Here comes Gansler

Friday, Jan. 19, 2007

According to the Baltimore Sun, Annapolis is "certain to be a kinder, gentler place" under one-party rule. Don't bet the ranch.

Ambition, rivalry and human nature know no partisan bounds. Even without a Republican governor there will be plenty of conflict and Maryland's fledging attorney general is already rocking the boat.

Doug Gansler, 44, is a born political iconoclast. He became the first attorney general ever elected from Montgomery County by mounting his campaign long before the venerable incumbent, Joe Curran, made up his mind to retire. While the other attorney general wannabes waited for Joe, Gansler was already running.

Bright, brash and ambitious, Gansler follows the tradition of Maryland political loners like Joe Tydings (his mentor) and Steve Sachs (not his mentor), who rose to office outside, and despite, the Democratic Party buddy system. Rather than waiting their turns, these politicians catapulted themselves ahead by sheer skill, timing and audacity.

Established in 1864, the Attorney General's Office served as a legal counsel to state government , a tedious bureaucratic job. The attorney general reviews state contracts, deeds and leases; renders legal opinions for the governor, the legislature and every state agency; regulates securities and has some limited prosecutorial power granted by the governor and the General Assembly.

Gansler, a former prosecutor, wants to expand and enhance these crime-busting duties, modeling himself after Eliot Spitzer, the New York attorney general who rode his anti-white collar crime crusade right into the governor's mansion. But many fellow Democrats fear Gansler sounds more like Eliot Ness.

"We're going to wage an all-out assault on those who pollute our air and our water..." Gansler warned at his swearing-in. And he wants authority to go after gangs, saying, "I view the Attorney General's Office as a prosecutorial role."

However, the new attorney general's brashest heresy, so far, is his decision to move his Criminal Appeals Division from Baltimore city to the D.C. suburbs. Judging by the uproar, you'd think he was moving the NFL Ravens to Indianapolis.

The criminal division is 17 assistant attorney generals writing the state's appellate briefs and occasionally arguing them before the Appeals Court in Annapolis. But Baltimore's power structure views a young, Montgomery attorney general removing jobs from the city as a public blasphemy.

Doesn't Gansler understand Maryland's political protocols? Like an aged great-aunt who insists on being told she's still young and beautiful, the city takes umbrage at any suggestion it's no longer the center of Maryland's universe.

"I think it makes no sense," says Lisa Gladden, a Baltimore lawmaker. And the Sun pointedly warns against "Removing jobs from a city burdened with high unemployment." Huh? Are we worried about the unemployment rate among city attorneys?

But Gansler, a new generation politician, simply recognizes the new realities. Perhaps locating so many state agencies in Baltimore made sense 60 years ago when half the state's population lived there, but today only 11 percent live in the city. And over the past 15 years, Baltimore's population declined 12 percent while Montgomery's jumped 20 percent and Prince George's grew 16n percent.

Gansler is also counting votes. He knows he owes his election victory to the D.C. suburbs and so do the other statewide Democrats. For instance, O'Malley won only 115,000 votes from Baltimore city compared to his 190,000 votes from Montgomery and 162,000 from Prince George's.

Frankly, Gansler's gambit raises the question "why is the Attorney General's office located in Baltimore in the first place?" According to Gansler, every other Attorney General's Office in the nation is located in the state capitol. Heck, all Maryland's federal courts were in Baltimore until the late 1980s when the D.C. suburbs fought for a satellite court house in Greenbelt. And it wasn't until the 1970s that the State Department of Budget and Fiscal Planning was moved from Baltimore to Annapolis where it belonged in the first place.

Preoccupied by deficits, the legislature, death penalty, gay marriage, slots and hiring a staff, the last thing Governor O'Malley needs (or appreciates) is a no-win food fight between his city and the D.C. suburbs.

And, frankly, there's already enough bad blood between O'Malley and Gansler, who defeated O'Malley's dad for state's attorney in 1998. Nor do the O'Malleys appreciate Gansler's inherent contradiction that Joe Curran (O'Malley's father-in-law) was a good attorney general, but now much more is needed. Maybe that's why the governor-elect didn't find time to attend Gansler's swearing-in ceremony.

Doug Gansler didn't get this far by worrying about the other politicians' feelings. "I'm not exactly the poster boy for the Democratic establishment," he quips. So expect to see him continuously on camera, constantly upstaging O'Malley despite that new kinder and gentler feeling in Annapolis.

Blair Lee is CEO of the Lee Development Group in Silver Spring and a regular commentator for WBAL radio. His column appears Fridays in The Gazette.