Monday, August 12, 2013

Maryland 2014: Part 1 - The Democrats Running for Governor

It's been awhile since I've written about the 2014 gubernatorial contest in Maryland. In a post last September, I profiled the four men most likely to seek the nomination - Attorney General Doug Gansler, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, Comptroller Peter Franchot, and Howard County Exec. Ken Ulman. I mentioned Heather Mizeur as a "rumored to be thinking about it" candidate. I argued then, that Brown was the odds on favorite to win the nomination.
"If the 2014 primary were like a typical Democratic primary in recent years with only two credible candidates then certainly Gansler would be the favorite - but in a three man race his odds drop considerably and in a 4 man race a clear new favored candidate emerges from the pack - Lt. Governor Anthony Brown."
Much has changed since September... and yet very little has changed.

Two of the expected candidates are now out of the race.  The Franchot folks always understood thy had a very narrow path to victory, it was a path that relied on moderate and conservative Democrats outside of the I-95 corridor. The Franchot team understood that if Gansler and Brown split the progressive vote, and Gansler, Brown, and Ulman divided the I-95 vote, and if Franchot could compete with Gansler in their shared home turf of Montgomery County, and if Franchot could win over Democrats from parts of the state that feel ignored by the Democratic party, then Franchot could build an electoral plurality in a multicandidate race. It was a path to victory that needed every "and if" to fall into place. In the end, Franchot decided that he enjoyed being Comptroller too much to risk everything on a series of and ifs. It was probably the correct call. I had written and spoken favorably of Franchot and make no secret of the fact that he would have been my preferred candidate. He openly and passionately challenged the Democratic party status quo in the state and would have been the candidate most likely to embrace the types of good government reforms so desperately needed in Annapolis.

As for Ken Ulman, there had been rumblings for some time that the Brown campaign was working feverishly behind the scenes to get Ulman on board as Brown's running mate. Those rumblings turned out to be true and the Brown/Ulman team have been traveling the state fundraising and securing nominations all summer long. At first blush, this was a smart move by Brown. Not only did he eliminate a dynamic and appealing opponent - someone with the only real claim to the Baltimore region, which can really matter in a primary contest - Brown also absorbed Ulman's campaign war chest, and Ulman had proven to be a damn good fundraiser. Going into this contest, Gansler enjoyed a tremendous cash advantage, but the merging of the Brown and Ulman coffers largely eradicated that advantage. I'm still not certain if taking Ulman out of the race was the best option for Brown - I argued in January of last year that Brown's chances of securing the nomination increased with each additional candidate in the race. By tapping Ulman, Brown may have created a simple two man contest between himself and Gansler. In that scenario, Gansler has an advantage.

But of course, it's not a simple two man race; rather it's shaping up to be a pretty exciting three person race. Heather Mizeur officially announced that she was joining the fray just one month ago this week, but her intentions were clear months beforehand. Mizeur is among the very few women to ever seek the nomination for Maryland governor, and if elected she would be the Free States's first female governor. Mizeur is also one of only 8 openly gay members of the Maryland General Assembly. If she were to win the nomination, she would become the first openly LGBT candidate to run for governor on a major party ticket. Given the recent swings in public opinion in favor of marriage equality, Maryland's legalization of same-sex marriage (uphold by the voters at referendum), and the election of Tammy Baldwin to the U.S. Senate, Mizeur must feel a little bit of the winds of change at her back.

There are still the occasional rumblings about another candidate hopping into the race (Dutch Ruppersberger anyone?), and there's certainly plenty of time for a new candidate to get in - but one is left with a strong sense that the Democratic field is set - Doug Gansler, Anthony Brown, and Heather Mizeur.

As everyone understands, Maryland is a heavily Democratic state. The party claims 56% of registered voters to the GOP's 27%. As a result, the Democratic nominee is the odds on favorite to become the states next governor). So who will win the Democratic primary?

Last year, many a political observer assumed Attorney General Doug Gansler was the favorite. He had an impressive campaign war chest and had twice run and won statewide. The GOP didn't even bother challenging him in 2010 (I'll more to say about the GOP in a follow-up post). Gansler enjoys high name recognition and his work on behalf of the Chesapeake Bay and his official opinion that the state would recognize same sex marriages performed out of state have endeared him to state progressives - crucial in a primary. And Gansler hails from Maryland's most populated county - Montgomery. After the disaster that was the 2012 session of the Maryland General Assembly, Gansler's stock rose significantly. Governor O'Malley absorbed a tremendous amount of criticism (deservedly so) for the failure that was the 2012 session. Being part of the O'Malley team was no feather in Brown's cap that year.

But O'Malley quickly realized that the bad press from the failed session was harming his own presidential ambitions. Over the summer of 2012 he called two special sessions, one to settle the state budget and the other to address the issue of casino gambling in the state. O'Malley took control of the casino issue and worked hard at crafting a proposal acceptable to the House and Senate. Then, in November of 2012 O'Malley found himself symbolically on the ballot in Maryland not once, but four times. The casino measured passed by the Assembly was subject to voter approval, and three laws - marriage equality, the MD DREAM Act, and the new Congressional district map - were successfully petitioned to referendum. Would the voters rebuke O'Malley? The answer was a resounding "No." O'Malley carried the day on all 4 issues.

Then, the 2013 legislative session came and went with nary a hitch. The Assembly tackled several high profile issues - including a gas tax increase, a ban on the death penalty, off-shore wind development, and comprehensive gun control. It was an incredible string of progressive victories. Things were clearly breaking in favor of Brown.  He received O'Malley's endorsement early and since naming Ulman as his running mate Brown has collected an impressive portfolio of endorsements. In addition to O'Malley, he's been endorsed by Senate President Mike Miller, U.S. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the Laborers International Union of North America, VoteVets.Org... the list goes on. In fact, almost daily I receive a press release from the Brown campaign announcing a new endorsement.

Meanwhile, Gansler has not formally announce a candidacy and has offered no hints regarding a running mate. Gansler, and his people, argue that no one other than political insiders are paying any attention to the 2014 race at this point. As such, there is little to be gained from making an announcement, picking a running mate, or collecting endorsements. There is some truth to Gansler's argument. Most Marylanders are not paying any attention to the 2014 race, but Gansler's audience is not most Marylanders. In 2010, only 25% of registered Democrats turned out for the primary. Primary voters tend to be the most dedicated and attentive voters - and these folks are likely paying some attention to the 2014 contest.

But for Gansler, waiting may well be the best course of action. To the extent that voters are tuning out the campaign, Brown is making headlines and receiving largely positive press during the time of year when folks are more concerned with their kid's summer camp and weekend traffic on the Bay bridge. By the time they snap back into reality in September (when Gansler makes his campaign official), Brown will have burned through most of his high profile endorsements and his naming of Ulman will be a memory. When Gansler announces his candidacy, how will Brown/Ulman counter program? When Gansler announces his running mate, how will Brown/Ulman counter program? When Gansler receives endorsement, how will Brown/Ulman counter program? The Brown campaigns needs to worry about peaking too soon and about burning through their positive press stories too early in the cycle. If Brown comes to be seen as the obvious frontrunner, the press will inevitably start looking for his weaknesses and any sign of weakness will be exaggerated.

There is another silver lining for Gansler. Brown is running as the consummate political insider, he is collecting endorsement after endorsement from the Democratic party establishment. He cannot claim to be anything but the candidate of the status quo. Maybe that's not so damaging in Democrat-friendly Maryland, but public confidence in government is at an all time low and Maryland has been criticized for it's lack of transparency and accountability in government. Being seen as the establishment's candidate may not be a winning strategy in 2014.  Brown has created an opportunity for Gansler to run as the only candidate who can shake up the system and claim some level of independence. The Attorney General is free from gubernatorial influence and with all of the high profile endorsements flowing to Brown - who in the establishment would Gansler feel beholden too?

The establishment is circling the wagons around "their guy" Anthony Brown, the guy who won't rock boat. But then there's Doug Gansler - as Attorney General he was more than happy to rock things. He was making progress protecting the Chesapeake while the General Assembly was waffling on the permeable surface tax, he was fighting for consumer protection long before the White House decided we needed a federal consumer protection agency. And same-sex marriage? Gansler was ahead of everyone else in Maryland on that issue. At a time when Team O'Malley and the General Assembly would rather have ignored the issue, Gansler stated that Maryland would recognize marriages from other states. It would be reasonable to argue that he forced the rest of MD's Democratic establishment to get on board.

If I'm a member of the Gansler team (and I'm not), I'm making the case that on issue after issue, Gansler was doing what he believed to be right for all Marylanders and not just what was best for the party establishment. I'd ask the question, do Marylanders want a tested and proven agent of positive change or a foot soldier for the status quo?

It remains to be seen whether Gansler will choose that strategy, but, while Brown has been travelling the state collecting endorsements Gansler has been traveling the state talking policy specifics as part of a “Building Our Best Maryland” tour. And Gansler has not chosen to narrow his focus to just feel-good policy issues. In a recent forum he tackled the weighty issue of prisoner recidivism in Maryland. It's a sad fact that our prisons are good at only one thing - creating repeat offenders. Once someone has served their sentence it is extremely difficult for them to return to society as productive members and many get caught in a prison revolving door. Gansler has proposed a number of significant changes for Maryland - including transitional housing assistance, hiding criminal convictions from potential employers if someone has been "clean" for 5 years, and better training and rehabilitation while in prison. It's never popular to talk about investing in those convicted of crimes, but it's the only way we're going to tackle our prison crowding problem where over 40% of released prisoners return to prison. Reducing recidivism would mean reducing crime.

Gansler has also proposed changes that would make Maryland government more transparent. Last year, the Center for Public Integrity released its “Corruption Risk Report Card” on which Maryland received an overall grade of D- and ranked 40th among states. As reported in the Washington Post, Maryland received an F on public access to information and legislative accountability. Among other reforms, Gansler envisions the creation of an inspector general who would facilitate access to public information. A proven agent of positive change or a foot soldier for the status quo?

And then there is Heather Mizeur. Mizeur was largely ignored by the Maryland political press until she shocked everyone by coming in second in a straw poll of Western Maryland Democrats. Mizeur has decided to run a rather unorthodox campaign. But Mizeur's decision to focus her campaign events around the themes of community and service may well resonate with the folks who get out and vote in primaries. So far her campaign events have collected supplies for a women's shelter, restored a playground, and cleaned a marshland. Though some Democratic party insiders have grumbled that she is too young and has jumped the queue by getting into this race only to serve some future political ambitions, Mizeur has countered that if she loses the primary she's done with politics. Mizeur is from Montgomery county - a crucial and vote rich county and she has strong connections to the Eastern Shore as she and her spouse operate an organic farm there.

Though Mizeur makes headlines as an LGBT candidate, her record on issues hits the mark for many a party activist. Mizeur was central in the effort to allow college age kids in MD  to remain on their parents insurance - well before this became the law nationally. She is a passionate defender of the environment and leading voice in the effort to prevent natural gas extraction via fracking in Western Maryland. In addition to her policy positions, Mizeur offers Maryland women a chance to finally crack the Annapolis glass ceiling AND she offers Maryland progressives a chance to say that we have turned the page on the issue of LGBT equality. Despite the challenges she'll face, I consider her to be the most exciting candidate in the race - and in a primary, excitement matters.

So who has the upper hand? I still argue the odds favor Brown. Having the party establishment behind you is a big deal in a low turn-out election where getting people to the polls is all that matters. Gansler and Mizeur will divide the Montgomery county electorate while Brown will be uncontested in his home turf of PG county. Though running mates rarely impact an election, Ulman certainly can help Brown in Howard county and Brown's connection to O'Malley will help in Baltimore City. In a three way race it can take as little as 33.4% of the vote to win - Brown is the candidate most likely to cross that mark in a multi-candidate race.

If Maryland voters feel O'Malley fatigue in 2014, then Brown could suffer the consequences. And Gansler will need to run against the O'Malley record on several key issues if he's going to damage Brown.

For Mizeur, her best hope is an all out negative battle between Brown and Gansler (that's also the GOP's best hope). In the midst of such a battle, her focus on community and service may offer the perfect alternative.

So, much has changed since I last looked at the 2014 race... and yet, nothing much has changed.

Next, I'll look at the MD GOP and the candidates for governor (announced and unannounced), a recent Red Maryland poll offers some interesting results.