do the job well, and that would be enough. But it's not."
Even Dean's supporters say they worry that he depended too much on people beyond the insular world of the Rockville courthouse having heard of him. Outside the courtroom, Dean is reserved, almost shy, friends say. He has not taken easily to the glad-handing, in-your-face schmoozing required of a first-time candidate.
At the recent opening of the Glenmont Metro station, other politicians worked the crowd. Dean stood in place, listening to the speeches.
For big announcements by his office, such as the decision not to file sexual assault charges against two star Washington Wizards basketball players or reacting to the Israeli court's decision to extradite Sheinbein, his advisers have had to remind him to hold a news conference.
"I don't think he's comfortable in the political limelight," said John Debelius, president last year of the Montgomery County Bar Association. "I think Andy [Sonner] enjoyed the politics of it. I think for Bob, the politics are something that he needs to endure in order to carry out the job."
In contrast, Gansler appears at ease on the campaign trail, joking with people at Metro stops, shouting, "Hi! Hey! Do you have a sign on your lawn?" when he spots a friend. When he goes knocking on doors of faithful Democratic primary voters, Gansler jogs from house to house, as if, literally, in a race.
Gansler, a former federal prosecutor in the District, is widely considered a smooth and energetic campaigner and Dean's leading challenger. Quitting his job as an assistant U.S. attorney in February to focus on the race, Gansler has campaigned 16 hours a day from a Bethesda storefront decorated with lists of Montgomery County precincts that he still needs to canvass.
Gansler has raised $165,000 -- nearly $80,000 more than Dean and believed to be the most spent on a state's attorney's primary. Most of it, Gansler said, has gone toward six mailings in the last two weeks to the 40,000 Montgomery households with active Democratic primary voters.
Gansler has staked his campaign on the idea of community prosecution, a plan used by several large cities, including part of the District, to reduce crime by assigning prosecutors by neighborhood rather than by types of crime.
Both Dean and Clarke have attacked Gansler's relatively short resume, including the fact that he has never tried a case in Maryland, let alone in Montgomery County. Gansler, 35, points to his six years of prosecuting crimes in the District.
"The point is I haven't prosecuted here," Gansler said recently. "We need that. When something isn't working, you look outside for someone who can bring experience. Bob Dean has failed to achieve justice in every [high-profile] case."
Clarke, a former deputy state's attorney in Montgomery for 12 years, has raised about $14,000. His campaign has focused on handing out literature at Metro stops and business cards around the courthouse and to clients in his one-room Rockville law office.
Clarke, 52, said he has seen from the other side, through the eyes of a defense attorney, how Montgomery crime isn't being prosecuted effectively.
"I think people in Montgomery County need a prosecutor who knows the courthouse, who knows the defense bar, who knows the politics," Clarke said. "That's me. This is not a job for on-the-job training."
Clarke criticized Dean for not sending prosecutors to court hearings for people who have violated their probation. He said that he also would be tougher on people arrested for the first time for having drugs and that prosecutors often show up for court without the basics, such as a drunk driver's prior driving record.
Supporters for both Gansler and Dean say their biggest concern is splitting any anti-Dean votes.
A story on the Republican primary race for Montgomery state's attorney will appear tomorrow. Also, a Voters' Guide to Tuesday's Maryland primary will appear Saturday in Post editions distributed in most parts of Maryland. The Guide will appear Sunday in Southern Maryland.
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