Friday, April 27, 2007

Gansler, Mitchell building bridges

Partnership carries benefits for Baltimore mayoral candidate — and the attorney general, who is setting his sights set higher

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Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
Baltimore mayoral candidate Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. (left) chats with Michael Wells of the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Laurens Street in West Baltimore. Mitchell has a political ally in Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler.
This story was corrected on May 2 from its print version.

Less than three weeks after being sworn in as attorney general, Douglas F. Gansler stood on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Laurens Street in downtown Baltimore alongside Baltimore City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. as Mitchell announced his bid for mayor.

The two lawyers struck up a friendship during Gansler’s statewide campaign last year when Mitchell was the only city-elected official to embrace the then-Montgomery County chief prosecutor.

As Gansler (D) returns the favor this year, it has fueled speculation that the ambitious 44-year-old attorney general may be laying the groundwork in Baltimore for a gubernatorial campaign in 2014 or earlier if Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) doesn’t seek a second term.

‘‘Doug is trying to develop political alliances with people all over the state that would be necessary for a future gubernatorial run, so I think he’s being an extremely smart politician,” said Stanton J. Gildenhorn, a former chairman of the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee.

And Gansler’s support of the 39-year-old Mitchell isn’t just verbal. His deputy campaign manager from the AG’s race, Antigone Davis, has gone to work for Mitchell, and Gansler’s encouraging his volunteers to aid Mitchell’s mayoral bid.

Gansler, a proficient fundraiser, said he also would help Mitchell raise money, which will be critical to the three-term councilman’s chances in the September primary. Campaign finance reports filed in January show Mayor Sheila Dixon (D), with more than $284,000 in the bank, having almost nine times more cash on hand than Mitchell.

‘‘To know Keiffer is to like Keiffer. People who know him know he’s somebody who brings people together,” Gansler said. ‘‘... I’ll basically do whatever he wants me to do.”

What’s at stake?

The Gansler-Mitchell alliance carries potential benefits and pitfalls for the attorney general, observers said.

If Mitchell wins, Gansler would have a vocal ally in City Hall who would campaign for him in one of the state’s most voter-rich jurisdictions. If Mitchell loses, the winner could harbor enmity toward Gansler for backing a rival candidate.

‘‘It could be a really, really big risk, or it could be the most politically astute move that Doug Gansler’s made,” said Susan K. Heltemes, a former member of the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee who has been involved in Maryland politics for more than 25 years.

But as one academic sees it, Gansler has more to gain by aligning himself with a member of one of Baltimore’s most recognizable families.

‘‘The name Mitchell in Baltimore is gold,” said Zach P. Messitte, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. ‘‘There’s a network of Democratic voters in Baltimore city who have been voting for the Mitchell family for two generations.”

Keiffer’s great uncle is Parren Mitchell, Maryland’s first African-American congressman; his uncle, Clarence Mitchell III, and a cousin, Clarence Mitchell IV are former state senators; and his grandfather, the late Clarence Mitchell Jr., was a longtime civil rights activist who headed the Washington bureau of the NAACP for years.

But Gansler’s politicking could also backfire. Past attorneys general Stephen H. Sachs and J. Joseph Curran Jr. typically steered clear of campaigning for other candidates while in office, Heltemes said.

And Gansler’s activism could be perceived as trying to advance his own political career. ‘‘The people of Baltimore could say, ‘Why is he meddling?’” Heltemes said.

Gansler, however, isn’t the only pol outside Charm City going to bat for Mitchell.

A $50-a-plate fundraiser for Mitchell will be held Wednesday at McGinty’s Public House in Silver Spring. Del. Heather R. Mizeur is helping to organize the event. As Maryland director of the 2004 Kerry-Edwards campaign, Mizeur (D-Dist. 20) of Silver Spring hired Mitchell as political director.

Montgomery County’s involvement in the Baltimore mayoral race should not be viewed negatively, Mizeur said. ‘‘You can’t talk about having ‘One Maryland’ in the way we govern and not having ‘One Maryland’ in the way we politick.”

Mitchell has another tie to Montgomery County. His wife is a native, and her parents live in Kensington.

Is past prologue?

Shortly after being elected Montgomery County state’s attorney in 1998 — he defeated Democrat-turned-Republican Thomas O’Malley, the governor’s father, in the general election — Gansler began to lay the groundwork for a statewide run.

Through his family contacts — his father, Jacques, was a bigwig in the defense department — Gansler held fundraisers with high-profile guests and amassed an impressive war chest. And he found a mentor in former U.S. senator Joseph D. Tydings (D).

And with his involvement in Mitchell’s campaign, some see Gansler building similar foundations in his first year in statewide office.

‘‘It sends the message that Doug Gansler is going to be an active politician and use his standing as one of the top three statewide politicians to potentially influence the outcome of certain races,” said G. Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc., a Bethesda polling firm.

Gansler said he’s not thinking about his future and is focused on his responsibilities as attorney general.

‘‘The best thing I can do politically is do the best job I can as attorney general of Maryland and everything else will fall into place,” he said. ‘‘... I’m not ruling anything out, but not more than I’m ruling anything in.”

Others say it’s never too early to start mobilizing for a gubernatorial run, even if it’s seven years away. Although Baltimore has seen its power slip in recent years, it remains a gold mine for Democratic candidates, said Del. Melvin L. Stukes (D-Dist. 44) of Baltimore, a former city councilman.

‘‘Baltimore is not No. 1, but we’re not chopped liver, especially when it comes to the swing vote and that the majority of the time is going to be the black vote,” he said.

‘‘It’s extremely important for someone to be able to make inroads in Baltimore city,” said Del. Curtis S. Anderson (D-Dist. 43) of Baltimore. ‘‘If it’s a seed that you planted years ago and that seed [becomes] the mayor of Baltimore, that would be helpful.”

But Gansler and Mitchell dismiss conspiracy theories of grander schemes. What’s behind their alliance, they say, is simple loyalty.

‘‘Keiffer looked past demographics and geography and stood up and supported me on that day [of his campaign kickoff],” Gansler said, ‘‘so I have a very deep sense of loyalty and gratitude for his willingness to do that.”

‘‘It’s a friendship that has blossomed,” Mitchell said.