The Family Business

The Family Business

Brian Frosh learned a lot about law from his father, a Bethesda attorney and longtime public servant.

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In his new job as Maryland’s attorney general, Brian Frosh will be driven to his Baltimore office by a state trooper—which means he can no longer ride his bike from his home in Somerset to his law practice in Bethesda.

“That is a major disappointment,” he confesses, a small smile creeping out from behind a bushy mustache that’s grown gray during his 28 years in the state legislature.

At 68, Frosh has suffered few disappointments lately. He won a tough battle for the Democratic nomination last June against Jon Cardin, nephew of Maryland’s popular U.S. senator, Ben Cardin. Since Maryland has not elected a Republican attorney general in almost a century, Frosh was able to buck the national trend in November and cruise to victory.

Now he’s responsible for enforcing many laws he helped to write in Annapolis. And those laws reflect his unabashed commitment to a liberal agenda—gun control and consumer protection, environmental regulation and same-sex marriage.

David Ferguson, former executive director of the state Republican Party, warned during the campaign that the Democrat would make a “dangerous attorney general…taking Maryland in a radical direction.” But Frosh describes his goal differently: “I will fight like hell for justice.”

I’ve known Brian a long time. Since state legislators serve part-time, they can have other jobs, and he’s been my brother’s lawyer for years. My sister-in-law worked in his campaign and I knew his wife, Marcy, before he did—when she was a young lobbyist on Capitol Hill in the early ’80s.

Only recently, however, did I learn that justice is the Frosh family business. His father, Stanley, a local lawyer, moved his young family to a house on Bradley Boulevard near Landon School in Bethesda in 1954. “Across the street was all woods,” Frosh recalls, and he used to “slip through the fence” and watch Landon baseball games. “It was really cool and it was free.” When he attended Walter Johnson High School, “it was surrounded by farms, and you didn’t have to have a very good arm, if you had a rock you could hit a cow.”

His father led a less idyllic life. He once represented a federal employee, a bookbinder at the Government Printing Office, who was accused of being a Communist by Joe McCarthy, the red-baiting senator from Wisconsin.

Stanley Frosh was summoned by Roy Cohn, chief counsel for McCarthy’s Senate investigations, and as Brian tells the story: “Roy Cohn says to my dad, ‘Your client’s in a lot of trouble, and if you represent him, you’re going to be in a lot of trouble. My advice is, get rid of this guy.’ My dad declined to follow that advice.”

The elder Frosh told his client to take the Fifth Amendment before McCarthy’s committee. When the man did so, he was fired from his job and “literally run out of town,” says Brian, while his dad was “ostracized by the Montgomery County bar.”

“They had these monthly lunches, they still do, and my dad would go to the lunches and nobody would sit with him,” Brian says. “They were terrified to be associated with him.”

A few years later Stanley Frosh was elected to the county council and staunchly supported legislation banning discrimination in public accommodations. Critics saw him as a dangerous radical—there’s a theme here—and he was defeated for re-election but he left an indelible mark on his son.

“I watched firsthand, as a kid, this going on and it inspired me,” Frosh tells me. “I learned the importance of standing up for people who cannot stand up for themselves, and sticking to principles when you know you’re right.”

Brian went away briefly—college at Wesleyan, law school at Columbia—but then he returned home and took staff jobs in Annapolis and on Capitol Hill. By 1982 he was running and losing a race for the state Senate. Four years later he won a seat in the House of Delegates, and as he puts it, “I’ve been running ever since.”

When I ask if he always dreamed of being attorney general, he replies, “I didn’t, really. I always thought it would be great to be AG but that I could never get there.”

He and Marcy—a nonpracticing lawyer who Brian describes as a “die-hard do-gooder”—had two daughters at home and the demands of a statewide campaign discouraged him. “I would have missed every dinner every night,” he says.

By 2012, however, “both kids were out of the house and Marcy gave me her permission.” Doug Gansler, the incumbent, was running for governor so the job was open. In early polls Cardin’s famous name pushed him ahead—some voters actually thought his uncle the senator was running—but Frosh won the backing of key lawmakers and editorial writers.

The Baltimore Sun endorsed him as “a perfect fit for the job.” One columnist, Frosh recalls, “wrote a piece saying I was like Secretariat—I’m not sure which end of Secretariat he was referring to, I was down 20 points and finished up 20 points.”

Most people in Maryland, Frosh admits, “don’t know what the attorney general does.” For one thing he heads the state’s biggest law firm, with 460 attorneys who advise the governor and every state agency on legal matters.

At the same time, he adds, “I think it’s really important for the AG to be independent, you have to be able to say no to the governor.” He’s also “the people’s lawyer,” with the power to prosecute bad guys who defraud consumers, degrade the environment and deny equal rights.

While Frosh will now commute to Baltimore, his home and his heart remain here. His dad, who eventually became a state judge, died in 2007, but his mother still lives in the old family house. He can even ride his bike over to see her.

Steve Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University. Send ideas for future columns to sroberts@gwu.edu.

 

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