In the summer 2004, Anthony Brown was in his second term in the House of Delegates – a rising star in the state’s Democratic party — just named majority whip, a powerful position in the lower chamber.

He was also a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves and he got orders to deploy to Iraq. The U.S. was sending him to help coordinate relief efforts for people displaced by the conflict.

“No matter where you find people – whether in Iraq or in this country throughout the state of Maryland – people want the same things for themselves and their family,” Brown says of the experience. “We all want to raise our family in a safe neighborhood, great schools, clean environment, access to medical care.”

That’s the message Brown has taken on the campaign trail in his bid to be Maryland’s next governor. He says even in the richest state in the richest country in the world, some people, some communities still struggle to meet those basic goals.

“I believe that the greatest challenge that the next governor faces,” he says, “are the persistent and sometimes debilitating disparities, gaps and inequities that exist in our economy, our community, in our classrooms and in our society.”

A Fast Rise In Maryland Politics

Brown got his start in Maryland politics in 1994 running Ulysses Currie’s campaign for state Senate in Prince George’s County.

Currie recalls being impressed with Brown’s military service and his resume.

“He was extremely smart,” Currie said. “He was making great money, et cetera, in D.C., and he had an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a graduate degree from Harvard. That alone made him a rising star.”

Currie says Brown proved himself a workhorse in a tight primary race that was dubbed a slugfest, adding structure to a campaign that, in the end, landed Currie his Senate seat.

“He walked in the door ready to work,” Currie said. “He was always focused.”

Brown began building his own career after that and moved up quickly: a seat on the county’s community college board, a seat in the House of Delegates in 1998, majority whip in his second term.

Del. Melony Griffith says she was close friends with Brown when they served together in the House’s Prince George’s County delegation.

“What you see is what you get with Anthony,” Griffith said. “You know, he is a military guy. So that means he is very deliberate about his decision making, he’s very thoughtful about his decision making, very strategic in his decision making. And probably not as warm and fuzzy as people who are not military.”

Not long after Brown returned from Iraq, then-Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley tapped Brown as his running mate in a bid for the governor’s mansion.

Lieutenant governor can be a squishy position without clear responsibilities. But St. Mary’s College political science professor Todd Eberly says Brown was no ribbon-cutter-in-chief.

“Almost from the beginning when O’Malley brought Brown in as his lieutenant governor, it was clear that Brown was going to have a very active role in the administration and was going to be used in many respects as liaison to the General Assembly,” Eberly said.

Technical Troubles Fuel Political Problems 

Brown oversaw expansions of veterans’ services, fostered public-private partnerships for infrastructure projects, and led efforts to beef up protections for victims of domestic violence. He was also tasked with reducing health disparities in Maryland and expanding access to care.

So when Congress passed the Affordable Care Act it made sense that Brown was put in charge of implementing the law in Maryland. The task has proved politically troublesome after the insurance exchange website crashed on day one and never really recovered.

“In some respects you can almost say that Brown was a victim of his own success,” Eberly said. “The past initiatives that he had worked on had gone smoothly and were, in fact, successful.”

The state ended up dumping the $55 million website, and will replace it with technology from Connecticut. The website’s failure has become ammunition for his opponents and critics.

But Brown has not shied away from the debate. He points to other states – and the federal government – that had problems with their websites. And he says action was taken, lessons learned, and the rollout was a success despite the problems.

“We replaced the leadership at the exchange,” Brown said. “We refocused and fired venders that weren’t performing. And we added staff to both call centers and navigators. As a result we enrolled over 300,000 Marylanders in health care. These are 300,000 Marylanders who now have affordable health care that their family needs.”

Brown has been the front-runner in the three-way race for the Democratic nomination. He’s ahead in every poll. But Todd Eberly says he’s been losing ground. “He went from polling well above the ‘I have no preference’ crowd, to really a distant second to the ‘I have no preference’ crowd.”

Backed By The Establishment 

Eberly says the botched rollout of the health exchange is hurting Brown and will continue to do so as the campaign turns more negative. But he says there could be another reason Brown is slipping in the polls.

Endorsements from the vast majority of the state’s Democratic power brokers positioned Brown early on as the establishment candidate. But Eberly says that these days, people don’t really trust the establishment.

“When you see someone who has racked up that kind of insider support,” said Eberly, “you ask the question: who’s he going to represent? The folks in the state of Maryland? Or the establishment to put him there?”

If Brown wins – and most bets are still on him – he’d be the state’s first African-American governor.

Del. Melony Griffith says she doesn’t expect race to be center stage, though. It’s not something Brown is actively campaigning on. And, she points out, the state has never elected a woman as governor either, so Brown’s not the only candidate who could make history.

“I don’t think being African American will be enough for the citizens of Maryland,” Griffith said. “I think we will look for the best person for the position and that’s who we’ll elect.”

Democratic strategist Andrew Feldman says in an election where turnout is expected to be low, Brown’s race could help him with voter turnout. “When you look at … the democratic electorate, a significant portion of those registered democrats are minorities.”

Brown’s military bearing and message discipline have been helpful to him so far in the campaign, but Feldman says the flipside is that those qualities can also make him seem aloof. Feldman says a recent endorsement from Bill Clinton – and a fundraising trip next month — could help with that. “Bill Clinton for any candidate is someone who can humanize them, who can really connect the candidate to the public.”

Maryland’s Democratic voters will decide if they want to see more from Brown when they choose a nominee on June 24.

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