Josh Kurtz: Sole Practitioner

By Josh Kurtz

Buried at the end of a fundraising solicitation state Attorney General Doug Gansler (D) sent out a year or so ago was this startling revelation: Only Gansler has the key to the post office box where campaign checks come in.

So it’s Gansler, the letter implied, rather than a lowly aide or a fundraising consultant, who is collecting the loot and, by implication, tallying who is giving – and who isn‘t.

This is problematic on a couple of different levels. First, the image of our state’s chief law enforcement officer grubbing checks is a little unseemly. And he’s raised and banked so much money over the years that scooping up the campaign contributions must surely be almost a full time job.

But more significantly, it drives home the point that as of now, just 18 months before the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial primary, Gansler’s political operation is essentially a one-man show.

No one expects the candidates for governor to have full-blown campaigns up and running. But a certain amount of groundwork is already being laid.

To be sure, Gansler is criss-crossing the state, meeting with influential Democrats and, of course, raising gobs of money, in addition to focusing on his day job. But he has no one around him yet who knows every corner of Maryland, who can help him make the transition from attorney general to a candidate for governor who is able to speak fluently on the topics that potential governors must address.

This does not appear to faze Gansler. In a brief interview last week, he insisted that it’s way too early for him to be worrying about politics or building a campaign team.

“I’m not a candidate,” he said. “I’m not running for office. We just had an election. The [next] election is literally two years away.”

Gansler goes on to argue that “if you do your job — protecting consumers, putting crooks in jail,” the politics takes care of itself. Then he referred to the current governors of Virginia, New York and Pennsylvania — all of whom served as their state AG‘s before ascending to the top job. (In fact, nine current governors previously served as AG’s.)

“Bob McDonnell, Andrew Cuomo, Tom Corbett — they didn’t run two-year campaigns,” Gansler said.

A debatable point, given their naked ambition, but fair enough. Certainly nobody but a few dozen of us political junkies can stand or is clamoring for these permanent campaigns.

But coming from Gansler, there’s something disingenuous about that remark. After all, this is a guy who has seen himself as the next governor of Maryland since at least 2006, when he was first elected AG – and probably well before that. All that money-raising — even if, as he likes to say, he only holds two major fundraisers a year — hasn’t just been an exercise, but an attempt to build an insurmountable sum of cash ahead of 2014.

Similar to his “do your job” mantra, Gansler seems to also think that if he focuses on money, a political operation will follow. And surely he’ll be able to buy a formidable one.

But what about all the years leading up to 2014? The most astonishing thing about Gansler’s recent annual campaign finance reports, beyond the intimidating cash on hand figure, is what he has been reporting for campaign expenses: zero.

That strains all levels of credulity — and suggests Gansler’s political operation, to the extent that one exists, is being run straight out of the AG’s office. Antigone Davis, who was Gansler’s deputy campaign manager in 2006 and is generally recognized as his political point person, remains a special advisor on Gansler’s official OAG staff. As the Baltimore Sun reported a little over a year ago, she “handles his campaign money events on a volunteer basis.”

With Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), there has never been any mystery about who was advising him. His team may be a little insular, but it was well known well before he ever ran for governor – and it was talented and ruthless. The guys around him knew how to win elections in Maryland.

As he prepares to try to succeed O’Malley, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown (D) seems to be relying on part of the O’Malley team now — using the same pollster, Fred Yang, and the same fundraiser, Colleen Martin-Lauer. He’s now brought in Quincey Gamble, the energetic former executive director of the state Democratic Party, as a top strategist. And a campaign manager is likely to come on board soon.

With state Comptroller Peter Franchot (D), who just decided against running for governor, there also is no doubt — he and his top deputy, Len Foxwell, have been plotting together for so long that their brains are practically fused.

But what about Gansler? Who will he call upon for campaign strategy and advice?

Asked that question, Gansler identified two savvy national Democratic strategists: Bill Knapp and Doug Thornell. Knapp, who has been with Gansler from the beginning of his political career, runs SKDKnickerbocker, one of the biggest consulting firms around, with offices in D.C., New York and Albany. Thornell, a talented communicator who is a vice president at Knapp’s firm, has worked for two Maryland congressmen: Elijah Cummings, when he was chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, and Chris Van Hollen, first when he ran the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, then when he was assistant to Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Gansler also notes that he’s close with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, a mentor and former boss, and Tony West, the No. 3 at the DOJ.

“That provides me the opportunity to do a lot of things” in Maryland, he said.

And he said his tenure this year as president of the National Association of Attorneys General is proving enormously helpful as he does his job.

Maryland insiders expect Sandy Brantley, a former Gansler campaign manager now working as a counsel to the legislature in Annapolis, to remain as a top political adviser. Brantley is close to Mike Morrill, the former Mikulski and Glendening hand who has done consulting work for Gansler in the past. But Morrill is spending a lot of time in North Carolina these days, working as an executive at an educational startup, so it doesn’t sound like he’ll be able to offer Gansler much advice, if any.

Still, Gansler will benefit from the political savvy of his current communications director at the AG’s office, David Paulson — a partisan brawler who’s seen it all.

Gansler has a countless number of friends in the Washington, D.C., legal community, and Michael Levy is seen as an especially close confidante. Levy was a law clerk for the late Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, and he also worked on Gary Hart’s presidential campaign in 1984 (along with Martin O’Malley). He’s now co-chairman of the white collar investigations enforcement group at Bingham, a high-powered Washington firm.

Gansler also receives frequent — and fatherly — advice from former Sen. U.S. Joe Tydings (D). At age 84, he has a fertile political mind, even though he last won an election in 1964.

Then there is Gansler’s real father, Jacques Gansler, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Affairs and former Defense Department official, who also provides all manner of advice. Ditto for Laura Leedy Gansler, the AG’s wife, an author and securities lawyer.

It’s an impressive kitchen cabinet, without a doubt. But before too long, someone needs to run the show besides the candidate himself. And it will be instructive to see who Gansler brings in then.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at joshkurtz92@gmail.com.

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Franchot to Seek Re-election, Won’t Run for Governor

No Heroes Here

Running Mates

Montgomery County’s 800-Pound Gorillas

Garagiola: ‘People Lose Elections All the Time’

You Can’t Spell ‘Meme’ Without M-E

Opening Day