Wednesday, August 14, 2013

"Ganslergate" and the Manufacturing of News

As everyone who pays attention to Maryland politics knows, the Free State is in the midst of a scandal! Ganslergate, as one reporter laughingly described it to me. The Washington Post obtained a secretly recorded meeting between Attorney General Doug Gansler and a group of supporters. As reported by the Post, Gansler was rather dismissive of Lt. Governor Anthony Brown's campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor.
“I mean, right now his campaign slogan is, ‘Vote for me, I want to be the first African American governor of Maryland. That’s a laudable goal, but you need a second sentence: ‘Because here’s what I’ve done, and here’s why I’ve done it.’”
The meaning of Gansler's comments seem clear - Anthony Brown doesn't have a record or a message to take to voters; rather his election would mark an historic first for Maryland.

I must admit, when I first read the story and the quotes I didn't get what the controversy was. Doug Gansler noted something that everyone knows - race still matters in American politics. It especially matters in Maryland where African Americans account for 30-35% of the  Democratic primary electorate and about a quarter of the general election voters. Despite the importance of African Americans as a voting bloc in Maryland, only two African Americans have ever been elected to statewide office - Michael Steele and Anthony Brown. And both were elected as Lt. Governors in a state where votes are cast for a Governor/LT. Governor ticket. So no African American has ever been elected to statewide office at the top of the ticket.

Everyone who covers, analyses, strategizes, and works on Maryland politics recognizes that race matters in our state elections. In 2002, it was widely regarded as a critical error when Democratic Lt. Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend picked a white Republican to be her running mate. That the choice risked alienating African American voters was openly discussed. When Republican nominee Bob Ehrlich picked Michael Steele to be his running mate, race was again openly discussed. In a particularly pointed editorial, the editors at the Baltimore Sun said of Steele he "brought nothing to the ticket but the color of his skin." Essentially, the editors were saying that lacking any record or accomplishments Ehrlich and Steele were relying on race to win votes.  There was no outcry over the Sun's comments - other than from Ehrlich and Steele.

In 2006, Steele decided to run for the U.S. Senate. The Democratic nominee was to be either Representative Ben Cardin or former Representative and NAACP president Kweisi Mfume. The impact of race on that contest was openly discussed. Under the headline "Maryland Senate Race May Hinge On Ethnicity," Washington Post reporters wrote:
"As they stand, the racial divisions are stark: In the primary, Mfume, who is black, gets 72 percent of his support from black voters, the poll shows. Cardin, who is white, gets 82 percent of his backing from white voters."
It's hard to imagine a more clearly divided electorate. The Post's reporters noted that Cardin was the stronger candidate in a general election match-up with Steele, even though Steele's support among African American voters jumped significantly in a hypothetical match-up against Cardin.

After Cardin won the nomination he received the Washington Post's nomination. In an editorial written just prior to the election, the Post dismissed Steele as a man with little experience, few accomplishments, and nothing really to offer voters. In the final paragraph, the writers note:
"A victory for Mr. Steele, an African American, would add diversity to the Senate. That is a worthy goal, and it is one reason given by a number of high-profile black Democrats for breaking party ranks to endorse him. But it is worth noting that even those backers have not made the argument that Mr. Steele would be an especially effective lawmaker or a leader on any particular issue in the Senate. Maryland deserves all that, and only Mr. Cardin, with his deep experience, can deliver it."

In other words, the Post editors believed that the only reason Steele was receiving support from black Democrats was because he was African American. In 2006, it was commonly accepted that Steele was counting on the fact that he would be the state's first African American Senator to deliver significant support from African American voters. I have a hard time seeing how Gansler's comments cross a line when they don't even come close to being as blunt as an editorial in the very paper that broke the "Ganslergate" story.

Since initially publishing the original story on Gansler's comments, the Post has doubled down with stories on the "fallout" and "flak" that Gansler is receiving. Yet in these stories, the reader is treated to folks who already support Brown feigning outrage over Gansler's comments. I have to ask, can it really be called "fallout" when folks who never intended to vote for Gansler reiterate that they still aren't voting for Gansler?

I spoke with several reporters yesterday regarding this story, most agreed (off the record) that there was nothing particularly damning or offensive in what Gansler said. But these reporters were writing stories about the "scandal" because it was in the Washington Post...

This is a ridiculous story full of false indignation. Gansler is perhaps guilty of one thing, Brown himself has never made this contest about race - in fact he never speaks of the issue (though Gansler's comments appeared to be directed at the Brown campaign). That's the double standard of contemporary politics. We all know that race has an impact on elections, we know there are racial divisions in voting choices, we know that race has influenced election after election in Maryland. And the Cardin/Mfume contest in 2006 suggests there will be a significant racial divide among Democratic voters come election day. In a three person contest, the severity of that divide will likely determine the outcome. But the minute a candidate references race he/she is accused of exploiting the issue.

But the issue of race and the potential for an African American candidate for governor do play a role in this contest. Gansler was trying to make the point that Brown has offered few, if any, proposals for the future. Gansler was trying to say that Brown has "no achievement, no record." Whether or not that's true is debatable, but the claim is pretty tame and standard stuff in Maryland and certainly consistent with opinions offered by the very paper now pushing this story when writing about other candidates.

I realize that this is a particularly boring time in Maryland politics, but that doesn't mean we need to create scandals just to have something exciting to write about.

I'll reiterate what I've said before - I am not affiliated with the Gansler campaign and have no dog in the Gansler/Brown hunt. I had hoped that Comptroller Franchot would run, when he dropped out my attention shifted to Ken Ulman, the he opted to run for Lt. Governor. At present, I have no idea who I'll support in the general election and as an unaffiliated voter I can't even vote in the primary. So I'm not defending my candidate... I'm just annoyed by what is really a pointless story.