Josh Kurtz: When Gansler Beat the O’Malley Machine

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By: Josh Kurtz 

As he finds himself mired in troubles mostly of his own making, Doug Gansler sees sinister forces at work that are only too happy to pass along and repeat every shred of bad information they can dig up about him. He rails against a Democratic establishment so threatened by the notion that he could be running the show in Annapolis that it will go to any means to destroy him.

Implicit in all this is that Martin O’Malley, or more trenchantly, an invisible O’Malley machine with Oz-like qualities, has been pulling the levers and throwing the mud.

“All of sudden, I announce I’m running for governor and — poof! — a couple things show up,” Gansler said last week.

Well, it’s true that O’Malley and his expansive political network has lined up behind Gansler’s leading foe in next year’s Democratic primary, Anthony Brown. That’s no secret. And it’s also true that in a heated political battle, opposing sides will poke and prod and attempt to expose and exploit the others’ blemishes. It seems as if Gansler was ill-prepared for this inevitability, even though his Attorney General’s office handles public information act requests and thus he should have known the trooper reports were set to be released days before his announcement of his pick for No. 2.

Yet it’s worth noting that the only time Gansler went head-to-head with the so-called O’Malley machine, way back in 1998, Gansler prevailed.

It’s hard to say there are lessons to be learned from that distant time. The circumstances and stakes, obviously, are a lot different now. The O’Malleys have a much more sophisticated political operation than they did then. But the story deserves some exploring anyway – in part because it helps explain some of the bad blood that lingers between Gansler and the O’Malleys, which is coming into play now.

Between 1970 and 1996, the Montgomery County state’s attorney was Andrew Sonner (D). He resigned after 26 years on the job to become a Special Appeals Court judge. County judges appointed Sonner’s longtime top deputy, Robert Dean, to replace him until the next election.

Sonner’s last election was no cakewalk. He had a tough time in the 1994 general with former New York City prosecutor Jim Shalleck (R), who had gained notoriety for working the infamous Son of Sam case in 1977. And in the Democratic primary earlier in '94, two challengers essentially racked up the same amount of votes between them as Sonner.

One of the Democrats was a Rockville lawyer named Tom O’Malley – father of a young, guitar-playing Baltimore city councilman named Martin O’Malley. The elder O’Malley, who flew bombing missions over Japan during World War II, had an extensive legal practice. He was a lifelong friend of the first Montgomery County executive, Jim Gleason.

So in 1998, despite his close ties to Sonner, Dean would get no deference in his bid for a full term. Two lawyers joined him in the Democratic primary – including a young assistant U.S. attorney named Doug Gansler. And on the GOP side, though Shalleck thought he’d earned an easy ride to the nomination, Tom O’Malley decided to run again, this time as a Republican.

Despite its reputation for genteel politics, Montgomery County on occasion hosts epic races that badly cleave the local Democratic establishment. The Dean-Gansler brawl was one such race. It’s possible that some Democratic activists and officeholders are still not speaking because of that primary.

For years there has been an entrenched “courthouse crowd” in Rockville – insular and, by tradition, mostly, but not exclusively Irish-American. A symbol of this was a bar and restaurant attached to the courthouse complex called Hagan’s Four Corners – co-owned by none other than Andy Sonner himself.

Employing rhetoric that he’s using today as he runs for governor, Gansler made no secret of his desire to break up Rockville’s “clubhouse fraternity,” offering himself up as “a breath of fresh air.” Dean, pointing out that Gansler had never tried a case in Maryland, countered that he only he had the “experience” and “maturity” to do the job. The two squabbled over reports that staffers at the state’s attorney’s office put Dean’s campaign fliers in the mailboxes of other courthouse employees.

But the campaign trajectory changed completely when days before the primary, Dean, a married father of six, was sued by a former underling with whom he had been having an affair. The dirty laundry included the airing of love poems Dean had written the lawyer, Teresa Whalen – one with the stomach-turning title, “To Think of You.”

After those revelations, it came as no surprise when Gansler beat Dean, 46 percent to 34 percent. But while the Democratic primary was grabbing all the attention, on the Republican side, Tom O’Malley, executing a blueprint put together by his son Peter – who had also run Martin O’Malley’s previous campaigns – upset Shalleck by almost 1,200 votes.

Shalleck promptly crossed party lines and endorsed Gansler, citing the personal nature of O’Malley’s attacks on him during the primary. “For four months, he called me names and lied about my record,” Shalleck said. And toward the end of the general election, Dean endorsed O’Malley.

Although Gansler was 35 and O’Malley 73, and Gansler continued to promote the “change” theme that he used during the primary, it was more than a classic generational battle. Both candidates hammered each other on the question of experience. O’Malley repeated Dean’s line about Gansler never trying a case in Maryland. Gansler noted that O’Malley last worked as a prosecutor almost 40 years earlier.

 “If someone said, ‘I haven’t driven a car since 1957,’ would you get in the car with him and ride around the Beltway?” Gansler mused. “Have you ever seen the show ‘Happy Days’? That’s what was going on when Tom O’Malley was prosecuting.”

O’Malley derisively referred to Gansler’s time in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Washington, D.C., as “an internship,” and added, “I know everybody in these courts. I don’t think Gansler would be recognized by anybody.”

In the end, Gansler won, 62 percent to 38 percent. The spread was almost identical to Parris Glendening’s victory over Ellen Sauerbrey in Montgomery County that fall – in other words, a margin that more or less reflected the county’s partisan leanings.

Tom O’Malley faded from the scene, except to serve as a cheerleader for his son as he made his political ascent, and died in 2006. Gansler and the O’Malley crowd have had strained relations ever since – though it’s fair to say that Peter Franchot has, on a day to day basis, been more of a thorn in Martin O’Malley’s side than Gansler since they were all elected statewide in 2006.

There are myriad story lines swirling around the Democratic primary between Gansler and Anthony Brown, and Martin O’Malley now has a well-oiled political operation that’s proving to be an asset to Brown.

But the O’Malleys have long memories. If they can use this campaign to extract a little revenge on Gansler for what happened back in 1998, chances are they will seize the opportunity. In fact, they probably already have.

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

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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.