We have the first gaffe of the 2014 governor's race, and it's a doozy. The Washington Post reported Tuesday on a speech Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler gave to a roomful of volunteers for his nascent gubernatorial campaign in which he suggested that his chief rival for the Democratic nomination, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, was counting on his race, not his accomplishments, to win. Mr. Gansler goes on, according to an audio recording obtained by The Post, to make a number of blunt assessments about the role of race in the contest, which have generated swift condemnation from the Brown camp.
This was not quite on par with the recording of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's infamous 47 percent speech — at least Mr. Gansler was acting patronizing and insulting toward Mr. Brown rather than the voters — but it certainly doesn't help a candidate who had previously been getting attention for focusing on the issues at a time when Mr. Brown was not. For most voters, this probably serves as a first real introduction to the blunt-to-a-fault Doug Gansler who seems at times to say out loud whatever thought flits through his head. Maryland voters have rallied around that kind of person in the past — William Donald Schaefer being the prime, but not only, example — but it's fair to wonder whether the state's tastes have grown more sensitive and refined.
The cliched definition of a gaffe is when a politician gets caught accidentally telling the truth, but that doesn't quite fit in this case. The most explosive part of Mr. Gansler's remarks was his claim that "Right now [Mr. Brown's] campaign slogan is, 'Vote for me, I want to be the first African American governor of Maryland." Say what you will about the Brown campaign, but he has not made his race an issue, either explicitly or implicitly.
The fairer criticism of Mr. Brown's campaign is to say his slogan is something along the lines of, "Vote for me, I'm Martin O'Malley's lieutenant governor, and every politician in the state has endorsed me." Indeed, Mr. Gansler hit closer to the mark with the second half of his thought — to be the first African American governor is "a laudable goal, but you need a second sentence: 'Because here's what I've done, and here's why I've done it.'" In the early stages of the contest, Mr. Brown has appeared more intent on convincing voters that he will be the next governor than on offering any hints about what he would do if he wins. This imperial air to his campaign carried through to its reaction to Mr. Gansler's remarks. Mr. Brown issued a statement to The Post that did not address Mr. Gansler's comments at all; instead the campaign trotted out his running mate, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, to be outraged on his behalf.
Mr. Ulman accused the attorney general of crossing the line with his remarks, and he did in suggesting that race was Mr. Brown's chief qualification. But the notion that race is part of the political calculations for 2014 (or any other election year in Maryland) isn't exactly news. African American voters play a pivotal role in Democratic primaries, and it's no coincidence that the last two governors have picked African American running mates. Still, it's no sure thing that black voters will deliver a Democratic primary victory to an African American candidate, even a well qualified one — witness Sen. Ben Cardin's defeat of former NAACP head Kweisi Mfume in 2006. The extent to which Mr. Brown can attract large numbers of African American voters, and whether Mr. Gansler can reduce that presumed advantage, is just as germane as the question of how much Del. Heather Mizeur of Takoma Park will cut into Mr. Gansler's presumed advantage in Montgomery County.
The danger to Mr. Gansler in this episode is that it fits a pattern. That pattern isn't one of racial insensitivity — among other things, as Mr. Gansler pointed out in his recorded speech, he was an early supporter of Barack Obama's presidential candidacy and chaired his Maryland campaign in 2008. (Mr. Brown endorsed Hillary Clinton in the primary.) But Mr. Gansler does have a history of making ill-considered remarks that serve as a distraction. If anything is going to dog him in this campaign, it's that, not what he said about Mr. Brown when he thought no one was listening.
Brown when he thought no one was listening.