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Gansler embraces role as scrappy challenger

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."

"There is not a lot of ambivalence toward Doug," Heaton said. "People either like him and think he's a pretty good guy, or they can't stand him."

Gansler says voters find his candor refreshing. "I think people are very cynical about politicians. I'd like to believe I am — and that I come across as — genuine, authentic, honest," he said.

But it can backfire, as when he suggested to a group of potential volunteers last year that Brown, an African-American, was relying primarily on his racial heritage to get elected.

Gansler faced allegations in 2013 that he ordered the state troopers on his security detail to drive recklessly and speed. He denies that.

And, in an incident last year reported in The Baltimore Sun, Gansler failed to break up a party his son attended where participants said there was underage drinking. After initially saying it was not his responsibility to interfere, Gansler admitted error. A photo of him — prominently showing two young men and a young woman dancing on a table — was widely displayed on national television.

Last week, Gansler said he doubted that the incident has had a long-term effect on his chances in the primary.

"What is the issue that would linger from that particular thing? Look, in terms of my character and my judgment, I've been in this 22 years being covered by the press. No one's ever questioned my character or my judgment. People get it, people understand that I'm an involved, loving parent," Gansler said. "The press is going to cover what they want, and they're going to sensationalize what they want, and that's part of it."

A recent poll of likely Democratic voters conducted for The Sun showed Brown with 41 percent support, Gansler with 20 percent and Mizeur with 15 percent. While Brown has the most campaign cash on hand, all three candidates have the money for television ads in the final push before the primary. The winner will face the Republican nominee in the Nov. 4 general election.

Gansler has never been shy about his ambitions. "I remember him telling me he was going to Yale back when he was 11 or 12. You got the sense he would do what he said he would do," said Steve Guttentag, a friend and classmate from Sidwell Friends School in Washington. Gansler indeed followed his father, Jacques – a former U.S. undersecretary of defense — to Yale. His mother, Alison, is a public school teacher.

Gansler might come from a privileged background, but Guttentag said the candidate never acted entitled. "He went to a great school and he is proud of it. He didn't grow up on the tough side of town. But nobody works harder than him," Guttentag said.

A former Montgomery County state's attorney, Gansler has emphasized environmental protection and Internet privacy during his two terms as attorney general.

In 2008, he became the first statewide official in Maryland to openly support same-sex marriage. Last year, he formally advised O'Malley that Maryland's comprehensive new gun control law was constitutional.

True to form, Gansler has campaigned aggressively. On the first day of early voting Thursday, he released a new proposal to give a combined $1,200 tax break over three years to families who earn less than $100,000 per year.

He has been darting around neighborhoods in Bethesda, Cumberland, Hagerstown and Ocean City. Going door-to-door is tiring, Gansler said, but he couldn't stomach losing a close race if he knew he could have done more.

"I don't want to leave anything out on the field," he said.

jebarker@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sunjeffbarker

Wednesday: Heather R. Mizeur

Doug Gansler

Age: 51

Job: Maryland attorney general

Experience: Assistant U.S. attorney, Montgomery County state's attorney

Education: A.B., Yale University; J.D., University of Virginia law school

Home: Bethesda

Family: Married, two children

Running mate: Del. Jolene Ivey

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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