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Democrats vying to be Md. attorney general have a long history

U.S. Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.) and former judge Katie Curran O'Malley are vying to be the Maryland attorney general in the 2022 Democratic primary. (Photos courtesy of the Brown and O'Malley campaigns) (Brown Campaign/O'Malley campaign)
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Congressman Anthony G. Brown and former judge Katie Curran O’Malley both remember when they first met. It was the night before O’Malley’s husband, Martin O’Malley, then mayor of Baltimore and a gubernatorial candidate, announced that Brown would join his ticket as lieutenant governor.

The O’Malleys invited the Browns over for a casual pre-announcement dinner.

“She was a very gracious host, and it was a very pleasant evening,” Brown said.

“He’s lovely, and his family’s lovely,” O’Malley recalled.

But that was in 2005, and they are now on opposing teams, heading into the final stretch of a tight primary battle seeking the Democratic nomination to be Maryland’s next attorney general. While Brown and O’Malley still express admiration for one another, they’re also making clear their approach is best suited for the job of Maryland’s chief law enforcement official.

The race couldn’t be closer. A Goucher College poll released last week showed a statistical dead heat with 35 percent of voters undecided about who should replace Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D), who announced he wouldn’t seek reelection last year after two terms in office. The winner will square off in November against either Jim Shalleck or Michael Peroutka, the candidates running in the Republican primary.

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There is little that differentiates Brown’s and O’Malley’s positions on most major issues, including abortion rights and gun violence. The question is who is most ready to step into the role, and that’s where the niceties end.

“The congressman is a legislator, he’s a politician,” O’Malley, 59, said of Brown. “But for this job, attorney general, the constitution requires that you have real legal experience in courtrooms. And I’m the only one that really brings that to the table. … I think it’s important, especially in light of rising crime, that your attorney general can strategize with the deputies and assistant attorney generals when we’re talking about going after drug traffickers, human traffickers and gun-trafficking cases. And also can strategize on ways to go after gun manufacturers and gun shop owners.”

A graduate of Towson University and the University of Baltimore School of Law, O’Malley says her 30 years of experience working as an assistant state’s attorney, heading the white-collar crime unit and serving as a Baltimore district judge give her the tools the job demands.

O’Malley emphasizes Brown’s lack of trial experience in her campaign. In an ad released late last month, she looks into the camera and says, “My opponent, Anthony Brown, is a fine congressman, but he’s never tried a criminal case in Maryland and he doesn’t have the right experience for this job. I’ll be ready to fight for you on Day One.”

Brown, 60, received his undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard and served as a military lawyer in the Army and Army Reserve for 30 years before retiring as a colonel. He dismisses O’Malley’s assertion about the importance of courtroom experience to the job.

The idea that “having extensive trial experience is a key feature for being the attorney general, I would submit you don’t understand the responsibilities of the office or the organization of the office,” said Brown, whose résumé includes two terms in the Maryland House of Delegates, two terms as the state’s lieutenant governor and three terms as a congressman representing Maryland’s 4th District.

“The work that has to be done in Maryland solving big problems requires a partnership between the executive branch including the office of the attorney general and the General Assembly,” he said. “In my practice, unlike Judge O’Malley, I’ve been involved in complex litigation, multi-partner litigation, class action litigation. … And those are more like the kinds of cases that the attorney general deals with. It’s big litigation. ... The attorney general’s office is not in small claims court, they’re not in traffic court, they’re not doing minor misdemeanors.”

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In interviews last week, both candidates said the biggest issue for Marylanders in 2022 is the rise in crime and how to respond to it. They also said the attorney general should assume a key role in tackling gun violence, protecting abortion rights and civil rights, strengthening environmental regulations and prosecuting polluters. Both have said that when it comes to abortion rights, they want to enshrine the protections of Roe v. Wade in Maryland’s constitution.

While many of their positions on the issues are similar, the different styles of the candidates do present a choice to voters, said D. Bruce Poole, former chairman of Maryland’s Democratic Party and former member of the Maryland House of Delegates.

“They’re both really well qualified, and they’re well liked,” said Poole, who has known Brown and O’Malley for many years and sees unique strengths in each of them. For voters, he says, “it depends on what you want.”

“Anthony is going to be very good at going down to the State House and working the levers of power. And if he has to go to Capitol Hill, I would imagine he would be very well-received. In terms of actual trial work, I would imagine he would have to go to a team and assemble a team for that,” he said. “Katie, on the other hand, understands what it’s like to be in the pit and fight it out. She is a friendly person, but she’s steely. And so if it’s fixed bayonets, she’s going to do fine with that. On the other hand, working in the legislature, I’m guessing she’s going to have to take the counseling of some others.”

No matter which candidate wins, the victor will likely be on a historic path. Brown would be the first African American to be Maryland’s attorney general. O’Malley would be the first woman. The winner of the Democratic primary has not lost the attorney general race in the general election since 1952.

Republicans Shalleck, the former elections chief in Montgomery County, and Peroutka, a former member of the Anne Arundel County Council, are on their party’s primary ballot but significantly trail the Democrats in funds raised. As of mid-June, Brown had $1.2 million available to spend, while O’Malley had nearly $839,000.

The last time Brown was in a statewide race in Maryland was when he ran for governor in 2014 and lost to Larry Hogan. But running for attorney general and winning a statewide office is not about seeking redemption for that failed bid, Brown said.

“I just view this as a continuum in life,” he said. “You take your skills, your experience, your talent. You couple that with your passion and commitment, and you apply it where the opportunities present themselves.”

This is O’Malley’s first run for elected office, although she has been immersed in politics since she was young. Her husband served two terms as mayor of Baltimore and two terms as governor. And her father, J. Joseph Curran Jr., served a term as lieutenant governor and 20 years as Maryland’s attorney general.

“I’ve known politicians all my life,” she said. “I’m married to one, and I was raised by one. So I think I have the skills to communicate effectively as an attorney general when talking about laws that need to be pursued.”

Both candidates enjoy strong name recognition and have “deep roots with establishment Democratic politics,” said Mileah Kromer, a political scientist at Goucher College. “So it’s not as if there’s an insider-outsider dynamic.”

She thinks how the candidates message their positions on abortion and gun control, two key issues in the state, could affect who wins. But with the July 19 Election Day fast approaching, she believes the race will probably come down to which campaign is best prepared.

“At this point, it’s how well each of the campaigns can do in contacting voters,” Kromer said. “It’s going to be super important, and it’s going to be not just a test of the candidates but a test of the campaign organization they have put together. … One thing that makes this race so interesting is that they’re both really capable candidates.”

Brown and O’Malley both acknowledge they’re in a hotly contested race, and observers say it would be foolish at this stage to predict a winner.

“It’s going to come down to the last 72 hours,” Poole said. Laughing, he added, “Anybody who says they know with certainty what’s going to happen has just demonstrated their incompetence in the matter.”

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