Politics & Media
Jun 14, 2010, 05:55AM

Smiles, Cloaks and Daggers

As Maryland's 2010 gubernatorial election draws nearer, so does 2014.

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This year’s elections in Maryland are as much about 2014 as 2010. It’s Martin O’Malley’s final turn as governor and, win or lose, the launch of his Democratic successor advances a mighty leap from where it began four years ago with the election of a couple of rambunctious wannabees.

In the scramble to win re-election and retain the State House for Democrats, the O’Malley campaign may be the main event but the sideshows will be the campaigns-within-campaigns of those who consider themselves the natural heirs to a resume upgrade to governor. Whoever wins the governorship, in 2014 it will be either an open seat or one occupied by a Republican. In either case, the set-up occurs this year, four years in advance, for a Democratic runoff.

First and foremost is O’Malley’s understudy, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, the political wunderkind and Iraqi war veteran from Prince George’s County. But Brown’s future in Maryland politics is tentative. He’s been mentioned as a possible high-level Justice Department appointee, but Brown’s been on call-waiting from the Obama White House since the nation’s first black president took office nearly 17 months ago.

But there’s another political curse that Brown and any potential challenger, Democrat or Republican, must figure into the equation as well. No lieutenant governor—and there have been seven of them (including Brown) since the office was reconstituted in 1970—has ever succeeded to the top job although three of them have run for governor. The seven were: Blair Lee III; Samuel W. Bogley; J. Joseph Curran Jr.; Melvin A. Steinberg; Kathleen Kennedy Townsend; Michael Steele; and Anthony G. Brown.

Though the Democrats will no doubt campaign as a unified ticket, the real smile-and-dagger treachery will be taking place in kind of a secondary campaign down the ticket between Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and Comptroller Peter Franchot, both from the state’s most populous jurisdiction, Montgomery County. They both make no attempt whatsoever to conceal their ambition.

Gansler once remarked that his destiny is to become America’s first Jewish president. And, for his part, Franchot, after ejecting William Donald Schaefer from the comptroller’s office four years ago, has worked mightily to become the bad boy of Maryland politics although lately he has restrained himself and made peace with O’Malley.

And while O’Malley engages former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) in a slashing rematch between two guys who really dislike each other and who are last-man-standing competitors, Gansler and Franchot will be working the sidelines to broaden their constituencies and build alliances to succeed whoever is elected governor.

Begin with Gansler. As attorney general, Gansler is the state’s lawyer. He reads dry-as-dust law books, which is kind of like doing homework for a living. His primary function is to represent the governor and the General Assembly, i.e., the state, which occasionally can present a conflict. He can also prosecute polluters (as identified by the Department of the Environment.) He has, at last count, about 435 assistant attorneys general spread throughout the state’s bureaucracy. But occasionally, Gansler gets carried away by his lawyerly importance.

“The environment is my priority,” Gansler once said. “I’m the head lawyer in the state and my job is to promote and advocate for good public policy.” The last time anybody looked, the constitution said nothing about the attorney general’s job description requiring him to do anything but interpret and defend the laws of the state. And that recently got him in hot water.

Earlier this year, during the legislative session, Gansler issued a ruling declaring that same-sex marital contracts performed in other states must be honored in Maryland until the General Assembly or the courts decide otherwise. A storm brewed, but it passed. And now Gansler’s using the ruling to expand his standing among gay groups and liberal supporters of the ruling and the rights.

A numbnuts named Del. Donald F. Dwyer (R-Anne Arundel) attempted to have Gansler impeached over the ruling without understanding that the General Assembly has no jurisdiction over the attorney general. O’Malley recently ordered the ruling enforced within state agencies.

Before becoming attorney general, Gansler was state’s attorney for Montgomery County, where he had been criticized and censured for being a media hound as well as making ill-advised statements. And he once created a mild fuss when he ruminated in public about shifting a division of the attorney general’s office out of Baltimore and over to his home turf of MoCo. Another modest stir arose when Gansler talked openly about expanding the investigative powers of the attorney general’s office as well as when he created a new position to investigate civil rights violations.

Franchot, by contrast, is one lucky guy. He has the best $125,000 low-show gig in Maryland. He spent his first couple of years as comptroller picking fights with O’Malley and leaders of the General Assembly, where he once served as a member of the House of Delegates. He attends a Board of Public Works meeting once every two weeks; he nominally heads the Board of Revenue Estimates, which issues a public report twice a year; he has a seat on the state retirement system board; and he attends bond bid openings about twice a year.

The comptroller has about 1100 employees, a budget of nearly $120 million and three deputies at salaries of $150,000 each. The job description says that he collects almost $20 billion a year in taxes. But whoa! You lick a stamp, mail (or e-mail) your taxes and computers do the rest. If you don’t, his revenuers come knocking.

Franchot’s railed against state land acquisitions; he opposed the special session to raise taxes; he’s on a high-fallutin’ moral crusade against slot machines (he voted against last week’s $50 million state purchase of slots video terminals) even though he sponsored legislation to legalize slots twice, in 1998 and 2001; and he was out front in the fight to repeal the tax on computer services firms.

So those are the coming attractions on the campaign circuit this year and more than likely for the next four years. So far, O’Malley has no serious competition in the Democratic primary election. His only impediment to reelection is Ehrlich. The lack of a stiff primary election can be a mixed blessing. In the short view, it saves cash for an all-out assault in the general election. But in the long view, given the six to seven week battle line between elections, a tough September primary rallies the voters and keeps them juiced through the November general election. This can be especially critical with the new early voting schedule. An earlier Washington Post poll had O’Malley ahead by eight points, comfortable but not cozy. However, a Rasmussen poll late last week had the contest for governor in a dead heat, tied at 45 percent.

And looking ahead, Brown, Gansler and Franchot are frontrunners in 2014 simply because they’re already there. The winnowing begins now.


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