As Maryland's attorney general, Bethesda's Doug Gansler isn't known for speaking softly-but he does carry a big stick.
The youth lacrosse team has barely begun practice at Burning Tree Elementary School in Bethesda one muggy Friday afternoon when the sky turns ominously dark and it starts to rain.
"What are you scared of?” coach Doug Gansler asks one of his middle school charges, who is demanding they stop play immediately. “You’re a big kid.” The boy responds, “I’m allergic to thunder.”
Gansler, 47, isn’t allergic to thunder, nor is he one to duck storms. As Maryland’s attorney general, and as the Montgomery County state’s attorney before that, Gansler has been known to generate a little thunder of his own. An activist agenda has landed him on TV newscasts and in the newspapers, and though he denies it, politician is part of who he is.
While waiting for parents to pick up their boys, Gansler, a Democrat, hands the kids campaign bumper stickers. Weeks later, he’ll learn no Republican has stepped forward to challenge him in his quest this November for a second term as the state’s chief legal officer. But for the moment, he’s taking nothing for granted.
His father, Jacques, a former high-ranking Defense Department official who now directs a graduate program at the University of Maryland, suggests his son always has his eye on a goal. “He says AG stands for Aspiring Governor,” Jacques Gansler says. When asked directly if he will run for governor, the younger Gansler is frank but equivocal: “Maybe.”
Though his current job is to provide legal advice to other branches of state government and to pursue lawbreakers largely in civil actions, his activist agenda fits more neatly into the executive mold. He doesn’t just want to prosecute polluters, he wants to find solutions to save the Chesapeake Bay. And even though same-sex marriages aren’t performed here, he would have Maryland recognize those that are performed in the six states where they are legal. His position is not revolutionary, he claims, just a matter of respecting states’ rights. But it also reverses a 2004 opinion by Joseph Curran, his low-key Democratic predecessor, that concluded the opposite.
With his 45-page opinion last February, issued in response to a request from openly gay state Sen. Richard Madaleno (D-Montgomery), Gansler instantly became a target of conservatives, even as his stance endeared him to gay rights activists here and elsewhere.
That support is evident two hours after the lacrosse practice, inside a 5,000-square-foot home in west Bethesda, where some 40 gay and lesbian supporters have paid as much as $2,000 each to sip wine, munch hors d’oeuvres and hear from Gansler. The event adds about $16,000 to his campaign coffers. “We could not have a stronger ally than Doug Gansler,” says Robin Brand, deputy executive director of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund.
Ted Trimpa, a Denver lawyer, lobbyist and political operative, tells the gathering, “At first, I stereotyped him. You know, lacrosse, jock, just his demeanor, how could this guy be pro-gay? [But] when we sat down and talked, he blew me away.”
Gansler recalls his recent 25th anniversary Yale reunion, at which he and a gay classmate were on a panel together. “I said, ‘Twenty-five years ago, did you think I’d be a poster child for gay rights?’ He said, ‘Absolutely not.’ As a lawyer, I see this as a matter of equal protection. I, on this issue, have a hard time seeing the other side.”
Gansler’s opinion on same-sex marriage generated quite a storm. There were calls on the right for his impeachment. One of those calls went to Republican Scott Rolle, a Frederick lawyer and a former state’s attorney who opposed Gansler for attorney general in 2006.
“I was approached by somebody who wanted me to represent them to impeach Doug on same-sex. I had no interest in it,” Rolle says. “The same-sex opinion was overstepping. [But] I don’t believe it’s impeachable.”
Rolle won 16 of Maryland’s 23 jurisdictions in 2006, but Gansler won 61 percent of the statewide vote. “We were actually friends prior to the election. We’re still friends,” Rolle says. “We definitely aren’t aligned politically. During the campaign we stuck to issues, never got personal. There was always friendly conversation before and after debates. We get along quite well. I think he’s doing just fine.”
That is not, of course, a universal sentiment. “Around the state there’s a universal concern or dislike of Doug Gansler, and the big one was about recognizing same-sex marriages,” says Maryland GOP Chairwoman Audrey Scott. “I don’t think it’s so much a matter of being right or left, but [of] understanding what the job is. He’s very proactive and sometimes does not abide by the limitations of his office.”
Gansler’s same-sex stance isn’t supported by all Democrats. Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr., a Baltimore County minister, calls it “a very dangerous precedent,” though he did not support impeachment. “I think Doug is a great guy,” Burns says. “He’s affable, he is approachable and very active. However, he’s a loose cannon when it comes to gauging the mood and the moralities of society.”
Burns would support Gansler for governor in a general election, he says, but in a Democratic primary? “I would have to sleep on it, think on it, walk on it, and then make up my mind. He is a political animal. Politics runs through his veins.”