Power Player

Will Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler’s bold moves take him all the way to the governor’s mansion?

By John Motsinger - November 2010

Power Player

Will Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler’s bold moves take him all the way to the governor’s mansion?

By John Motsinger - November 2010

-Photo by David Rehor

It’s Friday morning, four days before the Democratic primary for Attorney General, and the last thing on Doug Gansler’s mind is his reelection campaign. Instead, as he sits in his office on the 20th floor of a high-rise in downtown Baltimore, he recounts the latest stories of catching a phony campaign treasurer in Prince George’s County and putting an end to child prostitution on Craigslist.

“Every week is different,” says Gansler, slouching low in an armchair and kicking his feet up on the coffee table.

Such is life for Maryland’s Attorney General and, possibly, future governor. One day voter fraud, next day Internet safety—each new issue a step forward on his steady, as-yet-undeclared march toward higher office. But the question remains: Will Gansler’s strong opinions and brash confidence help or hurt him on the road to Annapolis?

Gansler, 48, was first elected attorney General in 2006 and is running unopposed in both the primary and the general election this year. This is the second time in three elections that he’s drawn no opponent—the other was his reelection bid for State’s Attorney of Montgomery County in 2002.

Gansler’s inclined to view that as tacit approval of a job well done.

“The people have already voted,” he says. “People may not agree with everything we do here, but I think they respect what we’re doing and think that we’re doing our jobs.”

Perhaps. But it’s not like he didn’t give the GOP plenty of fodder to use against him. At the end of February, Gansler made waves when he issued a legal opinion stating that Maryland law does not prevent the state from recognizing out-of-state, same-sex marriages.

A veritable press bonanza ensued. The Baltimore Sun and Washington Post ran lengthy profiles of Gansler, and he was mentioned as one of CNN’s “Intriguing People.” A week later, when same-sex couples were granted the right to marry in Washington, D.C., both The Los Angeles Times and New York Times ran feature stories quoting newlyweds from Maryland who readily attributed their matrimonial decisions to Gansler’s legal opinion.

Ostensibly, that opinion came in response to a request on the subject by openly gay State Senator Rich Madaleno (D-Montgomery County). But many viewed the sudden announcement as an attempt by Gansler to raise his profile during an election year.

Chief among his critics was Del. Don Dwyer (R-Anne Arundel County), who attacked Gansler for overstepping his authority and called for the Attorney General’s impeachment. A month later, his motion was introduced on the House floor and voted down 15-5 by the House Judiciary Committee.

Dwyer and Gansler took jabs at each other in the press, but the kerfuffle passed. Gansler says his support for gay rights was irrelevant to the ruling, which shouldn’t have been controversial, despite all the media attention it garnered.

“The law is crystal clear,” he says. “It’s really no different than Maryland recognizing out-of-state driver’s licenses.”

According to the 45-page opinion, Maryland has a duty to honor binding agreements made in other states based on simple contract law and principles of comity. Therefore, in the absence of strong state laws to the contrary, the default position is to recognize the rights of couples married outside the state.

Laura Leedy Gansler, the Attorney General’s wife, is a successful securities lawyer and author of popular nonfiction books, like Class Action, about an early case in sexual harassment law. She says people often conflate her husband’s personal views with his legal opinion. Because he is such a strong supporter of gay rights, people view the opinion as part of his personal agenda, she says.

“I don’t think it was,” says Laura Gansler. “He would’ve reached that decision anyway.”

Recognizing same-sex marriages from other states, however, doesn’t mean Maryland is ready to let gay couples marry. Though a Washington Post poll taken in May indicated for the first time that more Marylanders support gay marriage than oppose it, attempts to legalize same-sex marriage have so far failed.

That’s not so much a partisan issue as it is a generational issue, says Gansler.

“There are still people who hold the very outdated, scientifically disproved view that you just sort of wake up one day and decide to be gay,” says Gansler. “They think it’s a choice, as opposed to a way that you’re born.”

Gansler likes to point out that he is the only statewide elected official in Maryland to come out in full support of gay marriage. His progressive stance has earned him not only the Human Rights Campaign’s Ally for Equality award, but also a whole lot of campaign donations. Since March, Gansler has raised in excess of $373,000 from more than 600 contributions—more than half of that from outside the state. Not bad for a guy who’s not even in a real race this year.

Of course, there will be future elections. Gansler is widely considered a likely 2014 gubernatorial candidate and has even joked that AG stands for “aspiring governor.” Still, he’s loathe to focus on that aspiration.

“In politics, if you look too far down the road, you get run over by what’s right in front of you,” he says. For now, Gansler may be doing his best to take things one (uncontested) election at a time, but his strongest supporters are more sanguine about his prospects.

Former Maryland and U.S. Sen. Joseph Tydings, one of the Attorney General’s mentors, says Gansler has a responsibility to the people of Maryland to run for higher office.

“God knows we need people like Doug Gansler,” he says. Tydings says the key to winning the governorship will be for Gansler to keep doing what he’s been doing, calling the shots as he sees them.

“He needs to be independent and make decisions based on the law,” he says. “He needs to be a damn good Attorney General.”

So, will he be the next governor of Maryland?

“My mother thinks so,” Gansler quips.

Gansler’s parents deserve some credit for sending their son down this career path. His dad, Jacques Gansler, was under secretary at the U.S. Department of Defense under President Clinton and is now a public policy professor at University of Maryland. He and Doug’s mother, Alison Gansler (they’ve since divorced), moved the family from New Jersey to the Washington, D.C., area when their son was in grade school. Doug attended the prestigious Sidwell Friends School and was exposed to politics as an intern for U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley (D-NJ) and Sen. Birch Bayh (D-IN).

As an undergraduate at Yale, Gansler was a four-year starter on the varsity lacrosse team—earning all-New England and all-Ivy honors—and the campus chair of Gary Hart’s 1984 presidential campaign. (Gansler’s love of lax continues: He plays in an over-35 league and helped found the Charm City Youth Lacrosse League to encourage inner-city kids to play.) He went to law school at the University of Virginia and spent several years at private law firms until he landed a job as assistant U.S. Attorney. He stayed from 1992 to 1998, prosecuting more than 1,000 cases, including a high-profile conviction of a diplomat for killing a teen in a drunk-driving accident.

By then, Gansler had made friends in D.C.’s legal and political circles, which set the stage for his first election as State’s Attorney of Montgomery County in 1998. There, Gansler really started to make a name for himself.

As State’s Attorney from 1999 to 2007, Gansler earned a reputation as both a media hound and a sensational lawyer. He took on high-profile cases, convicting Mike Tyson of assault for a scuffle after a minor fender-bender. He publicly chastised a judge for a weak ruling in a child-molestation case. He earned the first-ever reprimand from the Maryland Court of Appeals for talking to reporters about two ongoing murder cases.

But Gansler was perhaps best known for prosecuting the infamous “Beltway Snipers” in 2006, even after they had received severe sentences for murders that took place in Virginia. Though his prosecution for the six Montgomery County murders turned up new evidence and led to the only full account of the killing spree from Lee Boyd Malvo, Gansler still had to defend himself against those who saw the trial as a publicity stunt.

Sen. Tydings sees his protegé’s willingness to take on big cases as a good thing, but he admits that Gansler’s candor is both an asset and a liability.

Tydings helped get Gansler elected in 1998 and has been a mentor ever since. The two meet once a month at a diner and talk on the phone regularly. Tydings says he tried to get Gansler to tone down his rhetoric in his early days as State’s Attorney.

His advice then? “Don’t answer too many questions. Keep your answers very short.”

Gansler hasn’t taken that message to heart. While other politicians equivocate and obfuscate, Gansler responds directly, expounding far beyond what’s required.

Until the opinion on same-sex marriage, however, he kept himself out of the limelight as Attorney General. Four years ago, Gansler was afraid he would be painted as a “tree-hugger” for his support of major environmental reforms, but those fears never materialized.

Gansler has stuck to his green agenda. Among the major accomplishments of his first term were the largest air-pollution settlement in U.S. history ($4.6 billion from American Electric Power), the largest water-pollution case in Maryland history ($1 million from Constellation Energy), and the largest civil penalty imposed for an oil spill in Maryland ($4 million from ExxonMobil). Whether his efforts to clean up the bay have scored him many political points remains to be seen.

“It’s not sexy,” Gansler says. “But it’s got to be done.”

Gansler says his job as Attorney General is apolitical. In the 18 years he’s been putting criminals in jail, he says no one’s ever accused him of being a liberal.

“I view myself as a pro-business, moderate, centrist Democrat who thinks, by the way, that same-sex couples should be able to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Sounds like a gubernatorial platform.

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