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C. Fraser Smith: Flashers on for Gansler’s campaign

Is this a dead man walking or what?

Dead, that is, as a candidate for governor. Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler may have been thrust into that status as he tried to deflect questions raised about Maryland State Police assigned to protect him — from himself, it seemed.

He denies it, but a state police paper trail says otherwise. The story inevitably raises questions: Does Gansler have the judgment or temperament to run the $37 billion state government?

So, he could be a political dead man. But he’s still walking. We have a campaign to watch. He has seemed over the course of his decades in public life more interested in his own career than in public service, but there had been little of the characteristic grandstanding during his six years as attorney general.

Maybe there are unseen dimensions to the man, attributes that neutralize what he called backseat driving.

So far, his recovery effort seems to have worsened his plight. State troopers alleged that he demanded what appeared to be big-foot driving — driving on the shoulder of highways to skirt tie-ups, inappropriately using sirens and flashing lights to shorten his journey and various other offenses. Had he put the troopers and others at risk?

At one point, he was summoned to explain himself by Lt. Charles Ardolini, supervisor of the protective service troopers who drive the governor and others. One conjures an odd image: the attorney general of Maryland taken to the woodshed by a law enforcement official. Not a pretty picture if you are asking voters to put you in charge of the state police among other bodies in a $37 billion operation.

Gansler seems to have set about digging a deeper hole. He referred to Lt. Ardolini was a “henchman” of Gov. Martin O’Malley and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, Gansler’s primary opponent in the 2014 race for governor.

There was a definite political aspect to the situation. Insiders marveled at what appeared to be the timing of The Washington Post’s story. It landed on the day Gansler was introducing his running mate, Del. Jolene Ivey of Prince George’s County. “Troopergate” got the headlines, not the Ivey choice.

The picture of a high-level state official throwing his weight around might fade if it did not resonate so loudly in Montgomery County, Gansler’s base. He was the state’s attorney there for years — long enough for many to see him as a self-serving press hog. He was once reprimanded by the Maryland Court of Appeals for remarks he made about judges. The charge that he insisted on using emergency lights and sirens — allegedly flipping them on himself over the objection of his drivers — could seem all of a piece.

Some voters will side with Gansler against the judges. Yet surely it’s possible to overdo the lean and hungry look.

He obviously needs to change the subject, refocusing his campaign on his call for lower taxes and a stronger economic development campaign.

Instead, Gansler chose to go after a state police supervisor. The proof he offered of Ardolini’s being a “henchman”? Ardolini’s office is in the governor’s mansion. State police say the protection unit commander has been stationed there since 1970s.

“He’s damaged,” says Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College, “because the trooper story deflates his outsider claims and because the story along with his ‘henchman’ comment confirms the worst that people think of him.”

Brown, whose campaign has kept the Gansler campaign off-balance for months, has chosen to stay out of the line of fire here.

Nevertheless, this kind of turmoil could evolve into a perfect scenario for David Craig, the leading Republican candidate. Voters could declare a plague on both houses. Craig could benefit. The Harford County executive has far more hands-on managerial experience than Brown or Gansler. At least one Democratic Party official warned that Craig is the sort of reasonable candidate who could take advantage of a split in the party.

It’s happened before. You could look it up.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in the Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.