Gansler embraces role as scrappy challenger

A self-proclaimed 'fighter' tries to upset Anthony Brown and Democratic 'establishment'

  • Democratic candidate for governor Doug Gansler chats with The Baltimore Sun Editorial Board in March 2014.
Democratic candidate for governor Doug Gansler chats with… (Robert K. Hamilton, Baltimore…)
June 16, 2014|By Jeff Barker, The Baltimore Sun

Fifth in a series of profiles of candidates for governor.

When he campaigns in residential areas, Democrat Douglas F. Gansler practically sprints from door to door. He's trying to meet as many voters as he can. But it can appear he is chasing somebody.

Which, metaphorically, he is.

With the June 24 primary for governor approaching, Gansler, 51, trails Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown in the polls and is playing a role that suits the state attorney general's personality — the scrappy challenger.

Animated and blunt — sometimes bordering on audacious — Gansler is fond of portraying himself as a "fighter" for Marylanders on jobs, the environment, education and other issues. It remains to be seen whether the former Yale lacrosse star's relentless energy will be enough to win his own battle, which he characterizes as a fight to topple the better-funded, more heavily endorsed "establishment" candidate in Brown.

Underlying Gansler's campaign is the premise that Maryland's economic outlook is not as rosy as the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley and Brown suggests. Like Republicans in the contest, Gansler cites a recent Gallup poll concluding that 47 percent of Marylanders would like to move out of the state. An earlier Gallup poll said 67 percent of residents believe the state's taxes are too high.

"The tax burden and the companies fleeing our state with their jobs is truly choking the middle class," said Gansler, who maintains that Brown is too entrenched to change course.

Gansler's proposal to lower Maryland's corporate income tax and his frequent criticism of state tax increases during the O'Malley administration have led Brown's campaign to say that Gansler sounds like a Republican. Brown's camp calls the tax reduction proposal a "giveaway for corporations." Gansler counters that the initial cut of 0.25 percent in the first year would be offset by his plan to close a tax-avoidance loophole.

When Gansler decried "40 new taxes" under O'Malley, some health advocates wondered whether his criticism encompassed tobacco and alcohol tax increases approved in recent years. "The one-dollar-per-pack cigarette tax increase enacted in 2007, which Attorney General Gansler supported, has helped to reduce cigarette smoking by 32 percent in Maryland," Vincent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative, wrote last month in a letter to the editor.

Gansler's campaign said in reply that he still backs the two taxes and wouldn't seek to repeal them.

Because he must distinguish himself from the Democratic administration, Gansler may have had little choice but to adopt some Republican-sounding themes, said Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College in Westminster.

"What choice does Gansler have other than 'I'm a better human being'? He has to make some policy distinctions. Some of his attack lines were almost lifted from [Republican candidate] Larry Hogan's playbook," Smith said. "But it's hard to be a full-blown critic of Brown when you were a solid supporter of the governor."

Gansler, for his part, faults Brown for the state's disastrous rollout of the Affordable Care Act. The lieutenant governor was the administration's point person for implementing the health care reform law in Maryland.

Like the other two Democratic candidates, Gansler has a proposal to expand prekindergarten. He says a full-day program should be offered, starting with Maryland's neediest families. (Brown instead favors moving in the short term to offer half-day pre-K to all Marylanders who want it — and has sharply criticized Gansler's plan.)

Gansler's proposals also include a detailed plan to help criminal offenders return to society. It would create specialized courts to support the transition and provide computer tablets to inmates to further their education.

More so than Brown and the other major Democrat in the race – state Del. Heather R. Mizeur of Montgomery County — Gansler's personality has become a campaign issue.

He can seem unvarnished. "He doesn't have a lot of filters — he kind of says what's on his mind," said Lisa Heaton, who ran a youth lacrosse league in Bethesda, where Gansler lives, during a period in the early 2000s when he was a coach.

Among other players, he coached both of his sons, now 19 and 17. Heaton called him an "excitable coach" who might question an official's call with a "C'mon, ref," but she says she never heard him swear.

The boyish-looking Gansler still plays the sport and plans to participate next month in a lacrosse festival near Denver in the over-50 division. In 2009, he founded the Charm City Youth Lacrosse League, a nonprofit with corporate sponsorship providing Baltimore youths with mentoring and opportunities to learn the sport. One of his campaign ads features a man — mentored by Gansler years ago in southwest Washington — saying Gansler was "a father figure to me."

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