Josh Kurtz: Bulwark

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By: Josh Kurtz 

Criticizing someone’s military service – that’s a winning campaign strategy?

Doug Gansler has done it again.

Just as the Democratic race for governor was starting to tighten, in the opinion of many Maryland political insiders, just as Gansler’s ads were making him seem likeable again, just as voters were beginning to pay enough attention to question Anthony Brown’s competence, Gansler inserts foot in mouth once more and – intentionally or not – questions the value of Brown’s military record.

What it amounts to isn’t just an attack on Brown – it’s on military veterans everywhere. And there are lots of them – of all races, ages, ethnicities, ideological persuasions and geographical locations – and a lot of them will be voting in the June Democratic primary.

Here is proof once more that Brown’s veteran status is an incalculable asset in this election. Voters who might otherwise not be inclined to vote for him may at least consider the possibility because of his military service. Veterans and their families who might naturally prefer Gansler have to be dismayed by his comments – and may look elsewhere as primary day approaches.

While most of the coverage of Gansler’s gaffe has been in the context of the back-and-forth spit-balling between the two campaigns, very little has been said about how Brown’s military service has become a bulwark of his campaign. Lest we forget, it was Brown’s nine-month tour of duty in Iraq in 2005 that made him such a political celebrity to begin with.

As soon as he entered the House of Delegates in 1999, it was clear that Brown was a different kind of animal, with his Harvard degrees and Army pedigree. Early in his second term, he became vice chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and soon after became House majority whip, the No. 3 position in House leadership. That’s a quick ascent that dozens of House back benchers can only dream about.

But it wasn’t until his time in Iraq that he went from a rising star to a superstar.

Brown speaks movingly about the searing experience his family went through when he was deployed, about how tough it was to explain to his young children that he wouldn’t be around for several months. Brown also talks about his sense of duty, about why he never hesitated to go to Baghdad, despite the risks.

Yet it’s hard to imagine that there wasn’t, in the back of his head, a political calculation as well. Back then, Iraq War veterans were very hot political commodities, especially for Democrats still reeling from national Republican taunts that they were too squishy on national security matters.

Recall an interview Brown’s twin brother Andrew gave to the Baltimore Sun just days after Brown returned from Iraq in 2005.

"Anthony is not one to blindly jump into things," the brother observed. "He does look at all the moves he makes, career-wise, even family-wise; [they] are really geared to move him and his career forward. It's no secret that his desire to go to Baghdad in a big respect was politically motivated."

That may have made for uncomfortable Thanksgiving dinner conversation in the Brown household that year. But it was hard to deny it. After all, Brown threw himself a “welcome home” block party over Labor Day weekend, and dozens of politicians, along with hundreds of neighbors, stopped by to pay tribute.

Brown talked openly then of parlaying his newfound status into a run for statewide office – maybe attorney general or even U.S. Senate, invoking the name of Barack Obama to critics who said he was moving too fast, too soon. He was wooed by both major Democratic candidates for governor at the time, Martin O’Malley and Doug Duncan – and wound up running with O’Malley. The rest is history.

Whatever attacks Brown withstands during the rest of the campaign, he has a powerful ally in a guy named Jon Soltz, chairman of an outfit called VoteVets.org. Soltz and his group are not well known in Maryland yet, but they’re about to be. They are becoming some of Brown’s chief defenders.

VoteVets is the kind of organization that drives conservatives crazy – a group of war heroes espousing liberal positions. Soltz, who rose to the level of major, served two tours in Iraq, most recently in 2011 training Iraqi Army officers, and served in Kosovo during the Clinton administration. He started the group in 2006 with the aid of some big-name soldiers like Wesley Clark, and it now counts some 400,000 supporters.

Soltz emerged a decade ago as a vocal critic of George W. Bush’s Iraq War policies. Young, handsome, articulate, and unflappable, he was perfect for media appearances in those combustible times.

The group has grown exponentially under his leadership. Through its political action committee, VoteVets.org supports younger military veterans running for office – most, though not all, Democrats – and advocates for a number of liberal causes. High on the group’s agenda right now: saving the national renewable fuel standard, extending unemployment benefits, and opposing a huge proposed copper and gold mine Alaska, arguing it would damage the livelihood of veterans who are fishermen in the Bristol Bay region.

During the gubernatorial election in Virginia last year, VoteVets.org ran ads against GOP nominee Ken Cuccinelli, warning that his denial of climate science could jeopardize members of the Virginia National Guard who are deployed during severe weather emergencies. More recently, in the aftermath of the latest shooting at Fort Hood in Texas, the group has argued against making weapons more readily available on military bases.

It may be a conventional liberal agenda, but the messengers aren’t conventional liberals.

VoteVets.org has already endorsed Brown in the gubernatorial election, and when Gansler’s remarks belittling Brown’s service in Iraq came to light Monday, Soltz was quick to attack.

“Doug Gansler needs to stop smearing those of us who served in Iraq as not having had a ‘real job,’” he said. “It’s a horrible insult to all those men and women who put their lives on the line, and especially those who died, in service to this country.  Additionally, Mr. Gansler, if he chooses to attack an Iraq War Veteran, ought to at least admit that the person he is attacking has been serving as Maryland’s Lieutenant Governor. This kind of slime ball politics is what turns people off to our democratic process, so Mr. Gansler is doing no favors for Maryland or our democratic electoral system by playing in the gutter like this.”

Powerful stuff – more powerful than anything Brown himself could say.

Gansler may soon learn this the hard way: Don’t mess with veterans – and don’t mess with VoteVets.org.

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.