Maryland Super-Lobbyist Bruce Bereano Aims to Erase His Fraud Convictions

by Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Nov. 16, 2011

Seventeen years after his 1994 convictions for mail fraud, Maryland lobbyist Bruce Bereano is looking to clear his name. He’s doing so based on last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Skilling v. United States, which found that the provision of the federal mail-fraud statutes that formed the basis of his prosecution—known as “honest services” —was unconstitutional. The now-stricken statute said it was fraud to deprive the public of honest services—in Bereano’s case, by fraudulently billing his firm’s clients. Fraud that results in loss of money or property is still a crime.

Bereano’s trial and sentencing were major political spectacles in the 1990s, as he rallied his supporters, including some of the biggest players in Maryland’s political class, in an unsuccessful attempt to avert convictions and a jail sentence. Charged with stealing from his clients by fraudulently charging them for “legislative services” and using the money to make disguised contributions to politicians through his political-action committee, Bereano claimed the crimes were victimless. After his convictions were upheld on appeal, in 1998 he was sentenced to spend five months incarcerated and five months in home detention, and to pay a $30,000 fine. He was disbarred as result of his convictions, but has continued to be an important lobbyist, representing powerful interests in Annapolis and elsewhere.

Attorneys Timothy Maloney and Matthew Bryant filed Bereano’s petition to overturn his convictions in April, and, at first, it appeared that the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Maryland may have been willing to negotiate a deal. Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Leotta initially was handling the case, and in July he requested an extension to reply to the petition “so that the government and defense can explore whether there is a way to resolve the matter by agreement.” In August, after assistant U.S. Attorney Leo Wise took over the case from Leotta, he raised the same possibility in a second request for an extension.

Ultimately, in late September, Wise submitted his opposition brief, writing that the jury found not only that Bereano committed now invalid “honest services” fraud, but also “traditional pecuniary fraud” that “defrauded his clients of money.” In their legal briefs, though, Bereano’s attorneys argue that “all of the alleged ‘victims’ testified that they were not victimized and did not suffer losses,” so at trial prosecutors instead emphasized to the jury that Bereano had deprived people of “honest services,” which is no longer illegal.

Should Bereano’s petition prevail, and his convictions be overturned, he would be entitled to have the $30,000 fine returned, with interest. According to his attorneys’ interest worksheets of the fine, the total amount to be returned would come to nearly $60,000.

“This is an extremely interesting case,” says University of Maryland Law School adjunct professor Frank Razzano, who uses Bereano’s case in his business-law classes. Bereano is arguing that “he was convicted of something that is not a crime,” Razzano says, but “the government says he also was convicted of something that still is a crime—he stole $100 from four clients [via billing], so he’s a bad guy.” The judge, Razzano says, “is going to decide whether the jury was instructed on honest-services fraud as the overall theory of the case.”

Razzano cautions that he’s “only read the briefs, not the original jury instructions” in Bereano’s case, but, based on what he knows, he thinks “Bereano has the better of the arguments.”

Former assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Levin, now a criminal-defense attorney with the firm Levin and Curlett, says Bereano and his lawyers “have made a valiant effort to right a perceived wrong.” The issue for the judge, Levin contends, “boils down to whether or not Mr. Bereano stole the money. If the court concludes that he did, the court will likely find that the erroneous instruction to the jury was harmless. If the court concludes otherwise, the conviction should be reversed.

Bereano’s attempt to overturn his convictions based on the Skilling decision harkens back to the case of another famous Marylander whose convictions were overturned in 1987: former Gov. Marvin Mandel. Ten years after he was convicted of 17 counts of mail fraud and one racketeering count, Mandel cited a then recent Supreme Court ruling against the “honest services” fraud charge, and cleared his name. Congress then passed an “honest services” statute in 1988, which was used liberally by federal prosecutors until last year’s Skilling decision put an end to its use once again. (The federal corruption case against Maryland state Sen. Ulysses Currie—which ended recently with acquittals on all charges for the Prince George’s County Democrat—initially included seven honest-services charges that prosecutors dropped after the Skilling ruling.)

Razzano says Bereano’s attorneys “have pretty sound precedent in the Mandel case” in arguing their client’s case. Razzano was no fan of the “honest services” provision, saying it was “an incredibly vague statute” and that “I was delighted to see the Supreme Court of the United States finally strike it down.”

Bereano’s attorneys and the Maryland U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the case, which is before U.S. District Judge William Nickerson. A court hearing for oral arguments in the case has been requested by Bereano’s attorneys, but has yet to be scheduled, according to the court docket.

Governor Next? With the Name, the Money, and the Aura of Virtual Incumbency, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is the Odds-On Favorite to be Elected to the State’s Top Job 12 Months From Now. Or Will She Pull a “Steinberg”?

By Van Smith

Published in Baltimore Magazine, Nov. 2001

IMG_7296

Remember Lieutenant Governor Melvin “Mickey” Steinberg? Eight years ago, he was a shoo-in for governor in the 1994 election, the man whose race it was to lose. By the July 1994 filing deadline, Steinberg was already dead in the water. He ended up finishing third in the Democratic primary.

And remember City Council President Lawrence Bell? Three years ago, he was far and away the favorite to win Baltimore’s mayoral election. He, too, collapsed down the stretch and came in a distant third in the primary.

So, sometimes, being the early favorite isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

But don’t tell that to Lieutenant Govenor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. She’s sitting pretty in the polls, has tons of money, and enjoys near-universal name recognition in Maryland. As the daughter of Robert Kennedy, a martyred national icon, she also benefits from a nationwide political organization that isn’t shy about getting more Kennedys elected.

Kennedys know what to do in her situation: Clear the field of all potential rivals. Just impress them right out of the race. And, to date, Townsend’s done just that. No one’s announced they’re running against her.

Yet.

But there’s plenty of time – and several key people who haven’t taken themselves out of the running. In the general election, U.S. Rep. Robert Ehrlich (2nd District) is the only high-profile Republican to express interest in running for governor.

Three Democratic county executives – Wayne Curry of Prince George’s County, Douglas Duncan of Montgomery County, and C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger of Baltimore County – are regularly mentioned as potential Townsend rivals n the primary, as, increasingly, is Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley. Some of these men have more to lose than others by challenging Townsend, but none of them has explicitly ruled out doing so. They’re keeping us guessing.

IMG_7297

No guesswork is needed when it comes to Townsend, though. She has been running for governor for years. The expectation that she’ll be a candidate in 2002 to succeed Parris Glendening has been around since at least 1998, when she was showcased during the campaign to shore up eroding support for the governor’s re-election effort. In recognition of her crucial help, Townsend was given an administrative portfolio that, over the past three years, has strengthened her claim to have executive experience, her network of statewide contacts, and her name recognition. In an open-seat governor’s race such as this, she’s as close to an incumbent as you can get, and the power of incumbency is a proven electoral asset.

Right now, this one-candidate race is a guessing game watched mostly by insiders and political junkies. It’s likely to stay an insiders’ game until early next year, when the Governor hands a new electoral map to the General Assembly. That’s when next year’s prospects for candidates across the state will be altered – including for some who are weighing a challenge against Towsend. The voting public isn’t likely to pay close attention until next spring, as jockeying ahead of the July 1 filing deadline raises the debate to a more fevered pitch.

Between now and then, anything could happen – or nothing could happen. The state’s economy could head south with the nation’s – or not. The new war on terrorism could change the state’s mood from relatively liberal to moderately conservative – or not. A strong new contender could capture the public’s imagination, swinging voters away from the early favorite – or not. Nascent criticism of Townsend – that she’s not enough of a heavyweight for gubernatorial contention, that she’s overprivileged with out-of-state money, that she’s mishandled her key administrative assignments – may get the attention of the public – or not.

Whatever happens, the state’s top job is up for grabs next year, and as lobbyist Bruce Bereano, a longtime insider in Maryland politics, says dryly, “There certainly will be a gubernatorial race. … Any time you have a vacancy because the current office-holder is termed out, you are going to have serious people vying to fill that vacancy. So it’s going to be a very exciting year, a race of national attention – the stakes and the dimensions will be that significant.”

IMG_7299

Frederick, Md., is only an hour west of downtown Baltimore, but its politics are light years away. Its soul is more rural than urban, and Republicans rule the roost. Still, Democrat Martin O’Malley, Baltimore’s first-term mayor, got a warm receptiopn there in August when he addressed a meeting of the Plowmen and Fishermen Club, a group of local Democrats.

In the brick-walled, tree-shaded courtyard of Tauraso’s Restaurant in the heart of Frederick’s historic district, a white-whiskered Frederick transplant from Baltimore, John Norman, cries out to O’Malley: “Hey, you’re doing a great job with my city!” The mayor beams happily for the cameras, gripping and grinning among 100 or so well-wishers.

Susan Leigh-Nelson, a local cable-television reporter, grills O’Malley about speculation that he might run for governor in 2002 against Townsend, but he refuses to discuss the matter. “I don’t waste any time exploring running for something else,” he says as the camera rolls. “I’m too busy doing what I’m doing.” He praises Glendening and Townsend for having “made a lot of wise investments in Baltimore” and declares he has “a very good relationship” with the administration in Anapolis.

Thomas G. Slater, who chairs Frederick’s Democratic State Central Committee, says O’Malley’s invitation to speak tonight has nothing to do with the 2002 election. “He’s young, he’s new, he’s exciting, and we want to get a look at him – especially early on,” Slater explains as he peruses a table of hors d’oeuvres. He’s an old hand in Western Maryland politics, and he simply doesn’t foresee an O’Malley challenge to Townsend. “It’s too soon” after his 1999 election as mayor of Baltimore. Besides, he says, Kathleen’s “got it.”

Frederick County’s only elected Democrat, State Delegate Sue Hecht, steps up on a low stone wall to introduce Martin O’Malley to the assembled partisans. “This is our star,” she gushes, “our rising star in Baltimore, and we’re going to see him and hear about him for many more years.” O’Malley takes the stage and, in his usual unscripted oratorical style, cajoles his fellow Dems to focus on results-oriented governance, does Bill Clinton impersonations, and ticks off his every-ready list of upbeat trends in Baltimore.

Afterward, the gathering turns informal. The mayor ends up chatting with Jeb Byron, the evening’s host and the son of former U.S. Representative Beverly Byron. With them is Brent Ayer, a sandy-haired long-distance runner and Bevery Byron’s former chief of staff.

Ayer tells O’Malley about big public events in Frederick County that draw large numbers of people – mass gatherings where statewide political candidates can reach a broad audience. He touts Colorfest, an October crafts fair in Thurmont – “You can get to 60,000 at that alone,” Ayer explains. The mayor introduces Ayer to his brother, Peter. “Take one of his business cards,” O’Malley tells Peter. “He’s the numbers guy for Western Maryland.”

IMG_7300

O’Malley, like all the undeclared, potential candidates, is interested in numbers – including the 400,000 potential voters in Western Maryland.

The numbers that got the attention of a lot of politicos last May were those turned up in a public opinion poll conducted by Gonzales-Arscott Research & Communications, which showed Townsend leading O’Malley in a head-to-head primary race by only 47 percent to 40 percent – a surprisingly close margin since O’Malley had not been campaigning. What was strikingly embedded in the poll numbers as that O’Malley’s 67-percent name recognition was far below Townsend’s 95 percent, indicating that those who did know his name tended to favor him over Townsend.

Some of the buzz about O’Malley subsided a bit in July when a head-to-head poll by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research showed him trailing Townsend by 49 percent to 28 percent, but Carol Arscott finds “his name recognition creeping up on hers, and his negatives are very, very low.”

So, O’Malley goes to Frederick for a little politicking. As State Senator Barbara Hoffman (D-42nd District) says of the visit, “He’s smart to do that – you build up credits for the future, create a little profile for yourself. It will come in handy some day.”

The question is, “When? There are some who think that next year – while he’s still perceived as a “rising star” and is still relatively unscarred by the years in office any mayor endures – may be O’Malley’s best chance to become governor. But if he runs, he risks losing and becoming damaged goods – a brash youngster who misjudged his moment and shot too high too early in the game.

IMG_7301

Opinion, of course, is divided over O’Malley’s 2002 gubernatorial prospects. “It still remains a long shot for him,” says Western Maryland College political science professor and columnist Herb Smith. “He could win, but the chances are he won’t. What does he gain by losing? An enemy in the governor’s mansion and a long-term negative in terms of his ambitions for any other statewide office.”

“If he runs for governor, I think it is his for the taking,” says Anirban Basu, director of Applied Economics at Towson University’s Regional Economic Studies Institute. “I pray, as a Baltimore City resident, that he does not run for governor. We need him much more than the state needs him, but I think it is his – if he wants it.”

Montgomery County State’s Attorney Douglas Gansler can’t see O’Malley or anyone else beating Townsend. “I don’t think anybody can come close to Kathleen in a race,” he muses, “so I don’t know why the Martin O’Malley thing is out there.”

“I personally don’t think he’s going to run,” former State Senator Julian “Jack” Lapides says of O’Malley. Townsend already has lined up too much of the city’s power structure, he explains. “I don’t see it shifting. First of all, African Americans will be overwhelmingly for her, and she certainly will have a significant percentage of the white vote in the city. So who’s O’Malley going to get from the city? Any votes he does get will be offset by the Kennedy name and mystique” elsewhere in the state.

“There are only so many Irish-American politicians from Maryland that the nation can absorb,” quips Arscott. A showdown between the two – Townsend, a blue-blood Kennedy, versus O’Malley, an in-law of the Curran dynasty of Maryland politicians, who have been dubbed “the brown-bag Kennedys” – could be an eventuality. Maybe not next year, but some day.

IMG_7304

Chuck Goldsborough is a race-car driver, a Baltimore boy who’s stayed true to his roots. Since 1999, he’s been the president, owner, and driver for Team Lexus, the luxury-car marker’s only racing team in the country. He’s been running the operation out of a large, immaculate garage with adjacent offices in an industrial complex in Arbutus. On a Tuesday morning in early September, Baltimore County Executive Dutch Ruppersberger comes over to see Team Lexus firsthand, meet Goldsborough, and offer the county’s help and support.

Rupperberger, a large man, dons a Team Lexus shirt (“You got XXL?” he asks Goldsborough) and manages to squeeze himself into the cramped driver’s seat of one of the Team Lexus race cars. And there he stays for a good 20 minutes or more, asking Goldsborough question after question. How often does Team Lexus race? Who does the body-work on damaged cars? And so on. Finally, what happened to Dale “The Intimidator” Earnhardt?

Earnhardt was the NASCAR driver who died in a fiery crash at the Daytona 500 in February. Goldsborough explains that Earnhardt was a risk-taker in the extreme, habitually refusing to use standard safety gear that probably would have saved his life. But his son, Dale Jr., isn’t as reckless – in fact, he’s a natural and is already showing himself to be a great driver. “There are legacies in every sport,” Goldsborough explains, “including racing – the Earnhardts, the Andrettis.”

“Just like Kennedys in politics,” Ruppersberger interjects.

“That’s right,” Goldsborough agrees, laughing. “Just like Kennedys in politics.”

Ruppersberger laughs, too – masking what must be a certain amount of jealousy. He comes from a family of local meat merchants, far from the Camelot of the Kennedys, and has succeeded in Baltimore County politics the hard way: eight years as a prosecutor and nine years on the County Council before becoming executive in 1994. Now he’s term-limited out of running for a third term. After winning every precinct in 1998 – a reward for his having turned around the county’s once-failing budget and economy during his first term – he was widely considered prime gubernatorial material. But he’s in the shadow of a Kennedy. Now he might run for Congress rather than confront Townsend in the governor’s race.

This is a man in the throes of political agony. He wants to be governor so badly he can taste it, but the Kennedy factor is only part of his problem. His political disability is largely his own doing. It happened in 2000, when he quietly ushered an eminent-domain bill through the General Assembly – and ran headlong into an indigenous dislike for government incursions into private property rights. The reaction started in Essex, which was the bill’s main target for redevelopment, but spread countywide and was defeated by referendum. On top of this, Ruppersberger’s plans to expand the county jail have caused a damaging level of public furor. His political base – the solid ground from which every statewide candidate must launch a campaign – has been badly shaken.

In Team Lexus’ conference room, Ruppersberger settles in to talk about his options. “A lot of people are telling me,” he says, “’Dutch, I know you would be the best governor, but I don’t think you can beat Kathleen, so let’s find another alternative.’” When friends urged him to consider a congressional bid instead, he at first rejected the notion. “I want to be governor,” he says. “I want to do for the state what I did for Baltimore County. I love my state. I’m homegrown. But in the end, they say, ‘We’re telling you as friends, she’s got name recognition everywhere. How are you going to do it? People don’t know who you are. They know Kathleen.’”

Governor Glendening – who controls the redistricting process and therefore has a lot of say over Rupperberger’s congressional aspirations – has asked him to consider a run for Congress, too, he reports. “So, I think at this point I’m keeping those options open because I do love public service and I think I can make a difference wherever I go,” Ruppersberger declares. “But I want to make a difference. I don’t want to be in just for the sake of keeping my name alive. That’s not me. I want to do something. I want to be active, and I want to count for something.”

Since the height of the eminent-domain acrimony, Ruppersberger claims to have recovered a good measure of his support in Essex – but it’s conditional support. “They were even going to have a fundraiser for me,” he says, “until the word got out that I might be looking at Congress. They are all supporters of Ehrlich, and so they said, ‘Well, you run for governor and we’ll do it, but you gotta tell us that you are not running for Congress.’ And I said, ‘I’m not going to say that.’”

Ruppersberger’s hesitation is understandable; he knows the deal. “The voting profile in the Democratic primary goes to Kathleen’s advantage,” he explains. “She comes from a well-respected family, she probably has 100-percent name recognition. She will have a tremendous amount of money, and she will be able to send her message out on a regular basis on TV – in both of Maryland’s media markets, Baltimore and the D.C. suburbs.”

The money disadvantage is difficult, he says, but not insurmountable. “You don’t have to have the same amount of money as her, but you have to have enough money to cover her,” Ruppersberger explains. “In other words, when she has five ads, you need to have one to get your message out. And TV in the D.C. market is so much more expensive, because you also are buying coverage for Washington, D.C. and Northern Virginia.

“But that doesn’t mean that you don’t consider running,” he declares hopefully as he changes back into his suit, preparing to head out to lunch with O’Malley. “I mean, Im still keeping all of my options open now. A couple of months from now, we can sit down and talk about issues. It’s just too soon. My first priority right now is running this county.”

IMG_7305

Down in the D.C. suburbs, O’Malley and Ruppersberger are largely unknown quantities. This is crucial statewide electoral territory. Political power in Maryland, along with its population and economic clout, has shifted southward over the last 20 years – it’s no mistake that our current governor hails from Prince George’s County. Today, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties together are home to nearly a third of Maryland’s voters. Most are middle-class Democrats. Spawned from this rich territory are two potential players in the governor’s race: Doug Duncan and Wayne Curry, two-term county executives in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, respectively.

Duncan has paid his dues in county politics. He’s been county executive since 1994, and had been Mayor of Rockville, and a Rockville City Councilmember before that. Montgomery County has been booming during his tenure, as the I-270 corridor has become the state’s main high-tech hub and Silver Spring has come back to life. Crime is low and the schools are good. There’s just not much to complain about in Montgomery County.

Except the traffic. “The biggest issue in Montgomery County is transportation,” says State’s Attorney Gansler. “People sit in their cars too long, and they get frustrated and angry and they blame the person in charge for that.” In this case, not Duncan. The Governor instead gets blamed for blocking a popular plan for the Inter-County Connector (ICC), a highway connecting I-270 and I-95. “It’s an incredible hot button of an issue,” says Gansler. “And Doug Duncan is on the right side of that issue.”

Duncan campaign consultant Colleen Martin-Lauer (who also raises funds for Martin O’Malley) agrees that transportation is “a key issue in the Washington suburbs.” Given that Glendening has been defiant in opposing the ICC, she says, “I think people who sit on the Washington Beltway everyday will question the accomplishments” of his administration “when it comes to transportation issues.”

Here, then, is a weak point for Townsend in the D.C. suburbs – some of the anti-Glendening sentiment on transportation issues is bound to rub off on her, giving Duncan and others a stick to poke her with. But Gansler doesn’t see it that way. “She is the Lieutenant Governor,” he explains. “She needs to be loyal to the governor and his position. That’s her job. People understand that.” Later on, closer to the election, she’ll have to take an independent stance, and at that point, says Gansler, “she’s going to be acutely aware of the need to address the transportation issue here.”

Duncan, like every other potential rival, faces an intimidating challenge in taking on Townsend’s already established electoral might. He, like Ruppersberger, suffers from a shaky political base. Key Montgomery County politicians, such as former County Executive Sidney Kramer, say he’s not ready to be governor.

“There’s a perception out there that Doug has drifted away from his base,” explains Gansler. “He has alienated many political people in the Democratic Party in Montgomery County. Unlike [Ruppersberger], there really isn’t anything tangible you can point to with Doug. I think there are those who see it as political arrogance. Its much more of a personality issue than a substantive issue.”

IMG_7306

Like Ruppersberger, Wayne Curry can’t run again for county executive. Yet he has eight years under his belt of running the Prince George’s County government. At a fundraiser he held at his home in May, he announced his intention to travel the state and “listen to what people have to say” about a statewide bid for something – governor, attorney general, or comptroller. But his schedule since hasn’t borne out that vow. He’s been busy tending to his police department, which has been jolted with a series of disturbing and embarrassing scandals that have hurt him at home. Few seem to think he’s got the legs for a gubernatorial bid – especially in light of Townsend’s popularity among Curry’s potential base of African-American voters.

John McDonough, a Prince George’s County attorney and political operative, believes Curry is most attractive as a lieutenant governor’s candidate, teaming up with Duncan, Ruppersberger, or O’Malley, should one of them choose to take on Townsend. “If one of the county executives or the Mayor actually does declare – and there’s only room for one opponent – then it will be a competitive primary,” says McDonough, making Curry “somewhat of a wild card” because he “could successfully cut into Townsend’s base among African-American voters.”

 

One person who appears increasingly willing to match Townsend’s bet in the governor’s stakes is Republican Robert Ehrlich. This fall, the U.S. Congressman announced to supporters that he’ll run if they can raise $2 million for him by the end of the year. Only one other Republican, Prince George’s County Councilwoman Audrey E. Scott, has expressed interest in entering the race, but only if Ehrlich doesn’t. “I know he can raise that money,” Scott told the Washington Post after the September 21 announcement, “so in my mind, Bobby is the candidate, and I’m supporting him.”

Whether he ended up facing Townsend or another Democrat, Ehrlich’s task would be daunting. Among registered voters, Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1. And in the most recent statewide general election – the 2000 presidential race – Maryland voters overwhelmingly preferred the Democrat, Vice President Al Gore. Ehrlich’s poll numbers in a face-off with Townsend are low – in the 30 to 35 percent range, versus about 50 percent for her – and about a third of the voters don’t even know his name, while Townsend enjoys 95 percent name-recognition.

“The odds against Republicans in Maryland are very steep – any Republican,” sums up Carol Arscott. “You begin with a base vote about half the size of your opponent’s base vote. And to chip away that much at someone’s natural base is a very difficult thing to do.”

The last time a Republican made a strong challenge to the Democratic hold on the Governor’s Mansion (Spiro Agnew was the last Republican governor of Maryland, elected in 1966) was in 1994, when then-State Delegate Ellen Sauerbrey came within 6,000 votes of victor Parris Glendening. That was the same year as the Republican takeover of Congress – and also the year 2nd District voters sent Ehrlich to Washington.

But Ehrlich’s 2nd District base, which spans parts of Baltimore, Harford, and Anne Arundel counties, isn’t reflective of Mayland as a whole. If he tosses his hat in the ring, Ehrlich will run up against the political reality that Sauerbrey saw so vividly in the 1994 returns – that without successfully swaying a large number of left-leaning voters in Baltimore City and Prince George’s and Montgomery counties away from the Democratic candidate, a statewide Republican candidate has precious little chance of claiming victory. Voters from those three jurisdictions combined provided Glendening with more than half of his winning statewide vote. Those are tough numbers to crack.

Ehrlich has gradually softened his sharply conservative edge over the years. When he first gained office in 1994, Ehrlich was a freshman in what was hailed at the time, by Republican activist Vin Weber of Empower America, as “the Rush Limbaugh Congress,” a reference to the right-wing radio-talk-show host. In 1995, Ehrlich stood on the Capitol steps with then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich to unveil the “Contract With America,” a 10-point conservative agenda the new Congress planned to push.

Since then, Ehrlich has slowly gained a reputation as a more moderate Republican: He doesn’t like gun control and he voted to ban partial-birth abortions, but he generally backs abortion rights, supports stem-cell research, and enjoys a measure of support from labor unions.

Ehrlich’s perceived moderation as an incumbent has helped him win re-election four times in a majority-Democrat district. He could have a safe seat for another term, depending on how Glendening redraws his district’s boundaries this coming winter. But, if he runs for governor instead, he’s going to need Democrats from all over the state to cross party lines and vote for him.

Early indications suggest he’ll use at least three anti-Townsend themes in appealing to voters – incumbency, out-of-state money, and upper-crust privilege. In a Washington Post interview, he called the Glendening/Townsend forces “a dominant and entrenched monopoly, run by the most petty politicians you’re ever going to see,” and flogged Townsend for relying on family connections to garner fundraising support from outside Maryland. “I grew up in a rowhouse, not a castle in Camelot,” he wrote in a fundraising letter.

If Ehrlich enters this race, it’s going to be a bruiser.

 

Though Townsend’s strengths as an early favorite appear overwhelming, things can change.

Maryland’s economy has been surprisingly resilient to the downturn nationally, but increasingly that is projected to change. “People like how the economy has done” under Glendening, says Basu, and that success is expected to rub off well on Townsend at the polls. But “the economy is not going to be as strong going into the election,” predicts Basu, pointing to various declining indicators and the immediate after-effects of the September terrorist attacks. An increasing number of jobless voters also generally means trouble for incumbents, and Townsend has long been trying to project an image of being partly at the helm of Maryland’s ship.

As the state economy goes, so go state revenues – and if the expected slow-down is bad enough, then the state government could see a budget crisis next year. If that happens, voters will be reminded that the 2002 state budget was extraordinarily generous on the spending side, chewing prodigiously into a much-touted surplus, despite predictions of declining tax collections and calls for fiscal prudence. This, of course, would do further damage to Townsend’s reputation, allowing opponents to charge her with budgetary irresponsibility.

As for wartime politics, that could swing either way for Townsend. The tendency, says Herb Smith, is for voters to “rally ‘round the chief” in times of national crisis – and today that chief is a Republican, President George W. Bush. “It makes it more difficult for a Democrat to criticize Bush as a way of getting at a Republican opponent,” Smith explains. On the hand, adds Basu, because of the crisis, “Townsend can come off as looking prepared, professional, dignified, courageous under fire – she can gain a pulpit that her opponents won’t have.”

Townsend’s opponents, though, will have another sort of pulpit – to criticize her record. Her duties, which under the state constitution are assigned by the governor, have been extended significantly during Glendening’s second term. Economic development, transportation, juvenile justice, the state police, corrections, and parole and probation are all in her portfolio of responsiblities. These are rich territories for political foes to mine for weaknesses. In addition to the Glendening/Townsend administration’s opposition to the Inter-County Connector, voters are likely to be reminded of scandals that erupted during Townsend’s watch involving juvenile justice and parole and probation. With a little of what’s known in the trade as “opposition research,” challengers may turn up other potential embarrassments lurking in the agencies that fall under Townsend’s purview.

“I have been saying all along to her people,” says Baltimore City State Senator Barbara Hoffman, “you have got to be able to address the successes and/or failures in the portfolios to which she’s been assigned.”

Alan Fleishmann, Townsend’s chief of staff, is happy to defend her administrative record. Speaking about the bootcamp scandal – in which The Sun exposed beating of incarcerated juveniles by guards in 1998 – he explains that Townsend reacted to the crisis well. “She does not get ruffled easily,” he says. “She took responsibility for it and she took command.” In particular, he notes, Townsend put in place accountability mechanisms to ensure that bad news travels up so she can correct such problems before they blow up in her face. “What she does when she hears about it is how she wants to be judged.”

Townsend is also likely to be judge by where her political support comes from. As a Kennedy, she’s in a unique position to raise prodigious sums across the country. An analysis of her November 2000 campaign finance report (the most recent available at this writing) shows that less than half of her funds at that point had come from within Maryland, with the rest coming mostly from Massachusetts, New York, and Washington, D.C. Duncan, O’Malley, and Ruppersberger, meanwhile, had each raised between 80 and 90 percent of their money from in-state. This disparity is likely to come back on her during a competitive campaign.

Townsend’s money and her status as a virtual incumbent may appear daunting to challengers at first glance, but they may be double-edged swords. Even her Kennedy name – often considered an unmitigated plus – cuts both ways. “There are people who are just awed by the Kennedy mystique,” explains Hoffman, “and at the same time there are people in the state who hate her because she’s a Kennedy. That’s quite a burden.” Combine this with the uncertainties of the economy and the political impact of the war on terrorism, and Townsend’s seemingly indomitable position starts to look somewhat weaker. Given time, money, and a lot of hard work, a strong challenger could undermine her early lead.

“Right now you have a number of people who have said they might run, and who want to,” Prince George’s John McDonough says. “But basically they don’t want to run into a buzz saw. I think people are sitting around waiting for something bad to happen to Townsend. And that’s always a possibility. All the cards are pretty much turned up, so people are either going to bet on them or fold. Right now, she’s showing four-of-a-kind. Do you want to bet or don’t you?”

Odd Man Out: Meet Spear Lancaster–Maryland’s Libertarian Candidate for Governor

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Oct. 23, 2002

 

For many months now, since long before the September primary elections, Maryland voters have been sizing up two candidates for governor: Republican Robert Ehrlich and Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Few voters, though, are even aware that a third candidate’s name and party affiliation will be printed on November’s ballot: Spear Lancaster of the Libertarian Party. He was not included in the only televised gubernatorial debate; pollsters ignored him until mid-October, when they found he attracted 1 percent of voters; and a near absence of news coverage has relegated him to electoral obscurity.

Lancaster, though, harbors no resentment over the blackout. “I understand it,” he explains genially at a recent gathering of a couple dozen of the party faithful at Mike’s Crab House in Riva, near Annapolis. “I knew that coming out of the gate. From a pure business standpoint, I see why the media isn’t going to cover the guy who isn’t spending $15 million to get a $200,000 job.”

As of the last set of state campaign-finance reports filed in late August, Lancaster’s campaign had spent only $37,000–nearly two-thirds of it on a drive to gather the 27,000 valid signatures needed to meet the state’s stringent ballot-access requirements. “We just about ran through our money” to get on the ballot, he says, stretching the resources of his “hand-to-mouth organization” in the process. Still, Lancaster puts a positive spin on the effort: “A real camaraderie has been established,” he explains, which will help as the party grows in the future. And besides, he made history.

The last third-party candidate for Maryland’s governorship, Robert Woods Merkle of George Wallace’s segregationist American Party, ran in 1970 and received nearly 20,000 votes. His candidacy was so distasteful to the state’s political establishment that new laws were passed to make it harder for such candidates to make the ballot. The restrictions, though eased since, are still considered among the toughest in the nation. Third-party candidates in Maryland, once their party has gained state recognition by gathering 10,000 signatures of registered voters, must also collect the John Hancocks of at least 1 percent of the voters where they hope to run. According to Richard Winger, a Libertarian and publisher of the Ballot Access News newsletter, which covers such laws across the nation, two-thirds of states have less restrictive ballot-access laws than Maryland’s.

Today, about 6,300 Marylanders are registered as Libertarians–more than the three other state-recognized third parties (Green, Constitution, and Reform) combined–and 170 are dues-paying members. And Lancaster expects to attract many more voters to the Libertarian fold in the coming years, not just in Maryland but nationwide.

“We’ve become the center party,” he contends. “Believe it or not, we’ve become more of the old pragmatic, roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-it-done party than the two major parties. And I think this is why we are going to start getting a lot of our pull, especially among young people. The young people, they are not about to go into the real radical right, and they are not too keen on going real radical left. I think they see our program as being pretty realistic and pretty functional.”

Lancaster’s claim that his party is a get-it-done outfit is belied by a glaring fact–the Libertarian Party has precious little experience in governance. Only one Libertarian currently holds elective office in Maryland–Joseph Harrington, a longtime city council member in Brunswick, a town of 5,000 in Frederick County. Three others hold appointed positions on various local boards and commissions. Nationwide, Libertarians have been elected state representatives and small-town mayors, but higher offices have been elusive. What they do best, so far, is sell their ideas by running for office. And for Lancaster–who at 69 is retired from a long career in sales–selling ideas is second nature. All he needs is an audience, be it of one or a thousand, and he’s more than happy to explain the party line.

Over chili and beer at Fuddrucker’s in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, Spear Lancaster and his running mate, Lorenzo Gaztanaga, hold forth about libertarianism. The party’s bottom line, they explain, is right there in the Declaration of Independence: equal rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and self-determination over governance. And these rights, Lancaster explains, must be protected for every individual. “That’s the key,” he explains. “You can’t protect selectively. You have to protect everybody–all the time, every time, no exceptions. The weak, the people you even detest, the people whose lifestyle you wouldn’t engage in for a million bucks–you have to protect their rights. This is the thing that the Founding Fathers signed onto. It is not what either of the major parties sign onto today. They have selective rights.”

Picking up on Lancaster’s train of thought, Gaztanaga declares, “They selectively apply which rights are important to them, and then they try to promote bills and laws and regulations selectively based on those rights they like.

“A real government would actually make it its business to apply equality under the law, number one, and number two, to protect individuals from the abuses of other individuals,” Gaztanaga says. “That’s the true role of government, that’s what it is supposed to do–and can do very well, if it sticks to it. The problem with government today is that it steps into arenas that it is not equipped for and becomes intrusive, restricting freedom and reducing personal responsibility.”

Libertarians, Lancaster explains, take the best ideas of both major parties and combine them under the overarching rubric of liberty.

“Most Republicans,” he says, “agree with us on the importance of maintaining free markets, but they just don’t think people’s personal rights are all that important. The Democrats, just the opposite. They are all for personal rights, but they don’t think people should have as much liberty in economic areas. We want economic liberty and personal liberty, both, and the responsibilities that go with them.”

The libertarian philosophy of individual liberty and personal responsibility, Gaztanaga explains, leads many people to think that libertarianism “means you can do whatever you want to do. And I stop them right there and say, yeah, as long as you are not hurting anybody else. You have to have ethics. If you hurt anybody else, the game’s up.” An axiom of this moral guidepost, Lancaster continues, is never to initiate violence in any form.

Maryland’s Libertarian Party was formed in 1972, shortly after the national party’s founding in 1971, says longtime party member Dean Ahmad, an astronomer and expert on Islam from the Washington suburbs. In 1980 the party first achieved official recognition by the state, and “a Libertarian presidential candidate has been on the Maryland ballot in every election since,” Ahmad explains. Due to Maryland’s restrictive ballot-access laws, the party has often resorted to the courts–with mixed success–in order to win places on ballots. Other than Brunswick City Councilman Harrington, only one other Libertarian has ever won elective office in Maryland: Steve Ziegler, who earned a seat on the Charles County school board in 1996 and served one four-year term, Ahmad recalls.

Applying libertarianism to some of the big issues of the current campaign season leads to some interesting platform planks. Income tax? Get rid of it. The war on drugs? It’s a failure, so end prohibition and stop unfairly criminalizing a large segment of society. Social Security? Privatize it. Homosexuality? Keep the government out of people’s sex lives. Abortion? It’s up to the individual. Guns? Citizens have a right to keep and bear arms.

“When we get into the gun issue,” Lancaster says of his stump speech, “I ask everybody in the audience, do you have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? ‘Yeah,’ they say. Then I say, ‘Well, then you have the right to defend them any way you can.'”

On taxes, Lancaster believes a national sales tax should replace income tax–the more you spend, the more taxes you pay, and no income tax would mean no Internal Revenue Service and no cumbersome tax law full of loopholes for the rich. On illegal drugs, Lancaster believes drug criminalization is what makes them so profitable and so prone to violence; legalize drugs, he says, and “you take the money out of it. If you don’t take the money out of it, you’re not going to have a choice to stop” the violence.

If he should win the governorship, Lancaster says he’ll immediately convene a panel of experts from nationally recognized think tanks, who would form an “efficiency committee” to assess and make recommendations for reducing “the size and redundancy” of state government. In working to get his bureaucracy-shrinking agenda through the Democrat-and-Republican-dominated legislature, Lancaster says he would use the governor’s considerable budgetary powers to persuade oppositionist legislators to back policy measures he supports.

Lancaster sees many, many faults with the way government approaches problems today, but he remains optimistic because he believes politics is opening up to new ideas.

“We need choices, and I’m working with the Greens, the Reforms, and anybody else to make sure that happens here in Maryland,” he says. “The major parties seem to think the public is too dumb, that we just have to walk them through it. But you need choices. And the way they do it here in Maryland, getting permission to get on the ballot once you’ve jumped through all these hoops, we don’t have many. I am free when I don’t have to get anybody’s permission.”

Spear Lancaster’s life story helps explain his do-it-yourself attitude. The grandson of a Maryland state senator, he was born on a small tobacco farm during the Great Depression in Leonardtown, St. Mary’s County; attended a one-room schoolhouse in Rock Point; and survived a typhoid epidemic that struck his community when he was 6 years old. After high school in La Plata, he attended the University of Maryland, started a small construction business with some colleagues, and met and married his wife, Doris (who’s affectionately known as “Dee”). He then embarked on a career in sales, working from 1961 to 1993 for Rubbermaid Corp. Since 1966, he and Doris have lived in Crownsville, near Annapolis, where they raised two sons in a house he built himself. In 1990 he started his own company, 4 Seasons Flooring, which he ran until 2000. All the while, he’s been a voracious reader, soaking up ideas–particularly on politics.

For most of his life, Lancaster was a Democrat–“a Harry Truman Democrat,” he likes to say–and even dabbled in far-left thought. “I stayed a Democrat so long because of the women’s-rights and civil-rights movements, and the fact that they claimed to be helping the poor people,” he says. “And for a while, I think they did.”

Eventually, in the late 1980s, he grew disillusioned with the failure of Democratic policies and switched to the Republican Party. This was a temporary home. In the mid-1990s he found the Libertarian Party and studied its ideas. “I said to Dee, ‘You know, I’ve been a libertarian all my life,'” he recalls. He officially joined the Libertarian Party in 1996 and has actively participated in the party organization ever since.

Libertarians, he explains, are “very tolerant” of diverse ideas and lifestyles–a quality he cherishes, since “I’ve always been suspicious of sanctimonious, self-righteous people.” As a man who likes his fun, he says, “I actually like to think of myself as a Jeffersonian-Jackson libertarian.” Thomas Jefferson, as the author of the Declaration of Independence, is a libertarian icon, but Andrew Jackson’s appeal to Lancaster lies in his wild ways. For instance, Lancaster says that, if elected, he plans to rent out the Governor’s Mansion on the weekends for parties and weddings: “Dee says, ‘Well, you can’t mess the place up.’ I say, ‘The hell I can’t. Hell, old Jackson had the crowd come in the White House. They stood on the furniture and drank whiskey and had a good time.”

Like Lancaster, Gaztanaga is also a self-made man. Born in Havana in 1949, he arrived in Miami as a 12-year-old, and by the time he was 14 he was sweeping floors and working as a gofer for the Jesuit Seminary Guild in Baltimore. Public schools in Cuba were followed by parochial schools in the States. He graduated from Cardinal Gibbons High School and has studied history and psychology at various Baltimore-area colleges. He and his wife of 27 years, Susan Gaztanaga, spent five years teaching English and Spanish in Haiti until 1984, and are very active in their church, Cliftmont Wesleyan Church in Belair-Edison. He’s had many jobs over the years and is currently a security officer at a building near Baltimore/Washington International Airport.

Also like Lancaster, Gaztanaga came to libertarianism from the left-wing side of the political spectrum–drawing from his family’s tradition in Cuba of being social democrats. When he first registered in Maryland, he was Democrat, then became an independent, and finally spent a few years as a Republican before joining the Libertarian fold in 1992, quickly rising through the ranks to become state chair later that year. In 1995, he tried to get on the ballot for the Baltimore City Council’s Third District race but fell short of the signature requirement–at that time, he needed signatures from 3 percent of the district’s voters. In 1999, he successfully made it onto the ballot and garnered 9 percent of the vote (almost 1,500 votes).

“I’m an idealistic pragmatist,” Gaztanaga proclaims. “I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but I’m very strong in my ideals. I understand that I cannot have it now, and that I have to find ways to get there, that I have to always try to persuade people and be willing to be proven wrong when I’m wrong.

“I’d like to serve in office one day. I really would. And it might happen. And then I can really see if all the stuff I’ve been talking about is really good or not.”

And at that, Gaztanaga puts forth a hearty laugh.

The Libertarian Party in Maryland is a big tent, which welcomes both youthful leftists who question authority and aging conservatives disillusioned with the Republican Party. While politically minded people in the midst of their careers who are interested in working within mainstream thought tend toward the major parties, pre- and post-career folks seem more willing to entertain third-party politics and ideas.

“Yep, yep,” confirms Lancaster when presented with these thoughts. “Absolutely right.”

Colin Boxall, a 30-year-old Curtis Bay resident who works as a systems administrator for the Associated Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, became a Libertarian after voting as a Republican in the 1992 presidential election. Dissatisfied with the major parties, he “went shopping” for alternatives by doing research at the local public library until he “found the one that more or less matched my political ideas.”

In libertarianism, Boxall found comfort in an ideology that has as its “fundamental idea that people have a right to run their own lives,” a tenet that he says is “not well-expressed or defended by the major parties.” Still, Boxall notes, “there are certainly things I disagree with–some of their economic ideals. There is too much trust in laissez-faire capitalism–some libertarians just don’t understand how ruthless corporations, particularly large corporations, can be.”

After growing up in Catonsville, Boxall got married and moved first to Brooklyn, then to nearby Curtis Bay. “We were looking to move to the city, because we have an alternative lifestyle [an unorthodox marriage, the particulars of which he prefers to keep private],” he explains. “We are not members of the ‘Big Three’ religions, and we did not want to live where these things would be held against us. In Brooklyn and Curtis Bay, there are enough problems that, if you’re not causing problems, people will let you live your own life.”

Boxall’s excitement about Lancaster’s candidacy is palpable. “Spear is a particularly good candidate for the Libertarian Party to put forward. The fact that he was a Democrat for most of his life means that he has values that Maryland Democrats can identify with,” he says. “And he sells the concept of libertarianism very well.” Having a former Republican as a candidate, he says, would “frighten off” the 18- to 25-year-old demographic–a group that Boxall wants “to pull into the party because it has the energy necessary to push a third party forward.”

Ruth Andrasco, a 65-year-old medical receptionist from Bowie, was registered as an independent voter until finding the Libertarian Party several years ago.

“I’m very tired of the one-party system in this state,” she explains. “I don’t feel I belong. And things are not being fixed, but more and more money is being spent to fix them.”

In the early 1990s, when Newt Gingrich was on the rise in Washington, she thought there was hope, “but then he pooped out. And the Republican Party didn’t do what they said they would do. They act like Democrats, supporting farm subsidies and steel tariffs.” She wants “less government, less taxes,” and believes the government should sell off its land to pay down its debt.

Lancaster’s candidacy is “a long shot, but it gives me hope,” Andrasco admits. “He’s a very smart man, and very optimistic.”

She first met him when Gaztanaga was running for Baltimore City Council in 1999, and “he was very friendly and made me feel at home in the party, because it is mostly men. I’m very glad that we have someone like him to fill the candidacy. But it is very hard for him to get publicity. All we basically want is for people to know that there is an option, that you don’t have to vote for the major-party candidates if you don’t like them.”

Rock guitarist Chris Couture, 33, gave $100 to the Lancaster campaign, making him one of the Baltimore area’s biggest contributors. He has since moved away and now lives in New Hampshire, but Couture spent seven years living in Mount Vernon, Reservoir Hill, and Charles Village while performing in bands that played such venues as the 8 x 10 Club, Fletcher’s, and the Hard Rock Café. He got involved with the Libertarian Party of Maryland in the mid-1990s and strongly supported Gaztanaga’s 1999 City Council bid.

Before hooking up with the Libertarians, Couture says he “usually voted Democratic,” but came to believe the major parties were “actually two sides of the same coin” and wanted an alternative. The Libertarian Party, he says, “as a whole mimics my ideals–it is the best party to represent people who have an individualistic ideal. Libertarians respect people.”

Bill Buzzell of Dundalk joined the Libertarian Party in the early 1980s, after retiring from the Air Force. Previously, the 62-year-old Buzzell had been a Republican. Then his sister-in-law introduced him to the writings of Ayn Rand, whose views served as his “entrance point into libertarianism.” The problem with Republicans, he says, is that “they don’t vote the way they talk–as strict constitutionalists.”

In 1994, he worked on Ehrlich’s successful bid for Congress but quickly grew disheartened with him. “Once in office, he seemed to work at getting the government larger and more intrusive, so I never worked on another” Ehrlich campaign, he says.

Buzzell is excited about the Lancaster’s candidacy but is concerned that “we can’t get the word out.” He believes Lancaster can appeal to “both sides of the spectrum,” politically, and take advantage of what Buzzell views as the electorate’s innate libertarianism. “About a quarter of people are libertarian,” he says, “but they don’t know it.”

One of Lancaster’s biggest beefs with the prevailing body politic is what he likes to call its tendency to create “unintended consequences.”

“Politicians talk about doing stuff–they don’t have a clue about what the hell they’re doing,” he says. “They pass laws without any idea what it will cost or who it will cost. They create unrealistic expectations, and the quickest way to fail is to have unrealistic expectations. The politicians want to promise you miracles and talk wonders. And they’ve got to know that they are talking gibberish.”

Lancaster, though, is not prone to such “hogwash,” he says. He doesn’t expect to win the upcoming election and he isn’t holding out libertarianism as the answer to all the world’s problems. He just wants a diversity of views to inform the political debate–be it his, those of other libertarians who don’t share his opinions, or those of other third parties who similarly are shunned by the system. Infusing new voices into politics, Lancaster believes, will help reinvigorate the public’s interest in politics in an era of manifest apathy.

“A third of the voting-age public doesn’t register, and more than half of those who do don’t vote–and that’s in a good year,” he says. He is also quick to point out that more and more Maryland voters opt not to register with the major parties–from 7.8 percent in 1984, to 9.5 percent in 1994, to 13.7 percent in 2001–which indicates to him growing disillusionment with politics as usual. Thus, Lancaster offers himself as an alternative–the first one Maryland voters have been offered in a governor’s race in 32 years. Come election day, we’ll see if anybody’s buying it.