Maryland's three Democratic candidates for attorney general are likely to debate how to enforce environmental laws, fight high-tech crime and crack down on home foreclosures at their first debate Monday night in a race that will likely determine who will be the state's top lawyer.
State Sen. Brian E. Frosh, Del. Jon S. Cardin and Del. Aisha Braveboy are seeking the Democratic nomination in a race that party's nominee has won in every election for almost a century. The winner of this year's June 24 primary will face Jeffrey N. Pritzker, a Towson lawyer who would be the first Republican elected to the office since 1919, and Leo Wayne Dymowski, a Libertarian.
The attorney general acts as a legal adviser to the governor, the General Assembly and state courts — and the office's legal opinions can affect voters' lives on a broad range of issues, from consumer protections to civil rights. It was Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler's opinion, for instance, that prompted Maryland to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
"Attorney general advisory opinions can be very important," said Todd Eberly, professor of political science at St. Mary's College, in emphasizing that voters should care about the election's outcome.
The candidates also are expected to debate one another's legislative records in the General Assembly, where Frosh has more experience than his two opponents combined. The normally low-profile attorney general's race got increased attention recently when The Baltimore Sun reported that Cardin had missed nearly 75 percent of his committee votes during the legislative session that ended in April.
The report came at a time when Cardin is fighting a perception that his candidacy is based more on the popularity of his uncle, U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, than anything in the younger Cardin's record.
Cardin said he's proud of his family name but doesn't see it as the reason he's been in the lead. "My uncle is not campaigning. I am, so I hope my message is resonating," he said.
And while Cardin has expressed regret for the missed votes, he said he needed to spend time with his pregnant wife and young daughter and that voters have been understanding.
His opponents, however, have questioned his commitment.
Braveboy said committee work is a key part of the legislative process that shouldn't be missed. And Frosh said: "When you don't show up to do your job you have now, that's a pretty good sign you shouldn't get a promotion."
The three Democrats have been appearing jointly at forums across the state in recent weeks, but Monday night's event is the first time they will meet in a direct debate.
Frosh, a partner in a Montgomery County law firm, is presenting himself to voters as the most experienced and professionally acclaimed lawyer of the three. He said he plans to stress in the debate his record in the legislature, including on environmental protection.
Braveboy, who practices real estate law with a Bowie firm, points to her interest in juvenile justice and determination to go after banks that foreclose on houses then let them deteriorate. She said she plans to stress economic issues in the debate. Among them, she said, are employers who fail to pay their workers the legal minimums, and "paycheck fairness" between men and women.
Cardin, who has a solo law practice, promises to be a technology-savvy attorney general focused on issues such as cyberfraud and identity theft. He said he plans to emphasize public safety and to make a case that he is best-equipped to see that Marylanders "are treated fairly and equally and with dignity and respect."
Donald Norris, chairman of the public policy department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said Frosh needs to be uncharacteristically aggressive in confronting Cardin. He said Frosh should "absolutely" bring up the missed votes.
"He likes to be above the fray, but if he wants to win, you gotta do what you gotta do," Norris said. Braveboy, he said, can't win but could siphon enough votes away from Frosh to let Cardin win.
So far, Frosh has dominated the field in fundraising and endorsements. As of early January he had $800,000 in the bank to Cardin's $375,000. Braveboy lagged behind with about $20,000 on hand — far below what it usually takes to compete in a statewide race.
But Frosh's success in fundraising has not been reflected in polls. For instance, a Sun poll in February found that Cardin led the field with 18 percent of the vote. Frosh was in second with 6 percent. Braveboy had 4 percent. About seven in 10 Democrats were undecided.
"The Cardin name is everything in this race so far," Eberly said. "There is a general lack of interest in the primary. The June date seems to be catching people off guard and the tremendous number of undecided [voters] suggests that Cardin's lead is actually a matter of name recognition."
Each of the three candidates hails from a large county with a significant pool of Democratic voters. Frosh has represented Montgomery County for 28 years in the House of Delegates and later the Senate, where he has chaired a key committee since 2003 and steered many bills important to liberal voters to passage.
Cardin has represented the Pikesville-Owings Mills area for the past 12 years and is the only Democrat running statewide from Baltimore city or county. Braveboy, a two-term lawmaker from Prince George's County, would become the first African-American Maryland attorney general.
The candidates are seeking to win an office that in the early part of the 20th century was a stepping stone to the State House for three governors, the last of them elected in 1938. Gansler is attempting to become the first to make that jump since then, creating a vacancy the debaters are hoping to fill.
Maryland Policy & Politics
Frosh, the oldest of the candidates at 67, has consistently said he has no interest in running for governor and sees the attorney general's office as the culmination of a long career in politics. Cardin, 44, also has said he hopes to hold that office over the long term and doesn't foresee a run for another office. Braveboy, 39, isn't closing any doors.
As the state's chief legal officer, the attorney general works with all levels of state government and enforces a range of laws. While candidates for attorney general have been known to campaign as crime fighters, they handle many civil issues and leave prosecution of the most serious crimes to local prosecutors.
Normally the attorney general is expected to represent the state in legal matters regardless of his or her point of view. Former Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., for instance, routinely represented the state on appeal of death penalty cases in spite of his personal opposition to capital punishment.
Frosh, Cardin and Braveboy each said they could envision circumstances in which they would refuse to represent the state on constitutional grounds. Braveboy specifically pointed to the Maryland's treatment of historically black colleges and universities as an area where she believes the state is in the wrong.
To view the debate, voters will have to travel to the University of Maryland, College Park on Monday. The debate, to be moderated by Douglas Besharov, a Maryland professor of public policy, begins at 7:30 p.m. A video of the debate is expected to be posted Wednesday morning at policywatch.umd.edu/.
The next attorney general debate is scheduled for June 9 at the University of Baltimore School of Law.