Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown became the first candidate to join the 2014 Maryland governor's race Friday with a call to close the gap between rich and poor in education, health and economic opportunity.
Before a crowd at Prince George's Community College that organizers estimated at 2,500, the Democrat outlined priorities that could have come straight out of the playbook of Gov. Martin O'Malley, Brown's term-limited partner in Annapolis.
Brown is the first candidate, Democrat or Republican, to formally announce his candidacy, and he did so in uncompromisingly liberal terms — pledging to maintain Maryland's No. 1-ranked school system, to keep college tuition low and to invest aggressively in infrastructure and career training.
"We're at our best when we take care of one another," he told the crowd. "Each of us is strengthened when all of us succeed."
While he praised the accomplishments of the O'Malley-Brown administration in advancing education, the lieutenant governor vowed to see that government benefits are more evenly distributed.
Among those on hand to lend support for Brown was Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Calvert County resident whose political roots — and part of the district he represents — are in Prince George's, Brown's home county.
Miller would not describe his appearance as an endorsement but came reasonably close.
"Right now, he's my favorite candidate," he told reporters.
Warming up the crowd, Miller praised Brown's military service as a judge advocate general in the Army and Army Reserve. Miller called the lieutenant governor the highest-ranking U.S. elected official to have served in Iraq.
Brown plans to follow up Friday's kickoff with an appearance Saturday with O'Malley in Waverly. He also plans events in Silver Spring and Frederick.
The lieutenant governor is expected to face a highly competitive primary in June 2014. Likely rivals include Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, Del. Heather Mizeur and Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, though Brown has put out feelers to Ulman as a potential running mate. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger is also considering a run.
On the Republican side, Harford County Executive David R. Craig and Frederick County Commission President Blaine Young are viewed as the top contenders. Also in the mix are Del. Ron George of Anne Arundel County and Dan Bongino, the 2012 GOP hopeful for U.S. Senate. An effort is under way to draft businessman Charles Lollar, a former candidate for Congress.
The Gansler campaign didn't wait for Brown's announcement to lob a verbal grenade his way. In an email Friday afternoon, Gansler adviser Doug Thornell suggested that Brown should have accomplished his goals — such as expanding health care and reducing disparities between rich and poor — during the current administration.
"Wasn't that what he was supposed to be doing for the last seven years?" Thornell asked.
Like President Barack Obama, Brown is a multiracial candidate who identifies as African-American. In Maryland, the black vote is expected to make up at least one-third of the Democratic primary electorate — a factor that is not lost on the candidate.
"I'm mindful of the historic significance of my candidacy — that I might be the first African-American elected governor in Maryland history and only the third in the history of this country," he said.
Brown can expect to have the wholehearted support of O'Malley, who has pledged to do all he can to make sure his longtime partner succeeds him.
O'Malley praised Brown in an email to supporters Thursday.
"For more than six years, Marylanders have benefited from the strength of Anthony's leadership," the governor wrote. "He spearheaded our new public-private partnership law that's estimated to create 4,000 jobs, he fought to expand health care to over 365,000 more Marylanders, and he led the way on actions to curb domestic violence."
O'Malley's support is a distinct advantage among some Maryland voters. Arthur Hock, a longtime Democrat from Chestertown, said he drove to the rally and cookout because "Martin asked me to support Anthony."
"He's an active lieutenant governor and he's very intelligent, too," Hock said.
Brown also has fans in his own right — especially in his home county. Regina Humaine-Rolle, a retired principal from Largo, praised his record on education.
"He has a history of supporting schools," Humaine-Rolle said. "He's about the children of our generation, and he believes in lifelong learning."
But demographics and the governor's backing by themselves are unlikely to gain Brown the nomination. He faces the challenge of holding white liberals who have supported O'Malley in such jurisdictions as Montgomery County, home to Gansler and Mizeur, and Howard County, where Ulman is popular.
Brown will be attempting to end a long losing streak for Maryland lieutenant governors seeking higher office.
His immediate predecessor, Republican Michael S. Steele, lost a bid for the U.S. Senate in 2006. The last Democratic lieutenant governor, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, lost her gubernatorial race in 2002 after a campaign that was burdened by the waning popularity of Gov. Parris N. Glendening and a stalling economy.
In earlier decades, Lt. Govs. Melvin "Mickey" Steinberg and Blair Lee III faded in the stretch after being tapped as early favorites.
Brown campaign manager Justin Schall said it would be important to show voters that Brown, while in tune with O'Malley, is his own person.
"The path to victory for the lieutenant governor is to translate his service to his country in the military and service to Maryland as lieutenant governor into the reason why people should vote for his vision for the next four years in Maryland," Schall said.
Should Brown win the primary, Schall said, he won't take the general election for granted — even in a state where Democrats hold a 2-to-1 voter registration advantage over Republicans.
"The lieutenant governor is a serious candidate, and he'll take the general election just as seriously as any other election he's involved in," Schall said.