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