BALTIMORE — Stacey Gurian-Sherman has voted for a Democrat in every election since 1976, when she worked on Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign as a college student.
But for the first time, in this year’s race for Maryland attorney general, she is seriously considering voting for a Republican– Scott L. Rolle.
“I was prepared not to like him,” admitted Gurian-Sherman, the director of JJ FAIR, a Maryland non-profit that advocates for families in the juvenile justice system. “But I was surprised by his candor, his sincerity, his knowledge of the issues and his take on how to remedy them.”
Voters like Gurian-Sherman are Rolle’s prime targets as he spends most of his campaign hours in what he regards as the heart of Democratic Maryland: Prince George’s, Montgomery, Howard and Baltimore counties as well as Baltimore City. Rather than focusing on swing voters or his home base in Western Maryland, the Frederick resident is aiming at diehard Democrats.
The counties targeted by Rolle have the largest percentage of Democrats in the state. For instance, 79 percent of Baltimore City voters are registered Democrats and 10 percent are Republicans. By contrast, in Frederick County, 36 percent of voters are Democrats and 45 percent are Republicans.
Rolle is facing a tough fight– the last Republican attorney general in the state was Alexander Armstrong in 1919– and if Marylanders vote along party lines, the Frederick County state’s attorney may be doomed: 55 percent of Maryland voters are Democrats and 29 percent are Republicans.
He’s also trailing badly in fundraising. As of Sept. 1, Rolle had about $69,000 on hand compared with Democratic opponent Douglas F. Gansler, who had $1.1 million.
Rolle, who ran unopposed for his party’s nomination, plans to air most radio and television advertisements in Baltimore City, Prince George’s County and Montgomery County.
Rolle also said he has spoken several times before heavily Democratic audiences, often at events Democratic primary candidates Stuart O. Simms and Gansler had missed.
For instance, he was the only attorney general candidate who accepted an invitation to speak at a Baltimore church for the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition forum a week before the primary.
After Rolle and representatives for Simms and Gansler spoke, several audience members in the crowd of about 45 stood to tell Rolle he had their support. Beyond his stance on the issues, he had their respect simply because he showed up, they said.
“I hope the other candidates are taking notice,” said Ron Samuels, a program coordinator in the Anne Arundel County Department of Social Services. “I’ve never voted for a Republican before. I don’t think I’ve ever considered it. I’m going to watch him very carefully.”
Rolle said he has been similarly well-received in other Democratic audiences, citing an NAACP forum at Prince George’s Community College last month. That forum won him the support of Cassandra Burckhalter, a swing voter who hadn’t followed the race until she met him.
Burckhalter, a motivational speaker who lives in Upper Marlboro, now coordinates Rolle’s campaign in Prince George’s County.
“I was impressed with his platform and some of his issues corresponded with my issues,” she said.
Rolle said, if elected, he will run the office in a nonpartisan manner, pointing out that he has never asked about party affiliation during a job interview.
He says he has some unorthodox views for a Republican. For instance, he drives a hybrid car and says he supports stricter enforcement of environmental laws, but doesn’t mention it as part of his platform on his Web site. He also put together a team in Frederick County to prosecute people who are cruel to animals and has brought home a different abused pet each time he visits an animal shelter– a total of three dogs and four cats.
“It’s kind of a zoo at the Rolle house,” he joked.
But he hasn’t abandoned his party’s platforms. His first priority is eliminating parole for violent sex offenders, he said. His Website states he also supports tighter borders against illegal immigrants and curbing “law suit abuse by overzealous trial attorneys.”
His goal in the campaign, he said, is to gain the ears of an audience that often writes off Republican candidates before examining their platforms.
“If you want to win statewide office in Maryland, you can’t concede any vote,” Rolle said. “All I ask people to do is keep an open mind, and don’t worry about the ‘R’ or the ‘D.'”
For Rolle, not conceding any vote means speaking to voters whom Democratic candidates may take for granted.
“I think [Democratic candidates] are taking for granted a wide spectrum of Democratic voters from moderate to Republican,” Gurian-Sherman said. “It’s the same mistake as the Kathleen Kennedy Townsend campaign.”
Aside from taking voters for granted, many have written Rolle off as unelectable. For instance, Gansler told the Washington Post in late August, “The primary is going to be the whole ball of wax.”
“”We’re confident, but not overconfident,” Gansler said in an interview Wednesday. “I mean, there hasn’t been a Republican attorney general since 1919… we feel like we’re in good shape.”
University of Maryland government and politics professor James Gimpel said Rolle’s campaign strategy is necessary to win a statewide office in a heavily Democratic state.
“He can’t really focus on Western Maryland because there aren’t enough people there to elect him,” said James Gimpel, a government and politics professor at the University of Maryland. “Even if every single one of those people turned out, it wouldn’t be enough to elect him.”
At the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition forum, listeners clapped loudest for Rolle. Despite their own passionate speeches, spokesmen for Simms and Gansler received only smatterings of polite applause. Listeners lingered afterward to chat appreciatively with Rolle, and many said they took the other candidates’ absences to mean they didn’t care about juvenile justice. “I’m finding myself in places where I don’t see any other Republican candidates,” Rolle said.