COLLEGE PARK – The non-denial denial, disavowing interest in higher office while not ruling anything out, has long been a necessity for the ambitious politician. Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler, who is rumored to be planning a gubernatorial run, brushes off questions about his political future with a metaphor.
“I tell my kids all the time — they’re thinking about where they’re going to go to college — I say don’t miss high school because you’re worried about where you’re going to go to college,” Gansler said. “If you do a really, really good job in high school you’ll be able to go to whatever college you want.”
To suss out the metaphor, Gansler’s first choice college is thought to be governor of Maryland, and his high school graduation is scheduled for 2014.
“I’m the attorney general, it’s a great job,” Gansler said. “It’s the second most powerful job in the state, it’s got an enormous amount of responsibility, and I have the ability using the law to effectuate positive change and that’s what I’ve done for the last 14 years.”
Those 14 years include eight as Montgomery County state’s attorney, where he prosecuted the “Beltway snipers,” and six years as Maryland’s attorney general.
“Doug Gansler has been an extremely active attorney general,” said Donald Kettl, dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland. “He’s been big on advancing issues of environmental protection and a variety of other issues having to do with civil liberties, like the battle of marriage equality.”
Gansler said he came into office with specific policy objectives, but he also stressed that one of the great things about the job of attorney general is its fluid agenda.
“I came in with my priorities being protect the environment, public safety because I’ve been a prosecutor for 20 years, and consumer protection,” Gansler said. “But you show up to work, you don’t know what’s coming, and that’s, for me, the most challenging yet interesting part of this job — the panoply of issues that come before me.”
Right now, Gansler said the biggest issue in his office is the implementation of mortgage relief settlements for homeowners.
As part of a national $25 billion mortgage fraud settlement with the country’s five largest lenders, Maryland has been allotted $960 million to help stem the flood of foreclosures.
“The money doesn’t go to some pool, some fund, and sit around,” Gansler said of the settlement. “It goes directly and imminently to the homeowners that need it.”
Maryland, through Gansler’s office, has disbursed about $225 million in aid through short sales, principal reduction, and loan modification, to more than 2,800 Maryland families so far.
Mortgages from the country’s five major lenders are covered under the settlement: Ally/GMAC, Bank of America, Citibank, Wells Fargo, and JPMorgan Chase.
Of the $225 million so far distributed, however, only 8 percent has gone towards principal forgiveness, which housing advocates said is the most effective way to keep families in their homes. The settlement requires that at least 60 percent of aid money be used to reduce loan balances. The banks said they expect to offer more principal forgiveness as the payouts continue.
Perhaps Gansler’s highest profile act as attorney general was the opinion he wrote in 2010 stating that Maryland courts and agencies could officially recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
The 55-page opinion, which took nine months to write, came in response to a request from a state legislator. It was not legally binding and did not permit same-sex marriage in Maryland. It only advised state government agencies that they were free to recognize same-sex marriages that were performed in other states.
At the time, Maryland law defined marriage as being between a man and a woman, but Gansler wrote that that law didn’t justify ignoring long-held common law traditions of recognizing valid marriages and contracts from other states.
In May, the Maryland Court of Appeals upheld Gansler’s opinion and ruled that same-sex marriages from other states must be valid in Maryland.
Gansler sees his opinion in the case as emblematic of the dual legal and political role of an attorney general.
“I think that the prohibition on same-sex couples getting married clearly violates the equal protection clause of the United States Constitution,” Gansler said. “But in court I still have to defend the law as it’s written because my client is the legislature.”
In hindsight, it is easy to view Gansler’s opinion as the beginning of the political push towards legalizing same-sex marriage in Maryland.
“He’s been a steadfast champion for marriage equality,” Kevin Nix, a spokesman for Marylanders for Marriage Equality, said of Gansler. “His opinion is one of several factors that brought us to this point.”
Before the opinion was released, Gov. Martin O’Malley had been a vocal supporter of civil unions for same-sex couples, but not necessarily marriage. In a statement following the opinion, O’Malley said that his administration would be “guided by the Attorney General’s thorough analysis.”
In February of this year, the Maryland legislature legalized same-sex marriage with O’Malley’s support. On Jan. 1, 2013, same-sex couples will be able to marry in Maryland unless voters shoot down a referendum on same-sex marriage on Election Day.
Although he has explicitly denied that he is running for governor right now, Gansler would be well positioned if he changed his mind.
He is especially buoyed by his campaign war chest. Friends of Doug Gansler, his political fundraising committee, had $4.1 million in January, the last time he was required to report contributions.
That amount is nearly four times as much as any of the other presumed gubernatorial candidates and five times as much as the other presumed front-runner, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown.
Besides Gansler and Brown, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman and Comptroller Peter Franchot are often mentioned as potential Democratic gubernatorial candidates.
In an August press release, O’Malley tacitly endorsed Brown.
“…I urge Anthony to continue his public service and pursue the greatest level of public responsibility,” O’Malley said, in the statement. “More than any other public official, Anthony Brown has my complete trust in his ability to serve the best interests of Maryland.”
Brown may have O’Malley’s backing, but Gansler’s money will make him a formidable candidate, analysts said.
“Gansler, without question, has the treasure chest,” said Todd Eberly, an assistant professor of political science and public policy studies at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. “He’s got the money that he can tap into early, trying to get out there and start this campaign.”
The massive war chest is the result of a full fundraising schedule during Gansler’s last campaign for attorney general in 2010, despite the fact that he ran unopposed in both the primary and the general election.
The lack of opposition could be both a blessing and a curse.
“When’s the last time he’s had a competitive race?” asked David Moon, a Democratic consultant and founder of the progressive blog, Maryland Juice. “He’s not had to have a fiercely competitive primary yet. For me a big x-factor is, do people actually have a sense of him statewide? Yes, they’ve voted for him, but when there were hardly any other choices on the ballot.”
Gansler refused to be drawn into the horse race mentality.
“My mantra has always been, do the right thing for the right reasons, be able to articulate those reasons, and people will respect the job you’re doing,” Gansler said. “That will make whatever you decide to run for next a lot easier.”