Navigating the pitfalls

November 19, 2006|By C. Fraser Smith

In the sweet vapors of an extended fall, Mayor Martin O'Malley prepares for the minefield of Annapolis.

He's the Democratic Party's main man after retaking the governor's mansion in the recent election, so he'll have a lot of help. He'll need it.

He'll arrive as a conquering hero, but he'll be tried quickly in an atmosphere where he has to earn respect as a leader of 188 men and women - 47 senators and 141 delegates - all of them cut from the rough cloth of political ambition.

The campaign gave him a head start. Democratic candidates for down-ballot races - House and Senate - say he impressed them with his organized leadership. He won important support from many county leaders, most impressively from Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. He has a support system going in.

Mr. Smith's decision to offer real support means more in the political world because an O'Malley defeat would have left Mr. Smith a strong candidate for governor in four years. When others are making real commitments to you, maybe you're a leader.

Candidate O'Malley ran weekly conference calls with candidates throughout the state, many of whom won seats in the legislature and who are likely to see him as their leader.

"He was able to go from theme to strategy and implement his plan," said newly elected Democratic state Sen. James C. Rosapepe.

The help he gave to his party's winners became early installments on his building of support.

Faced with the same task of rapid-fire introduction four years ago, the man he defeated this month, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., had a tougher time. A Republican, he had to move his favorite programs through a gantlet of Democrats. Some may have enjoyed turning him back.

But Mr. Ehrlich managed to let potential good will slip through his fingers. Governors - even those who are not well liked for their politics or their personalities - command respect. And members of the General Assembly, particularly the presiding officers, will follow if they can point to solid achievements.

A signal failure of the Ehrlich administration was slot-machine legislation. On this one, the governor had the early support of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. House Speaker Michael E. Busch opposed the legislation - and the governor tried to win by making him the partisan villain. It didn't work, especially because many members of his own party were against having slots in their districts.

Mr. O'Malley, though he has recently suggested slots might by on his agenda, is unlikely to push for passage this year, if ever. He took a politically ambiguous position during the campaign: Relying on gambling revenues is a poor way for the state to show how it values public education, he said, while adding that he would support a limited slots program at racetracks.

Informed speculation around the O'Malley camp suggests he will not push the issue next year. No need to have an immediate confrontation with Speaker Busch, or with a House of Delegates that only grudgingly passed a slots bill that was ultimately rejected by the governor and the Senate president.

If the issue does arise, it will likely come with artful packaging. A slots bill may land as a way to pay for many things that attract votes, though the new governor will have to argue that slots won't suggest people don't have to pay for the services they want.

For every issue, the new governor will need help - able people in his Cabinet. Choosing among many who apply for various posts is easily the most challenging job now. Former Gov. Harry R. Hughes advised him of this, as did many others.

The men and women in these jobs must help the new governor shape ways to deal with a looming spike in energy costs and the Baltimore Gas and Electric rate increase, structural budget deficits (the imbalance between spending commitments and cash flow), a depleted transportation trust fund, challenges in the public schools and many other vexing problems.

If anyone doubted that many are wishing him well, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer may have erased it last week. Not an O'Malley fan before, he pronounced himself optimistic that the new governor will be successful if he doesn't let ambition distract him.

Ambition could have the opposite effect as well, keeping the new man focused on succeeding in the job at hand.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail is

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