Role of attorney general debated

Gansler sees job as bay protector, Simms as `moral guide'

Maryland votes 2006

August 29, 2006|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,Sun reporter

Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler and former Baltimore State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms highlighted differences and sharpened campaign themes last night in their first encounter since the Maryland Court of Appeals made the Democratic race for attorney general a two-person contest.

In a half-hour debate broadcast live on Maryland Public Television, Simms, a Cabinet official in the administration of former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, offered his clearest vision to date of how he would approach the attorney general's job. Simms said he wanted to be a "moral guide ... to help the most vulnerable in our society."

"If discrimination is occurring, you have to clearly express your view. And I'm one, not just to follow the letter of the law, but certainly to give the moral conscience that I think comes with the obligation of being attorney general," said Simms, 56, who entered the race late after Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan abandoned his bid for governor in June. Simms was his running mate.

Key issue

Gansler said his signature issue as attorney general would be protecting the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

"I want to be the environmental attorney general," he said, saying that if elected, his office would crack down on coal-fired power plants, which he said threaten the health of poor and minority children disproportionately because of their locations. He said "we need to go after Pennsylvania" to prosecute hog farmers whose agricultural run-off enters the Susquehana River and eventually the Bay.

Gansler repeatedly stressed that he wants to be the "people's lawyer." Asked about potential conflicts because the attorney general's office represents by law both the governor and General Assembly, Gansler made clear where he believed responsibilities lie.

"You always have to come down on the side of the people of Maryland, and often the people's will is expressed through its legislature," he said. "And in the debate between the legislature and the governor, you have to come down on the side of the legislature."

Gansler sounds like he "wants to be state's attorney for life," Simms said.

"Everything he talked about, I did many years ago," Simms said, adding that he formed a domestic violence docket in Baltimore City in 1984 and that state police first prosecuted an Internet crime in 1991. "Everything he talks about has already been done in many respects."

The debate marked the first meeting of Gansler and Simms since the Court of Appeals ruled last week that Montgomery County Councilman Thomas E. Perez was not eligible to run in the Democratic primary because he lacked the 10 years of Maryland legal experience required by the state Constitution. All three had been seeking their party's nomination to succeed retiring Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. Republican Scott L. Rolle, the Frederick County State's Attorney, has no primary opposition.

Simms and Gansler differed notably on whether the attorney general's office should become more involved in criminal prosecutions.

Gansler said the office should pursue more criminal cases, and said he would establish a statewide gang unit and assign lawyers to go after what he called "the underbelly of the Internet." He said he would enhance enforcement of securities fraud laws and health care access.

Simms, however, chided Gansler for focusing on what is really the work of local prosecutors, noting that much of what the 390 lawyers for the attorney general's office do is "is civil representation."

Campaign costs

With recent polls showing many voters undecided, Gansler remains the better-funded candidate. His TV ads, which have been running in Baltimore since early August, began airing statewide last week, augmenting his nonstop appearances.

With $66,000, Simms is nowhere near as well-funded. He has been relying heavily on signs to raise his name recognition.

Perez had widely been considered the most liberal candidate in the contest, and had the backing of many unions and progressive groups. With many of those supporters up for grabs, Perez is expected to address supporters and the news media this afternoon. That may include throwing his support to one of the remaining candidates, but his campaign manager declined to speculate.

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