The last time Doug Gansler ran for governor eight years ago, things didn’t go as planned.
Gansler, who is white, accused a Black rival of relying on little else other than his race to sway voters. A newspaper revealed he’d pushed his state police drivers to drive recklessly. Another newspaper published pictures of Gansler at a beach party where there were signs of underage drinking.
Gansler, then the state’s attorney general, got trounced in the Democratic primary that year, with just 24% of the vote to winner Anthony Brown’s 51%.
Gansler retreated from public political life, focusing his energies on helping attorney generals around the nation, spending time with his family and engaging in his passion of lacrosse.
“I needed a break and I enjoyed the break,” Gansler said.
Now he’s back. The question is whether Maryland Democrats, humbled by losing three of the last five governor’s races, are willing to welcome a candidate with his baggage.
Gansler, 59, is part of a crowded and talented field of 10 Democrats on the ballot for their party’s nomination for governor in this summer’s primary election, alongside four Republicans. All are hoping to succeed term-limited Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican.
Looking back, Gansler is convinced he could have beaten Hogan in 2014 if he’d been the Democratic nominee. And though he opted out of the 2018 race, he thinks he could have ridden that year’s blue wave to the governor’s mansion.
And he thinks he’s got a chance in 2022, too, even though polling suggests he lags behind the front-runners: Comptroller Peter Franchot, author Wes Moore, and Tom Perez, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
Gansler is a Yale alumnus who worked as a federal prosecutor, spent eight years as Montgomery County’s elected chief prosecutor and served another eight years as the state attorney general.
“I truly believe in the power of government to effectuate positive change, and helping people and seeing problems and trying to fix them,” Gansler said. “And that’s what I did in my 23 years [in government], I sort of used the levers of government to make changes that I wanted.”
When Gansler launched his campaign, he positioned himself as a progressive — but not too progressive — candidate who is the best shot for Democrats to win back the governor’s mansion in November.
As the campaign has worn on, Gansler has narrowed his focus to fighting violent crime, particularly in Baltimore City. He regularly touts his credentials as a former local prosecutor and state attorney general.
A Gansler TV ad opens with a dramatization of a driver being carjacked by a hooded and masked man carrying a crowbar. Gansler goes on to describe how he’ll have “a balanced approach to safety and justice” if elected.
During the lone televised debate so far, Gansler made his pitch clear: “This election is about crime and criminal justice … I’ve been fighting criminals and gun crime for 22 years.”
With public safety top of mind for Marylanders who are exhausted by pervasive community violence and fearful of mass shootings — ranking behind only inflation and gas prices, according to a recent Goucher College Poll of Maryland voters — Gansler is pitching himself as the right candidate for the moment.
He touts his record as a prosecutor, saying he worked to put criminals behind bars while working on reforms to avoid unduly imprisoning people for minor offenses. (In the TV debate, Gansler said he was the only candidate with criminal justice experience, only to be corrected by Perez, who was a federal prosecutor and later the top civil rights official in the U.S. Department of Justice.)
As governor, Gansler’s public safety promises include hiring 1,000 police officers across the state, adding streetlights and surveillance cameras in Baltimore, pushing for better pay and training for police and adding more armed police officers to schools.
“People want to be safe, and they deserve to be safe,” Gansler said.
His proposals, however, have drawn criticism from other candidates who’ve said they represent outdated thinking that doesn’t work. At a recent forum, John King, a former U.S. secretary of education, said Gansler’s school resource officer plan is taken from an old-school playbook and would contribute to the “school-to-prison pipeline” because kids are more likely to be arrested when there are police in their schools.
Gansler insists he can balance the needs of communities with cracking down on criminals.
“There has to be a recognition that crime disproportionately affects communities of color and underserved communities. That’s where people are getting killed,” he said.
Gansler said his view of criminal justice is “pushing crime down and justice up.”
When he led Montgomery County’s prosecutors, Gansler says he increased gender and racial diversity among his staff. He instituted “community prosecution,” where some of his assistant state’s attorneys were assigned to geographic areas — much in the way that police patrol officers are — instead of being assigned to prosecute a certain category of crime, such as robberies or domestic violence. The result, Gansler said, was that those prosecutors got a better understanding of what was happening in neighborhoods and were able to build trust in the community.
Gansler said he also was an early proponent of drug courts, where low-level offenders are put on probation and coached through treatment and other supports instead of being sent to jail.
But Gansler has been criticized for his tactics outside the courtroom. In 2003, the state’s highest court sanctioned Gansler for public statements he made about pending criminal cases which, the court wrote, had “a substantial likelihood of depriving several criminal defendants of fair trials.” Gansler said at the time the reprimand was a warning to follow the rules, but that he had a “moral, legal and ethical responsibility to inform the public about criminals.”
Gansler is also trying to remind voters of his record on other issues.
He promotes his environmental record, noting that as attorney general he wasn’t shy about suing polluters.
Gansler also was an early backer of same-sex marriages before they were legal in Maryland or nationwide. One conservative state delegate tried to impeach Gansler in 2010, when he wrote a legal opinion that Maryland should recognize such marriages from other states.
Gansler said he was “years ahead” on the issue.
“My own people told me, ‘You can’t do that, it’s bad for your politics,’” Gansler recalled. “I was like, ‘No.’” (Despite the controversy, no one filed to run against Gansler that year and he coasted to reelection with 98% of the vote.)
Jessica Douglass has been setting up meetings and knocking on voters’ doors in Frederick, spreading her firm belief that Gansler is the right candidate for Democrats to send to the general election in November.
With a strong public safety message and experience as a prosecutor, Gansler can appeal to independent and Republican voters and beat the Republican nominee, Douglass said.
“We just need to have a Democrat in the governor’s mansion and I think Doug has the universal appeal to win in November,” said Douglass, a special educator.
She thinks Gansler can win in November and partner with Democratic lawmakers on issues like gun violence prevention.
“Wouldn’t it be great if we had a gov who could help us get the bills over the finish line?” she said.
As for his unsuccessful 2014 campaign, Gansler believes that’s old news in the minds of voters. He said no one brings up the issues when he’s out meeting voters.
The problems with the trooper and the beach party were pushed into the public eye, Gansler alleges, because he wasn’t the favored candidate of political insiders.
He said he didn’t urge the state troopers assigned to his security detail to drive recklessly: “They made up the whole trooper thing, it was sort of incredible.”
When it comes to the beach party, Gansler maintains he was being a good parent by keeping an eye on his son and his friends as they celebrated their graduation at the beach. Still, he acknowledges he could have handled the fallout from the party better.
“I mean, the fact that I checked on my son at a party? That I care about him?” Gansler said. “I think what I should have said at the time was: ‘Yeah, of course I checked on the well-being of my son at a party before he went to college the next day. You can vote for the father that does that, or you can vote for the person that doesn’t do that.’”
Though the trooper and beach party stories gained significant traction — the beach party made national news — Gansler thinks they didn’t hurt him. The bigger problem in Gansler’s mind is that he wasn’t the “establishment candidate.”
Gansler isn’t the establishment candidate this time around, either. He hasn’t landed any major endorsements and loaned his campaign $800,000 in April to keep it afloat. But he remains hopeful that voters will give him a chance this time around.
“Rhetoric does not make a record,” he said in the debate. “I’ve gotten things done before, and I’ll do it again.”