Josh Kurtz: Paper Tigers

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By: Josh Kurtz 

You think you’re having trouble deciding which candidate to get behind in the Democratic primary for governor.

Pity the poor editorial writers at The Washington Post, who must not only take into account their own personal preferences, but their newspaper’s singular agenda in local politics and its over-stuffed sense of its own importance and history.

Right now, it’s hard to see the Post endorsing Anthony Brown or Doug Gansler or Heather Mizeur. Post editorials have offered withering criticisms of both Gansler and Brown in recent months, and Mizeur’s agenda no doubt represents “too far, too fast” for the cautious liberals at the Post.

The Baltimore Sun is unlikely to have the same dilemma. For a whole host of reasons, the Sun seems wholly invested in the success of Martin O’Malley – and it would be stunning if the paper didn’t endorse Brown.

The further O’Malley can advance on the national stage, the better it is for the Sun. The paper’s editorial positions have moved noticeably to the left in recent years, corresponding with O’Malley’s time in Annapolis, and it has embraced a substantial portion of his agenda.

O’Malley has a lot invested in Brown’s success, so we can expect the Sun to fall in line. It also behooves the paper, which serves a majority-black city, to get behind an African-American candidate for governor. And most papers like to side with winners; Brown had a nice lead in the Sun’s most recent poll, which was published Sunday.

What is the Post likely to look for in Maryland’s next governor? The paper hasn’t laid out a priority list yet, but it’s easy enough to speculate, based on past editorials: Someone who isn’t an Annapolis insider. Someone who isn’t beholden to labor unions and Annapolis lobbyists. Someone with demonstrated leadership abilities, of course. Someone with a reform agenda – but nothing too radical. Someone who is from the D.C. suburbs – and if he or she happens to be a minority, so much the better.

Brown, Gansler and Mizeur each check some of the Post’s boxes. But all have serious, and possibly disqualifying, flaws.

On paper, Gansler seems like the Post’s kind of candidate, a guy many Post editors and writers would feel comfortable with on a personal basis because, let’s face it, he lives in the same part of Montgomery County that they do. He’s a Washington guy, through and through. His dad was a top official in the Carter administration; Gansler himself grew up reading the Post. And except for Blair Lee’s regency in the 1970’s, no one can remember if a governor was ever from Montgomery County – another reason for the Post to get behind Gansler.

Gansler is clearly no Annapolis insider – in fact, the insiders hate him. As attorney general, he has promoted the environment, political reform and civil rights – important issues to the Post’s readers and leaders.

But Gansler may have disqualified himself for an endorsement after the triple scandals of Troopergate, beach week and his remarks about Brown’s race-based political appeal. A Post editorial in October questioned his judgment and temperament, blasted his “lawyerly dodge” for saying he had turned up at the raging teen beach week party only to confer with his son, and called him a hypocrite – though it did charitably conclude that, “None of these episodes should disqualify Mr. Gansler from the governorship.”

But the Post has been even harsher in its criticisms of Brown.

If Post editorial writers were sports scouts, they’d concede that Brown has plenty of upside, with his Harvard pedigree, his military service, and his general knowledge of state government, burnished by his time at the side of a fairly successful governor. The Post has gone out of its way to promote qualified African-American candidates for political office through the years, and the paper has taken a special, if occasionally paternalistic, interest in the fate of Brown’s home territory, Prince George’s County. The editorial board will surely see the benefits of the county having a governor from there (though Brown was born and grew up in New York). And Brown joined O’Malley in pushing through last year’s hike in the gas tax to support transportation improvements – something the Post supported but Gansler opposed.

Yet with its editorial earlier this month blasting legislative leaders for not launching a full and timely investigation into the failings of Maryland’s health care exchange, calling their move a “legislative dodge” (there’s that “D” word again), the Post essentially did the handiwork of Brown’s opponents. It laid out the case against him, first by linking him to “the Democratic Party’s commissars in Maryland,” then by placing the scandal more directly at his feet, suggesting that the debacle was a failure of his leadership.

“The real question is for Mr. Brown himself,” the newspaper wrote. “Having fumbled the most important assignment he received in eight years in office, wouldn’t he like to get to the bottom of what went wrong? Shouldn’t he be calling for a no-holds-barred investigation into a project that, under his authority, has failed tens of thousands of Marylanders?”

Beyond the health exchange fiasco, Brown’s association with O’Malley in general is probably something of a wash where the Post is concerned. While generally supportive of many of O’Malley’s policies, and as enamored with the idea that he could run for higher office as the Sun, the Post opinion writers have never totally “gotten” O’Malley. Remember, they endorsed Bob Ehrlich over him in 2006.

As for Mizeur, it’s likely the Post editorial board will miss the greater point and dismiss her candidacy with dispatch (unless she keeps gaining in the polls). Never mind that Mizeur is taking the boldest positions, has the most committed supporters, and in many ways is shaping the conversation as the campaign unfolds. They will commend her for her forceful views, conclude they’re impractical, and argue that she and her running mate are not yet qualified for high office.

In the end, the Post will have to endorse someone. Editorial writers are flexible – and, out of necessity, forgiving.

But you can’t help wonder if the Post isn’t hoping for a last-minute bid by John Delaney, whose candidacy for Congress two years ago was aided dramatically by a Post endorsement that blasted his Democratic primary opponent, Rob Garagiola, and the Annapolis establishment that was propping him up. One can almost imagine the Post running the same editorial today, hailing Delaney’s outsider credentials and independent-mindedness, substituting Brown’s name for Garagiola’s throughout.

One thing the new Sun poll showed is that there isn’t a lot of certitude in the Democratic electorate. Sixty-five percent of the Democrats surveyed were undecided or preferred someone other than Brown – and it’s a pretty safe bet that a decent amount of Brown’s support is soft.

You have to believe that poll caught Delaney’s eye. So why wouldn’t the Post’s opinion writers want to tout this knight in shining armor one more time? Maybe they could do for Delaney what the Sun editorial page did for unheralded Harry Hughes back in 1978.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & 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.