Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown accompanies his daughter, Rebecca, to vote in Landover on June 12. (Juana Arias/The Washington Post)

Just ahead of Anthony Brown in Rockville’s Memorial Day parade, his opponents in the Maryland gubernatorial primary strutted their stuff: Heather Mizeur, the state delegate from Takoma Park, swung her hips to the beat of supporters’ drums. Doug Gansler, the brash, chummy attorney general from Bethesda, tossed candy to kids and chanted with his backers.

For more than a mile, Brown hewed strictly to the median strip, calling out, “Good morning, Rockville!” then sharply lowering his voice to issue directives to the young volunteers holding his campaign banner in front of him: “Small step to the right. Little lower on the left.”

Lieutenant governor since 2007, Brown has always been about discipline and detail. At Harvard, where he was one of the few undergraduates to enlist in the Army’s ROTC program, he allotted a specific study time to each subject each evening. To prepare for his first state legislative run, he joined the local high school PTA, chaperoned the school dance and coached the mock-trial team — even though he did not yet have children of his own.

Brown, 52, is a man of military bearing: hair just so, cuffs square, shoes gleaming. His quick ascent has alienated some Maryland Democratic politicians, who derisively call him “the anointed one.” He is private, distant and famously loyal.

Now, as he completes his apprenticeship under Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), Brown is far ahead in the polls, fully expecting to win the June 24 Democratic primary and the November general election. He would be Maryland’s first black governor and the first lieutenant governor to ascend to the top spot.

As a child of an interracial marriage in New York, Brown allows, he was sometimes the object of “unkind words and actions.” But he will give no examples.

“I don’t necessarily think the details of my experience provides . . . any greater insight to my motives and my passion to serve them,” he says, adding that disturbing experiences are nothing special.

“We all have them.”

A devotion to service

The son of a firm, resilient Swiss mother and a bighearted Jamaican father, Brown since early childhood has exhibited a devotion to detail that friends say leads to informed decisions but that critics view as micromanaging.

Brown calls himself a chain-of-command guy and speaks of instilling in his staffers “a cadence of accountability.” Asked what issues propelled him into politics, he talks instead about his devotion to service — a trait he inherited from his father.

“I’d tell my children, ‘It’s essential to have a passion,’ ” Roy Brown said in a campaign video recorded shortly before he died in January.

In the third Democratic debate for Maryland governor, candidate Anthony Brown explains his role in the launch of the state's health exchange. (Maryland Public Television)

Anthony decided his passion was to serve in the military. When he was admitted to West Point, Roy Brown was not pleased. “I don’t see you as a military man,” Anthony Brown recalled his father saying. “No one in our family has done that.”

Brown lasted just 10 weeks at the U.S. Military Academy. “Too much Army too soon,” he says now. “Shining shoes, memorizing menus and reciting them to upperclassmen.” He says he wanted a more purely academic experience, which he found at Harvard, where he got in twice — the year he turned the school down for West Point and the following year.

“Anthony was always somebody who knew where he was going,” says Charles Ogletree, a Harvard law professor who knew Brown and predicts he will be the nation’s second black president. “His approach was always, ‘I’m going to be competitive wherever I can.’ ”

Jerry Boden, who grew up three houses from Brown in Huntington, N.Y., on Long Island, and later served as his chief of staff in Annapolis, says his friend’s drive and focus have not changed. “It sort of consumed him,” Boden recalls. “He’d say, ‘I can’t play basketball now because I made a goal to get a certain grade in a certain class.’ ”

Starting to sell his agenda

Maryland’s lieutenant governor has but one main responsibility: take over if the governor is incapacitated. The rest of the job is mainly an expression of loyalty. As a military man — he joined the Army Reserve after fulfilling his ROTC commitment and deployed to Iraq for 10 months while serving as a Maryland delegate — Brown understood that.

But the role led, perhaps inevitably, to the perception that Brown has little agenda of his own. “The most inaccurate perception of Anthony is that he’s an empty suit,” Boden says.

Brown got little attention as O’Malley pressed high-profile initiatives such as repealing the death penalty and enacting some of the nation’s toughest gun control measures. But Brown was a loyal soldier in those fights — taking to the airwaves, for example, on behalf of legalizing same-sex marriage even as African Americans remained deeply divided over the issue.

When Brown endorsed Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary over Barack Obama — Brown’s schoolmate at Harvard Law — many guessed that he’d done so at O’Malley’s behest.

Not so, says Brown: “My loyalty wasn’t to Martin O’Malley, it was to the Clintons. They came in big for us in ’06.” Brown is confident that Obama is fine with that. The president, he says, “understands and values loyalty.”

Now Brown has had to pivot toward selling his own agenda. He’s started pointing out where he differed with O’Malley, saying, for example, that he would not have signed a bill drastically cutting the number of wealthy Marylanders who must pay estate taxes.

Brown also says he stepped in during a budget meeting a few years ago to save a pay raise for state workers. On another occasion, he says, he successfully argued for giving community colleges the budget increase they’d sought.

O’Malley gave Brown a leading role in three areas: economic development, higher education and health care. But Brown wasn’t in charge of the agencies in those areas. He pursued his own initiatives, including some where he had a personal stake, such as helping veterans.

As a father of an adopted son — he also has a daughter from his first marriage and a stepson from his second — Brown promoted foster care and adoption in church visits around the state.

And after his cousin was slain by an estranged boyfriend, Brown met with prosecutors and advocates, winning support for a bill making it easier to take guns from abusers. This year, he supported a bill that enhanced penalties when violent acts are committed in a child’s presence.

No part of Brown’s record has received more attention during the campaign than his handling of Maryland’s troubled online health insurance exchange.

O’Malley tasked Brown with overseeing health-care reform, but Brown says he remained in the dark about problems caused by private contractors. He says he regrets what happened and should have been more directly involved.

“In retrospect,” he said in a debate, “I’d go back and say, ‘Appoint me as a member of the health benefits exchange, maybe even the chairman of the exchange.’ But that’s not the role I served.”

Aides say Brown’s style is to push small advances toward a larger objective. He seeks, for example, to expand pre-kindergarten so gradually that full-day classes wouldn’t become available to all children until 2022.

“He accepts incrementalism as a form of policymaking towards big transformational change,” says Earl Adams Jr., another former chief of staff. “He doesn’t think you always need to take on the whole world at once.”

Prince George’s politics

From the moment Brown arrived in Annapolis as a delegate from Prince George’s County, House Speaker Mike Busch (D-Anne Arundel) pegged him as a future leader, giving him a choice committee assignment. “I made him my first draft pick that year,” Busch says, recalling that another “promising” black delegate had just left elective office. “Here was a versatile, attractive African American with unlimited potential.”

Even before he was elected, Brown had been noticed by some of the state’s most powerful Democrats. Former attorney general Stephen Sachs, a partner at the K Street law firm where Brown worked after moving to Maryland to clerk for an appellate court judge, saw him as effective and detail-oriented. “He could have been a partner, making at least a million dollars a year,” Sachs said.

Former delegate Tim Maloney introduced Brown to state Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George’s), describing him as an “obvious choice” to run for delegate.

“I told Uly, we got a guy who’s Harvard and ROTC,” Maloney said. “To give up the partner track, he had to have something bigger in mind.”

Brown remains loyal to Currie, endorsing him for reelection this year even though Currie was censured by the Senate for failing to disclose consulting payments from a company that sought help from state agencies.

But Currie, though listed as a supporter in Brown’s campaign literature, won’t say whether he indeed backs Brown.

“I care not to respond,” Currie says. How did Brown perform as a legislator? “I don’t want to go into that. Ask the speaker.”

Others in Prince George’s have turned away from Brown, who lives in Mitchellville with his second wife, Comcast lobbyist Karmen Walker. Former congressman Albert Wynn, who helped get Brown on the ballot for his first legislative campaign, has endorsed Gansler. So has Seat Pleasant Mayor Eugene Grant. Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, who supported Brown in past elections, is making no endorsement.

“Anthony has not championed the cause of the everyday worker of Prince George’s County,” Grant says. “He comes from an upper-middle-class background, and he can’t connect with people who struggle every day.”

Busch says opposition to Brown in Prince George’s stems mostly from jealousy. “There’s some who say, reasonably, that things broke right for Anthony,” the speaker says. “Prince George’s for years has had a pecking order. So they get a little bent out of shape when someone rises fast.”

Brown’s critics say he did not deliver on promises to his county. It took eight years for O’Malley and Brown to fulfill a campaign pledge to relocate a state agency to Prince George’s to boost development there. Ground was broken in April on headquarters for the Department of Housing and Community Development.

The relocation, Brown says, “only happened because the lieutenant governor was pushing to make it happen.”

Questions on racial identity

Julius Henson, a longtime Democratic campaign operative who in 2010 worked for O’Malley’s opponent, Republican former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., says the clash between Brown and some of his former patrons is rooted in questions about racial identity.

“Brown had the Ivy League thing going on and said he wasn’t black,” says Henson, who is also African American. “He said that wasn’t his focus.”

Grant, too, says he heard Brown “call himself ‘multiracial,’ and that’s fine, but now, all of a sudden, he says he’s black. I have a problem with that.”

Brown’s face tightens as he hears criticism about how he’s defined his racial identity. The last time he was questioned about his race, he says, was in ninth grade. “I am the child of an interracial relationship,” he says. “I’m African American.”

He says he has never played down his background but adds that he doesn’t approach his job through the prism of race. “I work on identifying problems and bringing people together to solve a problem,” he says. “Sometimes, the problem is more acute for one demographic group. But my starting point isn’t ‘Who is the group?’ ”

This is the first of three stories profiling Maryland Democratic gubernatorial candidates Anthony G. Brown, Douglas F. Gansler and Heather R. Mizeur.