Less than 48 hours after Maryland voters chose the two men who will compete for governor in the fall, the campaigns already are attacking each other -- and in the middle of the controversy is an image meant to support a young cancer patient.
Republican Larry Hogan's campaign released a online ad Wednesday parodying the Dos Equis "most interesting man in the world" commercials.
It ends with an image of his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, and his running mate, Ken Ulman, flexing their arm muscles in a gesture of support for cancer patient Zachary Lederer, a University of Maryland student who passed away in March.
Ulman released a statement Thursday condemning the use of the image.
"It is disappointing that Larry Hogan would choose to use an image that honored the memory of a brave young man who recently died of cancer in an attack ad for political gain," he said.
The executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party, Bob Fenity, explained that they felt it was important to call out "any candidate who would politicize anything, 24 hours after a primary election."
Lederer had been undergoing treatment for a brain tumor and first made the gesture to show friends and family he was still strong. It was adopted by supporters worldwide to raise awareness of the disease. Zaching became a social media meme that spawned a nonprofit, Zaching Against Cancer.
A spokesman for the Hogan campaign, Adam Dubitsky, said that they had "absolutely not" heard of Zaching when they selected the image to use in the ad.
"We saw a comical image popularized by carnival strongmen in the 1800s," he said. "It fit the light-hearted tone of the ad."
The image was originally posted to Brown’s Facebook page March 21 with an explanation, but was re-posted May 10 without a caption. That's where Dubitsky says the campaign found the photo.
The meme was especially popular in Maryland, but Diana Waterman, chair of the Maryland Republican Party, said that when she first saw the ad and gave her approval, she had "no idea" to what the image referred.
"I just thought it was a funny, 'He-Man'-ish pose," she said. "It was never our intention to politicize Zach [Lederer] or Zaching."
Dubitsky said that none of the campaign’s social media followers had pointed out that the image was associated with Zaching until the Brown campaign complained. He also suggested that the Brown campaign's actions were at odds with Brown's record during his time as lieutenant governor.
"Since they raised the issue, when [the Gov. Martin O’Malley-Anthony Brown] administration took over, funding for cancer research actually went down," he said.
Dubitsky pointed to data from a 2009 summary of State Agency budget reductions on the Governor of Maryland's web site, which showed a slight decrease in funding for cancer research at the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University. He also provided budget highlights for fiscal year 2015 that predict the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene will receive slightly less funding for breast and cervical cancer screening and treatment.
However, those same highlights show an increase in funding from 2013 to 2015 for Hopkins and Maryland.
Waterman said she was "surprised" that Brown campaign had chosen to address the Zaching aspect of the video, rather than the other issues raised by it. She said the party is not seeking to focus on the controversy surrounding the ad -- or on Zaching in general -- moving forward.
"We are going to be focused on the important issues," she said. "Those that severely impact so many Marylanders."