Josh Kurtz: Preppies at the Gate

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Oh God, has the 2014 gubernatorial election skirmishing already begun? Apparently so.

You’d be forgiven for not paying attention the week before Thanksgiving – or for naively assuming that you’d have a little respite from gubernatorial politics just a couple of weeks after the last election. But there it was.

First, state Comptroller Peter Franchot (D) announces that he’s struck a deal with the two biggest liquor industry trade groups in the state to voluntarily pull dangerous caffeinated alcoholic beverages like Four Loko from the shelves. Not satisfied with that voluntary measure, and possibly angry that an issue he has already been working has been appropriated by a potential 2014 Democratic primary rival, state Attorney General Doug Gansler (D) that same week demands that the state health department move quickly to banish the drinks from Maryland stores.

You can argue about which approach is more effective and who got there first. Probably the headlines suited both men’s preferred narratives: Gansler, bold and insistent; Franchot, able to work with business to forge a compromise.

And both would-be governors have already been in the news plenty in the past couple of weeks: Gansler with his prosecution of Julius Henson, the huckster consultant who allegedly placed misleading Election Day phone calls to African-American voters on behalf of former Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich (guess Henson won’t be working for Gansler in 2014) and for creating a new commission on campaign finance; Franchot with his usual aggressive skepticism over proposed state contracts, and for a high-profile speech in which he reiterated his support for a “third way” of governing.

So it begins. The 2014 gubernatorial election is under way. Will there be more skirmishing in the immediate future or will the holidays bring a welcome respite?

By all accounts, five Democrats are looking most seriously at running for governor in 2014: Franchot, Gansler, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, outgoing Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith and Howard County Executive Ken Ulman

But the list of potential contenders could change significantly in the next couple of years. Maybe Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake will join it. Or Prince George’s County Executive-elect Rushern Baker. Maybe Democratic members of Congress like Chris Van Hollen or Dutch Ruppersberger or John Sarbanes will become frustrated with their minority status on Capitol Hill and look to a statewide run. Maybe someone we haven’t even thought about, someone from outside the political realm, is considering the race.

For the foreseeable future, though, the Franchot-Gansler dynamic will be most vividly on display, as Smith figures out what to do next with his life, Ulman focuses on his county work, and Brown remains a loyal solider to Gov. Martin O’Malley (D). For now, only Gansler and Franchot have independent, statewide identities – and they seem like they’re on an obvious collision course.

Ironically, they are very similar on paper. Both are men of privilege. Both are products of prep school. Both move comfortably in elite, Washington, D.C., circles. Both have been youth athletic coaches. Both are handsome, look younger than their years (Franchot is 63, Gansler 48) and have had political careers marked by measures of achievement – and raging ambition. Both have bumped up against the O’Malley machine at times and have exasperated legislative leaders in Annapolis. And both, of course, are from Montgomery County – a potential conundrum for their strategists, supporters, and the voters.

Compared to his eight years as Montgomery state’s attorney, Gansler has been a model of restraint as AG, and has to a significant degree shed his reputation as a publicity-hound. He has modernized the office without breaking from the best practices of his longtime predecessor, the much-beloved Joe Curran (D), and has excelled as the state’s environmental steward and consumer affairs champion. He was also, and not insignificantly, Maryland’s earliest prominent supporter of Barack Obama for president.

It seems likely that, as a campaigning strategy, Gansler will adhere to the conventional wisdom that progressive candidates usually prevail in Democratic primaries. With his overall record as AG, with his ruling earlier this year that Maryland should recognize same-sex marriages from other states, and with his new push for campaign finance reform, Gansler has impeccable progressive credentials that will place him in good stead in his home county, with white liberals and many black voters, and with an array of activist groups across the state.

But Gansler still ruffles feathers and occasionally moves in mysterious, politically puzzling ways.

His gay marriage recommendation came at an awkward time during the legislative session. He didn’t warn legislative leaders about it, and if the gubernatorial race between O’Malley and Ehrlich had been closer, the issue could have become an albatross for Democrats.

Gansler also stuck his neck out this year by endorsing the doomed Democratic primary challenger to House Judiciary Chairman Joe Vallario. It was a noble move, but probably ill advised – every bill affecting Gansler’s work (and office) goes before Vallario’s committee.

Gansler’s new commission on campaign finance is an excellent idea – but here again, legislative leaders complained that he didn't consult with them first, even as he was asking legislators to serve on the commission. Guys like Mike Miller and Mike Busch have long memories. Here’s hoping that whatever legislative proposals emerge from Gansler’s commission aren’t automatically sandbagged, because lord knows, campaign finance reform is needed in this state.

With Gansler out there in left field, Franchot, who in his quarter century career has had more political personalities than Sybil -- who twice organized statewide progressive summits and was the loudest voice on the left when Ehrlich was governor -- has now concluded that being a centrist is his best hope for landing in Government House. Part of it comes naturally in his comptroller gig – he has no choice but to be a fiscal hawk, and has moved comfortably into that role. But part of it is pure political calculation.

Where Gansler still appears to treat trips to the rest of the state as sociological safaris, Franchot has embraced the state’s rural and blue- collar jurisdictions, and spends more time -- and has earned more fans -- in them than you might imagine.

There may be a certain logic to this. In a hypothetical three-way primary featuring Gansler, Franchot and Brown, all three can expect a certain percentage of the vote in Montgomery County, with Gansler the obvious favorite. Brown has a natural advantage in Prince George's and Baltimore city. But that leaves a lot of territory -- a lot of rural and working-class suburban territory -- up for grabs. For now, at least, you'd have to say that Franchot has the on-the-ground advantage in some key jurisdictions, even if Gansler may be better known.

And for all the conventional wisdom about progressive candidates winning Democratic primaries, in Maryland, it hasn't always been so. William Donald Schaefer beat liberal Steve Sachs in the 1986 gubernatorial primary. That same year, liberal Barbara Mikulski beat bigger liberal Mike Barnes in the Senate primary.

In 2006, liberal Ben Cardin beat bigger liberal Kweisi Mfume in the Senate primary. Even Parris Glendening had Mary Boergers on his left in the 1994 gubernatorial primary.

Which is all nice to contemplate, but is meaningless at this point. Until we know who all the players are, the 2014 gubernatorial election will be very difficult to handicap.

Doug Gansler is sitting on $1 million in his campaign treasury, and has ready access to much more. He's an engaging and energetic guy, with many political assets, and looks like the frontrunner at the starting gate.

But with any luck, that little two-step he and Franchot did over Four Loko earlier this month was just an aberration, and not a signal that the race has truly begun. A premature start to 2014 would all but guarantee that voters are howling for alternatives by the time the election actually rolls around.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Marylanders (Still) on the National Stage

We Don’t Know Jack: Fallout from Johnson Arrest Could be Far-reaching

After Ehrlich

Tomorrow Never Knows

To Be Frank (Part 2)

The More Things Change....

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

Polls Apart

Van Hollen's Burden

Not Rhee-a-listic

Tomorrow’s Headlines Today!

20th Century Comes to Baltimore County

Primary Colors

Murphy the Smurf

A Gene for Public Service

No Agnew Here

The Full Montgomery

Shock and Tawes

Uly's Gold

Death and Deadlines

Bad News for Democrats From Washington to Washington County

Mr. Smith Goes ... Where?

End of the Line for Vallario?

Mission: Control

Post Plays Favorites

Red Storm Rising

Michael & Me

Wanted: Fresh Blood

Taylor-Made

Black and Blue?

Slugfest

Take Me Back to Old Virginny

The Political Lives of Peter Franchot

Bob and Weave

How to Make Prince George's County King

Kane is Able

To Be Frank

Gay Rights and Political Wrongs?

The Washington Post Goes to War

Snow Job

Unsolicited Advice for Ehrlich — Wait Till 2014

The Early Bird Gets the Worm?

Wayne's World May Be Another Planet

Miller Time Comes Early

Owings Owes an Explanation
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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.