Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler came under fire Tuesday for comments that his top rival in the Democratic primary for governor is running on little besides his African-American heritage.
Gansler told a group of potential volunteers that Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown's campaign strategy amounted to "Vote for me, I want to be the first African-American governor of Maryland," according to a transcript of the secretly taped meeting published by The Washington Post on Tuesday.
The attorney general went on to criticize Brown's record, calling it "a little thin" and accusing him of "trying to get coronated" by the party establishment.
The remarks sparked an escalating exchange between the two prominent Democrats. Brown's campaign called for an apology. Gansler refused to give one, instead lobbing back criticism that Brown has been dodging a scandal in Maryland's prison system.
"I'm disappointed that Doug Gansler has decided to ignore my record and instead focus on race in this election," Brown said in a statement, though he declined to be interviewed.
"Doug Gansler is out of control before this campaign even started," added Brown's campaign manager, Justin Schall. "He got caught red-handed attacking other Democrats. Gansler's the only the one talking about race."
Gansler strategist Doug Thornell shot back, "Spare us the phony outrage. The Brown campaign has spent more time stirring up controversy and division today than they have spent the entire campaign addressing important issues like the prison crisis, on which he has been all but silent."
On his way in to a meeting with pro-transit activists Tuesday night, Gansler refused to back down and insisted he was not making race an issue in the governor's race.
"This should not be about race. This should be about our record, where we want to take the state of Maryland to build the best Maryland, whose got the best character, whose got the best leadership qualities."
While Brown supporters and others were quick to chastise Gansler and predicted his remarks about race would alienate voters, some observers discounted whether they would significantly affect the 2014 race for governor.
Gansler's campaign did not dispute the authenticity of the recording of the meeting, which took place in Annapolis in July, but accused the Brown campaign of "dirty tricks." The Brown camp denied any involvement in the recording or its distribution.
Thornell said Gansler "understands that taken out of context, as it was, his words could be misinterpreted by some, and for that he is deeply disappointed. "
The comments in the secret recording are the first major flap in the campaign to succeed term-limited Gov. Martin O'Malley.
Gansler "has just offended a whole lot of voters he cannot afford to offend," said Donald F. Norris, chairman of the public policy department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Were another candidate to imply that the only reason Gansler was a contender for governor is that he's Jewish, "that would inflame Jewish voters, as it should," Norris said.
Brown, the son of a Jamaican doctor and a Swiss mother, has not overtly campaigned on his heritage since launching his campaign in May, though some supporters have stressed that his election would be a milestone for Maryland African-Americans. African-American voters make up roughly a quarter of the state electorate and a larger percentage of Democratic primary voters.
On the recording, Gansler said he plans to formally launch his campaign in September and name an African-American lieutenant governor to the ticket a few weeks later. "It will be an African-American, and it will be somebody from either Baltimore or Prince George's," he said. "I cannot overstate the amount of pressure I have from both of those places to get a person from there."
Asked by reporters why he would specify the race of his running mate if race was not an issue, Gansler insisted there was no contradiction.
Gansler complained that the recording was made at a private meeting of his supporters.
"Obviously, that was a felony. That was a misuse of the wiretap statute," he said, referring to a law requiring the consent of both parties to record some conversations. He added, however, that his office would not prosecute the alleged offense.
There is some question about whether the person who made that tape could be prosecuted. In 2009, Assistant Attorney General Kathryn Rowe wrote an advisory opinion saying surreptitious taping of a political meeting would not be an offense if the meeting were open to the public because there would be no expectation of privacy.
The Gansler camp insisted that the meeting was private, but The Washington Post reported that a Facebook invitation said the meeting was open to all.
Some African-American elected officials found the comments alienating, while others considered them irrelevant.
Del. Aisha Braveboy, chair of the General Assembly's Legislative Black Caucus and a Prince George's County delegate planning to run for attorney general, said Gansler's candid talk on campaign strategy, while indelicately phrased, would be more significant if it were attached to campaign literature instead of off-the-cuff remarks.
"At the end of the day, when people are talking to their campaign volunteers, they might make remarks that they wouldn't have said in other settings," said Braveboy, who has not backed a candidate in the governor's race.
"All of the candidates would do themselves justice in terms of seeking support from the African-American community," she added. "I don't think you can go to the African-American community and say, 'Hey, I'm black. Vote for me.'"
But Montgomery County Councilwoman Valerie Ervin, a Democrat who supports Brown, said she found Gansler's comments "disturbing."
"Somebody in the '50s might have gotten away with some of these things, but not somebody who wants to be governor of Maryland," she said. Brown, Ervin said, is "running on experience."
Brown was the first to declare his candidacy for the June 2014 Democratic primary for governor, quickly receiving the support of O'Malley, whom he has served as lieutenant governor for seven years. Brown previously spent eight years representing Prince George's County in the House of Delegates, and he also served in Iraq as an Army officer.
Gansler, a former state's attorney, has yet to formally declare his candidacy in the Democratic race, which also includes Montgomery County Del. Heather Mizeur. Through a spokesman, Mizeur declined to comment on Brown-Gansler conflict.
Gansler is known for being blunt at times, which fellow Montgomery County Democrat Del. Sam Arora counts as a weakness and a strength.
"He will tell it like it is, at least how he sees it," said Arora, who clerked for Gansler during law school and said he, too, has not backed a candidate. He compared Gansler to Vice President Joe Biden.
Maryland Policy & Politics
"On occasion, it might get him in some trouble, but it also is what many people appreciate about him. It's Bidenesque. In an age of carefully scripted campaigns, he will stand out. Whether that will help or hurt him at the polls next year remains to be seen," Arora said.
Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat who supports Brown, said voters deserved more credit than the assumption they cast ballots along racial lines.
"It's insensitive about voters," she said.
Political scientist Todd Eberly of St. Mary's College said Gansler accurately described race dynamics and strategy in Maryland politics.
"Anybody who follows Maryland politics shouldn't be surprised," Eberly said. "I don't think it should shock anyone that he's looking for an African-American running mate, the way it didn't shock anyone that [Republican gubernatorial candidate] David Craig picked a woman. We live in an age now where we don't see a ticket with two white men running on for governor — not in Maryland."