Josh Kurtz: Another Elusive Political Prize

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Quietly, Maryland’s Rod Rosenstein has become the longest-serving of the nation’s 94 current U.S. attorneys.

The quiet part isn’t surprising: That’s Rosenstein’s customary way of doing things.

But the longevity is – not because Rosenstein isn’t good at his job, but because of the politics that usually surround the appointments of the country’s top prosecutors. U.S. attorney is a plum political appointment – and ambitious lawyers are always lining up for consideration and beseeching a state’s U.S. senators to float their name to the president.

Yet President Obama and Maryland Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D) and Ben Cardin (D) have passed on the opportunity to replace Rosenstein, who was appointed by President George W. Bush and has been in office since July 12, 2005.

“He’s been there for a shockingly long time,” said one politically plugged-in Maryland attorney. “That’s a nice opportunity for a Democratic lawyer – we don’t have a ton of opportunities.”

Probably part of the explanation for Rosenstein’s long tenure is the fact that he was prosecuting a series of long-term and high-profile cases when Obama became president in 2009, including the explosive corruption cases involving former Prince George’s County Executive Jack Johnson (D) and several of his associates. Continuity back then made sense.

But political observers, courthouse watchers and people familiar with Mikulski and Cardin’s thinking said that Rosenstein earned the senators’ trust by running a low-key, non-political office. He took over at a time when the office was in turmoil – his predecessor, Thomas DiBaggio, was first reprimanded and eventually fired by the Bush administration.

“He’s reached out to people on both sides [of the political aisle],” said former state Attorney General Doug Gansler (D), who was Montgomery County state’s attorney when Rosenstein became U.S. attorney. “He hasn’t taken any cases that seem political from one side or the other. He worked really hard to diversity the office.”

Mikulski and Cardin are also grateful, sources say, that Rosenstein has focused on prosecuting Baltimore drug kingpins. With the turnover at the top of the Baltimore City state’s attorney’s office over the past few years, the U.S. attorney’s office under Rosenstein is regularly taking on drug and gun cases.

Rosenstein is now the second longest-serving U.S. attorney for Maryland in history, behind one Bernard J. Flynn, who served from 1934-1953 – essentially the length of the FDR and Harry Truman presidencies. But longevity and continuity is not all that unusual for top federal prosecutors. In recent years, according to the Justice Department, Patrick Fitzgerald, the corruption-fighting U.S. attorney for Northern Illinois, served from 2001-2012, and James Letten, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana, served during the same timeframe.

But Rosenstein wasn’t expecting to be a long-timer. In 2007, Bush nominated him for a slot on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit – a vacancy that, for a complicated set of reasons, had existed for seven years. But Mikulski and Cardin blocked his nomination, arguing that he didn’t have close enough ties at the time to the Maryland legal community. The Senate Judiciary Committee never took up his nomination.

Inevitably, with Obama’s term coming to an end, speculation is rising about how much longer Rosenstein, who is only 51, will hang on.

“At some point, Rod’s going to want to take another job,” said one political insider.

And of course, speculation is rising about who might be nominated to replace him.

Since the 1960’s, U.S. attorneys from Maryland have fit roughly into three categories: Former prosecutors or Justice Department officials, political rising stars, and people who are politically connected – or are political scions.

The latter category includes Joe Tydings, the U.S. attorney from 1961-1963, who was the son of a U.S. senator who later became a senator himself; George Beall (1970-1975), the son and brother of U.S. senators; and Lynne Battaglia (1993-2001), a former top aide of Mikulski’s.

Those who later ran for office include Tydings; Steve Sachs (1967-1970), who became attorney general and ran unsuccessfully for governor; and Dick Bennett, who ran unsuccessfully for AG and lieutenant governor and later became state GOP chairman and then a federal judge.

Of course, this time around, the imperative for the next president and Maryland’s senators could be different.

“I think there would be some urgency to have a minority in the position, or a woman,” Gansler said.

But U.S. attorney isn’t a typical political vacancy, and speculating on who could be next isn’t easy. Still, it’s fun to try. Some possibilities, according to the insiders, especially if Hillary Clinton is elected president, include, in alphabetical order:

-- Max Curran, a politically connected lawyer has mostly done regulatory work of late, but he's got vast experience and a good pedigree as son of former state Attorney General Joe Curran (D).

-- Elizabeth Embry, the erstwhile candidate for mayor of Baltimore, who is a former prosecutor who has also worked for the attorney general’s office.

-- Warren Hamel, a former assistant U.S. attorney who has been mentioned in conjunction with the U.S. attorney’s job since Obama first took office.

-- Elizabeth Harris, the chief deputy attorney general who was chief counsel to former Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) for eight years.

-- Chan Park, a former assistant U.S. attorney who is the Democratic counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill.

-- Leon Rodriguez, a former federal and Montgomery County prosecutor who is currently the director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services at the Department of Homeland Security.

-- Michael Schatzow, a prosecutor's prosecutor who is currently the chief deputy state's attorney for Baltimore City.  

-- Scott Shellenberger, the Baltimore County state’s attorney.

-- Stuart Simms, the former secretary for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services who ran unsuccessfully for attorney general in 2006.

-- Katherine Winfree, who has worked for the Justice Department and was Gansler’s deputy both in the state’s attorney and AG’s offices.

And if anyone in the state legislature merits consideration, Del. Erek Barron (D), Senate Judicial Proceedings Chairman Bobby Zirkin (D) and Del. Bill Frick (D) are possibilities.

Some of these same potential candidates could rate consideration if Donald Trump is in the White House. If he goes for a more political pick, perhaps former first lady Kendel Ehrlich – a prosecutor in Anne Arundel County – is a possibility. Her husband, former Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R) – in contrast to current Republican Gov. Larry Hogan – has endorsed Trump for president.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily on Capitol Hill. He can be reached at . Follow him on Twitter -- @joshkurtznews

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.