This interview is part of a series of interviews with the Democratic and Republican candidates for Maryland governor in 2022. In these interviews, WTOP asked all the candidates the same or similar questions on education, public safety and crime, jobs and the economy, and transportation. The Maryland primary is July 19.
The candidate: Doug Gansler, former Maryland attorney general
Running mate: Candace Hollingsworth, former mayor of Hyattsville
Doug Gansler, who served for eight years as Maryland’s attorney general and as the state’s attorney for Montgomery County during the 2002 Beltway sniper attacks, says it’s critical the next governor of Maryland has experience leading in a time of crisis — and he says he does.
Gansler also pointed to his criminal justice background — unique among the field of Democratic candidates — and the rising concern among voters about crime, which is among the top concerns cited by voters, along with the economy.
“I’m the only pragmatic pro-business — small business and large business — pro-public safety candidate in the Democratic field,” he said.
Still, Gansler has struggled to break out in a crowded field of candidates. In a Baltimore Sun/University of Baltimore poll released this month, Gansler was lagging many of the front-runners, cited as the top choice by just 4% of registered Democrats.
The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
WTOP: Post-pandemic, everyone is concerned about how their kids are doing in school. And we have the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future that is being implemented now. The question for you is, what will you do to make sure that works? I think everyone says we care about education, but what’s your game plan? What will you do?
Doug Gansler: Well, in terms of the blueprint and the Kirwan plan, the most important thing is for Democrats to actually get elected governor. The Democrats have lost three of the last five elections. We’ve had a governor in the governor’s chair that’s been a Republican these last eight years, and not a big advocate of the blueprint. So I think that’s No. 1 in what’s going to be a very Republican year, because if we don’t have a Democrat, then the blueprint will actually go into the trash. And so we need somebody who’s actually led, who has the experience in government to make the levers of government work for the people of Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, and all of Maryland, to get that blueprint not only passed, but implemented and in all of our schools.
I have 23 years in government. I have led during times of crisis, and I think what happened during COVID can be certainly classified as a crisis. And we need to make sure that we fully implement the blueprint, not only the key aspect — for example, universal pre-K — but even to go further, make sure we have universal child care. So that children, when they show up at school, are not behind incorrigibly and never be able to catch up. And so I think we need to recognize also that our diversity is our strength. And Montgomery County, for example, is the most diverse county in the state. But we have diversity all throughout the state, and we need to appreciate that.
And the blueprint takes that into consideration in making sure that all children can get a world-class education. Our education system has slipped over the years, particularly during the Republican administration, and we need to make sure we have a Democrat in place who can implement the blueprint.
WTOP: What do you see in that, though? Again, in very concrete plans, what will you do? Because you’ve talked about your experience and leadership and you know how government works. Again, is there something in the blueprint that would be job No. 1? And how would you make that happen?
Gansler: Well, we have a lot of money right now, excess money. And I think there’s no better place to put that than in public safety and an education. And so I think that we would work with the General Assembly, as I’ve done for decades, and make sure that we got it implemented, got it passed, work with educators, get the folks in the room — teachers, administrators, parents, and even some students and talk to them about what are the most critical aspects of the blueprint that need to get passed first, and then sequentially get things accomplished, to put in the blueprint.
One of the pieces in terms of education that I’m particularly interested in is our school resource officers. I believe that parents need to be able to send their students to schools and feel safe. And school resource officers help with that, in terms of shootings and violence in the schools, but also making sure that we don’t funnel our students into the criminal justice system, that we can resolve issues that arise in the schools, with the parents, with the administrators and with the teachers.
WTOP: We’re seeing police accountability programs going into effect. Under Maryland state law, every jurisdiction has to come up with a Police Accountability Board. How do you feel about the way this is being implemented? And do you have concerns about police accountability, and public safety? That’s a tricky balance, it seems.
Gansler: There’s no one else that’s running from either party that has any background whatsoever in criminal justice, and I was an assistant United States attorney for six years. I was the state’s attorney Montgomery County for eight years. We had the Beltway snipers and so many other high-profile cases. And then I was your attorney general for eight years. And so I’ve been involved with criminal justice; I argued in front of the Supreme Court of the United States. I won a case 9-0 against a sex offender. So I’m really excited about this issue.
Unfortunately, it is now the highest concern of Maryland voters throughout the state — higher than education and the economy is public safety. And the government’s No. 1 role is to make sure its people are safe. So I’m really excited about bringing crime down, but also bringing justice up. I was the head of the NAACP criminal justice committee in Montgomery County, started in 1989 and been working on police accountability issues, police reform issues, but also making sure we back our police officers.
In fact, part of my plan calls for one hiring 1,000 new police officers; making sure we bridge the trust gap between law enforcement and the communities they serve; making sure we have community prosecution implemented throughout the state; making sure that we have drug courts. I started the first drug courts in Maryland’s history; I started the first domestic violence courts in Maryland’s history. I want to make sure all 24 jurisdictions have domestic violence and drug courts, so we don’t over-jail our citizens and we help them get out of jail and be productive citizens. And we want to make sure our police officers are better trained.
We want to target guns and violent criminals. And we want to make sure that our police officers — as well as, by the way, our students in our schools — have access to mental health training because that, particularly the wake of COVID, is becoming a bigger and bigger issue.
WTOP: And what about recruitment and retention of police officers? I have only anecdotal evidence. But there are real concerns about the fact that we have some departments with very large numbers of police officers who are eligible for retirement, and that we might see larger groups go out the door, and we have fewer recruits coming in. What’s your sense of that? And what would you do, again, to deal with that?
Gansler: Well, for starters, we need a governor that supports law enforcement. And as a federal, state and local prosecutor for 22 years [I’ve worked] hand in hand with law enforcement.
You’ll recall during the Beltway snipers, I led the Joint Sniper Task Force. We had 1,400 law enforcement officers from … federal, state, local, and we worked together to bring that case for close to 22 days. That is where you start and you support your law enforcement officers; you pay them adequate wages. You make sure they’re trained. You make sure they have the tools they need, access to mental health, and really bridge that gap between law enforcement and the communities they serve.
So it is a real issue. I know it’s anecdotal, but it’s actually real. Montgomery County, for example, a jurisdiction of 1.1 million people — there are 13 people in the academy. That’s unacceptable. And so we really need to put a focus on that. And the way you can do that is by having a governor who works with local officials, and county officials, and city officials, to make sure we bring those officers in and get the highest quality officers.
WTOP: You talk about bridging the gap. And this is a very different climate, I think, than when you, for example, left office as state’s attorney in Montgomery County. You know, officers feel that every move they make is being unfairly scrutinized. And there are members of the public who feel “You put a police officer in my kid’s school, and I have a kid who’s at risk of being unfairly arrested.” How do you bridge that gap?
Gansler: Well, first of all, there’s no gap in the sense that people still want to be safe. And people have not been this afraid of crime since the Beltway sniper. So I think people really want to be safe, and they want to not only feel safe, but they want to be safe. And so they need somebody who understands criminal justice to help that along.
When I was state’s attorney, we put every police shooting in the grand jury, for example. We made sure we built that trust between the community and the law enforcement that serves them. But I think, you know, we also identified and removed many police officers that were not good police officers. And that’s one of the reasons why we have not had these issues in Montgomery County. And that’s what I can speak to when I was the state’s attorney, where we had 1.1 million people and we counted our murder rate in the teens every year. Right now in Baltimore City, for example, there’s almost 400 murders a year in a jurisdiction half the size. So we need to make sure that we have somebody that’s supportive of public safety — but while bringing crime down, bringing justice up, and that’s what I’ve spent my career doing, and people recognize that.
So, are there some bad police officers? Absolutely. Should they be removed from the force? Absolutely. But most of the police officers are there to protect us, protect our lives, risking their lives for a de minimis amount of money. So I think we have to get more police officers and support them more. And is there a distrust from members of the community? Yes, but that’s why we need to have more training for police officers accessible, and more diversity within our police force.
And the last point, on the schools: SROs actually work … When you have school resource officers there, they identify and work with students that are creating trouble, and they work with the parents, the administrators, the teachers, to solve those problems. Now, if there’s a gun involved or a major crime, they obviously have to go into the criminal justice system … When you don’t have SROs, the administrators, the teachers, understandably, call law enforcement, and those kids are arrested and brought into the juvenile system.
Jobs, economy, transportation
WTOP: Inflation is top of mind nationally. Economists who are far wiser in these issues than I am say there’s very little that a president or a governor can do. But, you know, do you have plans to help people out in a time when, although wages may be going up, people aren’t feeling their dollars go very far? And I’m folding into this transportation, because as you well know, in Montgomery County, people talk about transportation as a big part of whether or not a company is going to locate here. Our roads issue often is a driver of that. Are you for or against the tolls on I-270 in the Beltway?
Gansler: I’m the only pragmatic pro-business — small business and large business — pro-public safety candidate in the Democratic field, and so I am very interested in making sure businesses thrive and the people who work for those businesses thrive as well. When I was president of all the attorneys general of the United States, we had the national mortgage foreclosure crisis. I fought the big banks to get almost $2 billion into Maryland to keep people in their homes and therefore in their jobs. And I look forward to having that same ability to make the levers of government work, to help with businesses.
And so, you know, the inflation rate is somewhat out of control of the governor of a state. But certainly making sure we support our small businesses and bring other businesses to the state is, I think, critical, as well as helping our working families.
In terms of mass transit, that is one of the ways we can help our businesses — by making sure that we actually finish the Purple Line. It’s a billion dollars over costs, four and a half years behind schedule — that’s unacceptable. So in my administration, obviously, we’re going to have streamlined procurement and effective and efficient procurement to help work with the Purple Line.
We need to make sure — you talk about 270 — we need to make sure that we’re not just pushing the bottleneck further up, so we need to make sure that we have mass transit connecting Shady Grove and Frederick, as well as, in the short term, enhancing our MARC train system, so there’s not just three trips a day going from Frederick into D.C. and back.
And we need to make sure that we actually do the Red Line up in Baltimore, where one-third of the people in Baltimore City don’t have cars, and so therefore, they can’t get to the job. So mass transit is going to be critical. We need to have the Metro go over the Wilson Bridge for which it was built. We need to make sure we have Southern Maryland Transit from Branch Avenue into Charles County.
We have an enormous amount of money available for infrastructure. And one of the things we need to make sure is that when 270 is expanded, which, you know, Gov. Hogan has done — and elections do have consequences — that those cars that are actually on 270, on our highways, are electric vehicles. So we need to make sure we have the infrastructure in place so that people can, in fact, buy those electric vehicles so the car manufacturers are going to be making whether we like it or not. We’re woefully behind on the infrastructure here in Maryland. And that has to become a priority.
WTOP: What about tolls? You know, the plan that he has to add tolls to sections of the Beltway and 270?
Gansler: Well, no one no one likes to pay tolls. But the fact of the matter is, that was designed as a P3 project by this governor. And so the issue is whether we should have tax dollars paying for that, or the private sector paying for that. And I think people would like to have the private sector paying for that, so we can use our infrastructure money for mass transit, that is so desperately needed throughout the state. I think that’s where it is now. And I think that if we are going to build that project, if that project is going to go forward, it has to be done through proper procurement; it has to be done in an environmentally friendly way.
I mean, the American Legion Bridge has to be rebuilt; no one wants to play hot potato, see if they’re the one driving over the bridge when it collapses. So that needs to be done. But we need to make sure that we do it in an equitable, fair and environmentally friendly way. I’m the only candidate running for for governor in the Democratic Party who has a record on environmental issues, to fight climate change and to protect our Chesapeake Bay. So we need to make sure that that project is done in an environmentally friendly way and equitable way, and to make sure that we have the infrastructure for electric vehicles, so that when there are cars on that highway, they are not producing fossil fuels.
WTOP: You mentioned the Chesapeake Bay. What about the Bay Bridge? There’s been a discussion and just recently, a third span is something that the governor favors along the same footprint as the current Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Your thoughts on that?
Gansler: If we’re going to have a third span, it obviously should be along with where the other two are just for basic infrastructure, environmental needs. I put that as a very, very low priority, in terms of the projects, the very expensive projects that we’re looking at in Maryland. I just think there’s so many others — [like] the Purple Line and the Red Line — being higher priorities, connecting Shady Grove to Frederick, making sure we enhance Metro, making sure we have the Metro going over the Wilson Bridge — I think those are much more important projects, prioritized projects right now than the Bay Bridge. I mean, if you build it, they will come.
I’m an environmentalist. I did 22 river audits; we fought to clean up the bay. We made great strides during my tenure as attorney general. I don’t want to have more sprawl in the Eastern Shore. I don’t think that’s what people want. We just should not have people driving over the Bay Bridge during rush hour in the middle of the summer months on Friday afternoons and Sunday mornings; you have to plan your trips better. But I while I’m not vehemently against it, I certainly would not put that as a high priority right now.
WTOP: And then lastly, and I think you’ve answered this in a range of ways, but I’ll put it to you: What in your background separates you and makes you the more able and best candidate for this job?
Gansler: Well, there are a lot of talented, nice people in this race. But very few of them have ever run for public office, let alone held the office of dogcatcher. More than half have not. And I think people really want experience as we come out of a crisis. They want somebody that knows how to work the levers of government.
For example, I led the statewide effort on marriage equality, when I thought it was very important for people to be able to marry those who they loved. And for that literally, impeachment proceedings were started against me by the far-right Republicans. I think we’re gonna see the same urgency around women’s reproductive rights going forward, and making sure that we have a Democrat who’s going to actually win the general election, who’s been vetted, who has experience to lead. And so I think women’s reproductive rights is going to be a critical issue.
I think crime is a critical issue. There is no other candidate in the race that has a scintilla of background in the criminal justice field and knows the difference between a conviction or indictment. So I think that’s going to be critical in terms of keeping people safe. I think being a pro-business advocate, making sure we have a more of a moderate view on economic activity in our state is going to be also very important going forward, as is fighting climate change … I have the experience that no one else has in this race.
My lieutenant governor, Candice Hollingsworth, was the former mayor of Hyattsville. We’re the only two people in the race both having executive experience, which I think is critical right now. I’ve led during a time of crisis. We’re in a time of crisis. We’re coming out of a time of crisis, hopefully soon. And we need someone with that experience. People don’t want to fly on a plane with a pilot who has not flown before and just read about it. So I think that’s going to be critical as we go forward.