When he first ran for attorney general on the platform of environmental activism, Douglas F. Gansler said advisers warned him he'd be tagged as a "tree-hugging liberal." As he seeks re-election this year, and with an eye on the 2014 governor's race, Gansler has embraced another left-of-center cause that he predicts is headed toward mainstream acceptance: gay marriage.
Gansler, a Democrat who faces no opponent yet this fall, is transforming his campaign trail into a sort of rally for gay rights, jumping off from his controversial opinion, issued in February, that Maryland should recognize same-sex unions legally performed in other states.
This spring, Gansler has taken many opportunities to trumpet his belief that the prohibition of gay marriage is "a clear violation of equal protection" — and has hastened to point out that no other statewide elected official in Maryland is as vocal in backing same-sex marriage.
It's a calculation that some say could pay dividends in the form of voter support and campaign contributions for a politician who has never been shy about his ambition to run for higher office. But it's not without risk.
"Conventional wisdom is that it's an unpopular issue," Gansler said in a recent interview, and seasoned politicians tend to agree.
Though Maryland is heavily Democratic, it hasn't displayed a particularly progressive streak in recent years. Five states, most of them in New England, and Washington, D.C., have legalized same-sex unions. Here, the Democratic Party includes a sizable contingent of African-Americans and Catholics, two groups that traditionally have not supported gay marriage.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat who voted in 1973 for the law defining marriage as between a man and a woman, a view he continues to hold, said legalizing same-sex unions in Maryland would be "a very difficult sell."
Still, Miller said, Gansler "perhaps … should be admired for getting in front of something he feels strongly about."
Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat who frequently references his Catholic faith, has said he would sign a bill to legalize gay marriage, but he has not been outspoken on the issue.
There are signs that public opinion in Maryland is shifting. Legislation to legalize gay marriage, a perennial bill in Annapolis, had more co-sponsors than ever this year. And a recent Washington Post poll showed that for the first time a plurality of Marylanders support the concept of gay marriage.
Gansler was early to voice support, testifying at a legislative hearing two years ago in favor of legalizing marriages between gay people. Afterward, he said, some of his political advisers told him it was "politically wrong."
Last year, Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat who is openly gay, asked Gansler how the state would treat same-sex couples who have legally married in another state. Although Maryland law defines marriage as between a man and a woman, it is silent on how to handle marriages performed in other states. By contrast, 39 states explicitly prohibit the recognition of all same-sex unions.
In February, Gansler released his 45-page opinion. Based on the theory by which Maryland grants reciprocity to common-law marriages, which are not performed here, Gansler wrote, same-sex unions should be deemed valid.
Some lawmakers from both parties said Gansler overstepped his authority and unsuccessfully pushed for laws to undo the decision. Del. Don H. Dwyer Jr., an Anne Arundel County Republican, repeatedly called for Gansler to be impeached.
Louder than ever as he steps back onto the campaign trail, Gansler is making gay rights a key issue.
"To me it just seems so wrong that we deny human beings the pursuit of happiness," Gansler said.
He was the featured speaker last month at the first fundraiser for the Maryland chapter of the Stonewall Democrats, a group dedicated to helping elect candidates who support gay rights. He also has fielded questions about his opinion at other Democratic events, each time saying that though it was rooted in state law but adding that he'd like to see same-sex marriages legalized in this state.
At a Democratic forum early last month at First Unitarian Church in Baltimore, Gansler compared his stance on gay marriage to the one he took years ago on environmental matters, suggesting he may be ahead of the curve.
Gansler, 47, doesn't hide his ambitions. A Yale University lacrosse player with a jockish personality, he gained recognition during eight years as Montgomery County's top prosecutor, a period that included the 2002 sniper shootings and subsequent trials.
A prodigious fundraiser, his campaign account contained more than $2 million, according to the most recent filing in January. By contrast, predecessor J. Joseph Curran Jr. had about $240,000 on hand eight years ago, the last time he ran.