Republican attorney general candidate Scott L. Rolle said last night that a court should decide whether his opponent, Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler, has the decade of legal experience in Maryland required for the statewide office.
But Gansler, a Democrat, called a lawsuit challenging his qualifications -- filed last week by a Bowie resident being represented by Rolle's campaign manager -- a "frivolous, silly, desperate" complaint lodged because Rolle "is 30 points behind in the polls."
Gansler and Rolle traded barbs about the lawsuit, personal insults and other accusations in a live half-hour debate last night on Maryland Public Television, during which they also discussed the role of the attorney general and changes that they hope to make.
The two are vying to replace Democratic Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., who is retiring after five terms. The last time a Republican was chosen as Maryland's attorney general was in 1919.
The lawsuit claims that Gansler, 43, has not practiced law in Maryland for the 10-year period required by the state constitution. However, Gansler was admitted to the Maryland bar in 1989, according to judicial records, and clerked for a state appeals court judge in 1989 and 1990, before joining a Washington law firm and becoming a federal prosecutor. He has been state's attorney for eight years.
Asked about Gansler's qualifications, Rolle, 45, said: "This is a decision that should be made by the courts," adding that it was crucial for the "citizens of Maryland to know that their attorney general is constitutionally qualified."
Pressed after the debate about whether he supports the lawsuit, Rolle said: "I am not condoning it," then quickly added, "It is a legitimate issue."
Gansler said during the debate that the lawsuit was filed at least six weeks too late -- hinting at a procedural challenge his lawyer might make. A hearing is scheduled in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court today.
The same issue knocked Montgomery County Councilman Thomas E. Perez off the Democratic ballot for attorney general this summer. State courts found that Perez, a longtime lawyer who was admitted to the bar five years ago, lacked the qualifications. But the Court of Appeals has yet to issue its opinion explaining the ruling.
After Gansler accused Rolle of supporting the suit because he was lagging in the polls, Rolle accused his challenger of being "pretty famous for making things up as he goes along." The Frederick prosecutor noted a recent Baltimore Examiner poll that had him just 4 points behind his better-funded opponent. A Sun poll last month had Rolle 28 points behind Gansler.
Quoting a recent Washington Post article, Rolle also said that Gansler insulted his county by calling it "Fredneck" County. The county is small but fast-growing.
"How dare you, Mr. Gansler, look down your nose at the people of my county," Rolle said.
"Mr. Rolle knows I didn't say that," Gansler said about the quip, which the Post referred to in passing but not in a full quotation. "Somebody else says I said it."
Gansler noted that he has often campaigned in Frederick and captured three-fourths of the primary vote there.
Moving to more substantive issues, both men have laid claim to having the state's first dedicated computer crimes prosecutions unit, Rolle in 1997 and Gansler in 1999. After the debate, Rolle, who is ending three terms as Frederick's chief prosecutor, maintained that his prosecutions came first, and Gansler said that his was the first true unit.
Gansler and Rolle are laying claim to a desire to devoting the attorney general office's resources to protecting the environment.
Gansler said he would start by having teams walking the waterways to find pollution points and then go after polluters, even pursuing hog farmers in Pennsylvania who he said send farm waste into the watershed that feeds the Chesapeake Bay.
Saying that the walk would take an impractical 60 years, Rolle vowed to double or triple the number of assistant attorneys general -- now three -- working on environmental enforcement cases.