Laslo Boyd: A Diferent View on the Gansler Tape

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By Laslo Boyd: 

Anthony Brown may well win the Democratic Primary for Governor next June and go on to win the General Election in November.  And he may turn out to be a good governor.  But it’s still only August and nothing has been decided yet despite the Brown campaign’s strenuous efforts to make it appear that his nomination is inevitable.

The flurry of breathless news accounts and commentary about a tape of Doug Gansler telling supporters that Brown has relatively little going for him at this point other than his race is unlikely to have a lasting impact on the contest.  As Captain Renault from Casablanca might have said: I’m shocked that there’s talk about race in the gubernatorial campaign.  Shocked.

The usual suspects gave the predictable reactions to the story.  Brown supporters found Gansler’s remarks offensive while the Attorney General’s backers thought they were no big deal.

Let’s start by getting the overblown comparison to Mitt Romney’s infamous “47%” comment out of the way.  Romney insulted a large portion of the electorate with his remark while Gansler’s insult was aimed only at his opponent.  Pretty standard fare for an election to dismiss your opponent’s qualifications.

Gansler, in trying to rally supporters, made the exaggerated claim that Brown was asking for votes purely on the grounds that he is an African American.

Supporters have certainly pointed out that Brown would be the first African American elected as Maryland’s governor. Everyone knows that about 35% of the voters in a statewide Democratic primary are African-Americans.  The widely shared conventional wisdom is that Brown starts the campaign with the presumption that he will win a large share of that number.

The Brown campaign is working to keep what they view as a gaffe alive in the news by publicly calling for Gansler to apologize for the comments.  Gansler so far has refused to do that.  Again, this type of back-and-forth can best be seen as campaign tactics, not a great moral debate.  Demanding apologies from your opponents has become another standard practice in modern campaigns.  Its frequency has blurred its usefulness as a means of raising legitimate challenges about bad behavior.

If Brown feels slighted by Gansler’s claim that his record is thin, all he has to do is make the case publicly for his own qualifications and the reasons that he should be elected.

My colleague on this Center Maryland spot, Josh Kurtz, has also suggested that Gansler’s remark on the tape that he would select as his running mate an African-American from Baltimore City or Prince George’s County diminishes whoever is ultimately selected.  I understand Josh’s point, but disagree with his conclusion.  By a show of hands, how many of you thought, before this tape came to light, that Doug Gansler would not select as his running mate an African-American from either Baltimore City or Prince George’s County?

Some observers have pointed out that the tape demonstrates one of Gansler’s shortcomings, a tendency to come across as a bit of a loose cannon.  If he does that at other times during the campaign, it might be significant, but one time is not enough to sink his candidacy.

The reality is that neither of these candidates is all that well known to the voting public and neither has a significant record as an executive.  The only candidate who could have made that claim, Ken Ulman, is now running for Lt. Governor, an office where people go to be forgotten.

Brown and Gansler have several months in which they need to build their cases for being elected.  What in their background should convince voters to choose either of them?  Being a graduate of Harvard or Yale is not enough.  Having served in Iraq warrants our thanks, but not necessarily our votes.  Their current positions, as Lt. Governor and Attorney General, give only the slightest information about how either of them would undertake the job of governor.

In many respects, each candidate is working with a relatively blank slate.  Gansler was the first state official to get out ahead on the issue of marriage equality, but that question is certainly no longer a controversial one in Maryland Democratic politics.  Brown has to make the choice of how much he wants to try to claim the mantle as Martin O’Malley’s political heir and how much he wants to identify himself as distinct and different from the incumbent governor.  That may be the biggest challenge of his campaign.

There are all of sorts of important and legitimate issues facing the state of Maryland that voters would like to see the candidates address.  Which issues Brown and Gansler select to emphasize, what positions they take, and how convincingly they present themselves as leaders are the challenges both of them face between now and June 24, 2014.  That’s what an election should be about.
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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.