At left, Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown speaks during a bill signing ceremony in Annapolis on May 2. At right, Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler is seen before the inauguration of Gov. Martin O'Malley in 2010. ((AP, Ricky Carioti/Post))

Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler told a group of campaign volunteers last month that Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, his chief Democratic rival for governor, has a thin record of accomplishment and is trying to rely on his race to get elected next year.

“I mean, right now his campaign slogan is, ‘Vote for me, I want to be the first African American governor of Maryland,’ ” Gansler (D) told the group. “That’s a laudable goal, but you need a second sentence: ‘Because here’s what I’ve done, and here’s why I’ve done it.’ ”

An audio recording of the July 15 meeting — in which Gansler also spoke candidly about his campaign strategy — was provided to The Washington Post by someone not employed by either campaign. Gansler’s campaign did not dispute its authenticity but accused the Brown campaign of illegally recording Gansler’s remarks — which Brown’s aides denied.

“It’s unfortunate that Anthony Brown’s campaign has to stoop to the level of Richard Nixon and send in spies to illegally record a private campaign organizing meeting,” Gansler strategist Doug Thornell said.

Justin Schall, Brown’s campaign manager, quickly fired back, saying: “If I had said these things on tape, I’d want to change the subject, too. The Brown campaign had nothing to do with this. The only one responsible for Gansler’s comments is Doug Gansler.” He called Gansler’s remarks “out of touch with Maryland values.”

Maryland AG Doug Gansler

AUDIO: 'I'm running for governor'

AUDIO: 'His record versus our record'

AUDIO: 'The invisible lieutenant governor'

AUDIO: 'No one's heard of him'

Audio obtained by The Washington Post.

The salvos mark the first real tumult in a contest that had been relatively quiet and could show how race is likely to play an important role. With an early primary next year — in June instead of September — the Democratic contest could be the most competitive in years in Maryland, where only one Republican has won the governor’s race in a generation. Brown got off to an early start in May, named a running mate in June and began collecting endorsements. Gansler plans to officially announce his candidacy in September.

The recording is yet another example of a political figure having to explain remarks that he did not expect to be made public. In the 2012 presidential race, GOP nominee Mitt Romney had to defend his “47 percent” comments, which critics said disparaged nearly half the electorate.

During the meeting in Annapolis, Gansler spoke candidly about his views on the role of race in the 2014 campaign, as well as other aspects of the contest he had not discussed publicly before. Advisers said about 25 people attended the meeting, which was described as private.

In the 30-minute recording, Gansler disclosed that he plans to name an African American running mate from Baltimore or Prince George’s County and argued that he is better positioned to win than Brown because no lieutenant governor of Maryland has ever been elected governor. Gansler also played down the significance of several of Brown’s endorsements. At another point, he argued that he could win more of the black vote than Brown in the primary.

African Americans are certain to be a key constituency in next year’s race to replace Gov. Martin O’Malley (D). In recent elections, black voters have accounted for more than 35 percent of Democratic primary voters, according to exit polls.

“We’re asking people to look at the candidate, look at the character of the candidate, what they’ve done, and what their vision is,” Gansler said. “I can look an African American voter in the eye and say, ‘Who do you think is more likely to get your child access to an education, or your child access to a job, to give you tools?’ ”

Brown, whose father is from Jamaica and whose mother is Swiss, has talked little about his race during his campaign. He would be the first black governor of Maryland and only the third black governor elected in the United States.

Gansler has long had a reputation of being brash and blunt, and although his propensity to speak his mind has been refreshing to some, it has sparked controversy at times. As Montgomery County state’s attorney, he criticized judges whose sentences he disagreed with. And he was accused of grandstanding during the D.C. sniper case.

Although Brown did not comment directly on Gansler’s remarks, his running mate, Ken Ulman, said they crossed the line.

“This campaign isn’t about black or white, Asian or Latino, and it’s certainly not about attacking other Democrats in back-room meetings when you think no one is listening,” said Ulman, the Howard County executive. “Frankly, the voters deserve a little more respect from Doug.”

Thornell said Gansler was trying at the mid-July meeting to draw a contrast between the two leading Democrats and that he would be disappointed if anything he said was taken out of context.

“This is the latest example of a campaign that offers the people of Maryland nothing – no record of accomplishment, no ideas, nothing but insider endorsements and now, dirty tricks,” Thornell said of Brown’s team.

Gansler’s meeting, held at the Roger “Pip” Moyer Recreation Center, a public facility operated by the city of Annapolis, was advertised on Facebook as a volunteer outreach event for Anne Arundel County residents. The Facebook page said that “anyone who is interested is encouraged to come.”

At one point, Gansler asked whether any reporters were present, according to the recording. “Probably not, right?” he said before continuing.

During the meeting, he confirmed that he plans to formally announce his bid for governor in late September and said that he will announce his choice of a lieutenant governor candidate “a week or so later.”

“It will be an African American, and it will be someone from Baltimore or Prince George’s,” he said. “I cannot overstate the amount of pressure I have from both of those places to get a person from there.”

On the recording, Gansler mocked Brown, a former Prince George’s delegate, for his choice of a running mate, saying he picked Ulman in June because Ulman came with a “dowry.”

Earlier in the year, Ulman, who had been planning a gubernatorial bid, reported having $2.1 million in the bank, more than the $1.6 million that Brown reported. Gansler had $5.2 million at the time.

Brown “picked up Ken Ulman for the dowry,” Gansler said. “He got the $2 million dowry. . . . I like Ken, he’s a very good guy and a competent guy. . . . But Ken doesn’t do anything for [Brown] electorally, because no one’s heard of him outside of Howard County.”

Gansler defended the timing of a September announcement, saying more people will be paying attention then. But he acknowledged that the governor’s race is in an “awkward time,” given Brown is a declared candidate and he is not. A third Democrat, Del. Heather R. Mizeur (Montgomery County), is also running.

In recent weeks, Brown has picked up endorsements from a string of prominent Democrats, including O’Malley, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawling-Blake, U.S. House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (Calvert) and others.

Brown “is going to have every establishment figure supporting him, which actually I think feeds into our narrative,” Gansler said. “You know, the machine versus Marylanders. Are you running for governor of Annapolis or governor of Maryland? That will help us.”

Gansler also noted that no lieutenant governor in Maryland has ever been elected to the job of governor. Brown, he said, has a reputation as “the invisible lieutenant governor — there’s nothing going on there.”

Meanwhile, Gansler said, candidates with résumés similar to his have prevailed in recent gubernatorial races in states including Virginia and Pennsylvania.

“The attorney general always wins,” Gansler said. “We’re against criminals, we’re for consumers, we’re statewide and we don’t vote.”

Gansler said he is confident that in the June primary against Brown, “I’m going to crush him in Montgomery County,” the state’s largest jurisdiction and Gansler’s home.

In Prince George’s, Brown’s jurisdiction, “I actually think we could beat him. . . . Baltimore City, depending on our lieutenant governor, we could beat him.”

Gansler said it is “laudable” that Brown wants to be the state’s first black governor.

But in making the case for his strength among African Americans, Gansler pointed to his record on helping minority homeowners fight foreclosures and his plan to focus on closing the minority achievement gap in Maryland schools as governor. Gansler also highlighted his early support for Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential primary contest. Brown initially backed Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“Look, there’s no one bigger on diversity than I am,” Gansler said. “When Barack Obama wanted to run, I said I’m not going to judge anyone on the color of their skin. I’m gonna judge on the content of their character, and who is the better candidate. And I thought Barack Obama was the better candidate. [Brown] went a different direction there.”