Surviving scandal, or not

A gaffe about his opponent's race, allegations that he is the backseat driver from hell and, most recently, an indelible photograph of him in the middle of a wild party of teenagers — is Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler having the worst run a candidate for higher office can possibly have?

In a word, no.


The world of politics is as rife with setbacks — from lapses in judgment to serious crimes — as it is with examples of candidates and officeholders who have survived them. While Gansler's campaign for governor seems to have lurched from one damaging revelation to another, political observers say he could recover as others have before him.

"Everybody, whether they're a politician or not, can have these kinds of problems," former Gov. Marvin Mandel said. "I think they can hurt a little bit, but I don't think it's fatal."


At 93, Mandel can look back on a career in which he survived both a corruption conviction — later overturned — and a marital scandal to become something of an eminence grise in the state.

"They were very kind to me," Mandel said of Maryland's voters, who re-elected him to a second term as governor despite a messy divorce and marriage to his longtime mistress during his first term. "I never lost an election in my life."

Voters may be kind — or have short memories by the time the primary election rolls around in June, or eventually decide that other issues matter more, political consultants say.

Some, though, say Gansler has wounded himself — the degree to which remains to be seen — given that some early polls showed him lagging behind his main rival for the Democratic nomination, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown.

"He was already an underdog," said Larry J. Sabato, who directs the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "Something like this can kill you."

Any number of politicians have managed to overcome scandals that seemed career-killing — and certainly were more serious than what Gansler has faced. Most famously, perhaps, Washington Mayor Marion Barry was videotaped smoking crack cocaine and imprisoned, but ultimately returned to City Hall, first as a councilman then as mayor.

There have been other comebacks, from President Bill Clinton, who survived the Monica Lewinsky scandal and impeachment, to David Vitter, the Louisiana senator re-elected despite his involvement in the D.C. Madam prostitution scandal. But some politicians have been sunk at least temporarily by scandal, including former Rep. Anthony D. Weiner, whose recent campaign for New York mayor was derailed when it turned out he had continued sending sexually explicit online messages to women.

In Maryland, some politicians are trying to come back from their problems. For example, Donald H. Dwyer Jr., the Anne Arundel County delegate sentenced this week to 60 days in jail for drunken driving and boating, has said he is running for re-election.


John T. Willis, executive in residence at the School of Public and International Affairs of the University of Baltimore, said that with the exception of Mandel there have been no significant examples of dramatic political redemption on the statewide level in the past half-century.

But there are local examples, he noted, such as the late Baltimore County Executive Dale Anderson, who was convicted on corruption charges and served a prison term in the 1970s before being elected to the House of Delegates in 1982.

The potential for overcoming his recent problems — along with the $5 million Gansler had in his campaign account as of the last reporting period, make it premature to write his political obituary, Willis said.

"Anybody with that much money in the bank in today's environment can reshape themselves to the mass public," Willis said.

The reason gaffes and scandals are important during campaigns is that they show a candidate's mettle — how he or she handles, or mishandles, bad news.

"People have a real window into a person when they're in a crisis situation," said Aileen Pincus, whose Silver Spring-based communications company specializes in media training and crisis management. "They're not cleaned up and pretty like at a press conference."


In Gansler's case, she noted, just as he was introducing himself as a gubernatorial candidate, revelations started to pile up. First, Gansler was recorded saying that Brown, an African-American, was running on his race. Then came reports about state troopers' complaints that the attorney general made them speed and drive recklessly. Most recently, there were revelations that Gansler, who had advocated for stricter laws against underage drinking, had been at a party that his son and some classmates held at a beach house — where some teenage participants later acknowledged that they had been drinking.

Pincus, a former communications director for now-retired Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, said Gansler's responses violated one of the rules of crisis management.

"I think the big one in this case is: When you're in a hole, stop digging," she said. After The Baltimore Sun story broke about the beach party, for example, Gansler added to his problems by changing his response, first saying that he didn't have "moral authority" over other people's children, then deciding that he should have done more at the time.

"Finally, 'I made a mistake,'" Pincus said, referring to Gansler's news conference on Thursday. "But is anyone listening anymore?"

Sabato agreed that Gansler missed chances to immediately take responsibility for the problems, rather than charging that the media had been tipped off to them by political opponents.

"He was really defensive. He just wanted to tough it out," Sabato said. "The goal is to make it a one- or two-day story — just go ahead and get it over with."


Time might be among Gansler's advantages at this point, according to Sabato.

"It's a long time to the primary," he said. "He's the AG, he can make news. And people forget quickly."

Still, political observers said, voters will be watching how Gansler navigates any further campaign turbulence for clues about his character and skills.

"I don't think this is [fatal] to his candidacy, because other factors will come into play," said Christopher Garrett, executive vice president of Smith & Company, the Washington-based crisis management firm that inspired the hit TV show "Scandal."

"But this will be one of the factors in how voters perceive him," said Garrett, whose firm has advised clients such as Lewinsky; quarterback Michael Vick, who went to prison for involvement in dogfighting; and former Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, who was arrested in a sex sting. "Credibility is the coin of the realm. Things that you do that undermine your fundamental credibility are going to be something voters factor in."

William Benoit, author of the book, "Accounts, Excuses, and Apologies: A Theory of Image Restoration Strategies," said voters tend to view scandals in context — how serious the allegations are, how much of a history do they have with the politician, how effective has he or she been in office.


"There are things people will forgive and things people will forget," said Benoit, a professor of communications studies at Ohio University.

In Gansler's case, Benoit said, his offenses might strike some as minor.

"There are far more serious allegations out there," Benoit said. "It's not like he was smoking crack or having an affair with an underage girl. It's not like a hit-and-run where he left someone lying in a ditch."

Politicians can change the conversation, Benoit said, by turning the focus to actual governance — "I'm doing my job very well."

Pincus, the crisis communications specialist, said Gansler has a lot of rehabilitation ahead of him. Turning around his troubled campaign, she said, is "a lot to ask. There's just so little room for error now."

Matthew Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at the Johns Hopkins University, agreed.


"If he does manage to pull this off and win the primary, it'll be one of the most remarkable political reversals we've seen lately," he said.

There might be another candidate for that title: Baltimore political consultant Julius Henson, who served jail time for his involvement in a 2010 scandal over robocalls in the gubernatorial election, has announced that he is running for a seat in the Maryland Senate.

But don't expect him to apologize and seek forgiveness.

"I'm not in the redemption kind of a campaign," Henson said. "I don't think that's my story, and that's not how I'm running."

He knows he'll have to explain the incident to voters, but believes they will see his conviction in the same terms he does: "as a bunch of unfairness."

"The people will have an opportunity to say, 'Julius Henson, you're a terrible person,' or 'Julius Henson, I believe you, I'll recommend you,'" Henson said. "We'll see. It's a contest."


Baltimore Sun reporters Michael Dresser and Erin Cox contributed to this article.