O'Malley performing for wider audience

Democrat begins second term with chance to build national profile

January 18, 2011|By Annie Linskey, The Baltimore Sun

When the new interns arrive in the State House reception room, Gov. Martin O'Malley puts them to a test. He directs them to look at a wall displaying portraits of Maryland's most recent governors and tells them to name as many as they can.

About half, he says, are unable to identify O'Malley's immediate predecessor and most recent opponent, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Of those who recognize Ehrlich, half are stumped by Gov. Parris N. Glendening. Nobody makes it past Harry R. Hughes, who left office in 1987.

"I say to them, 'Ladies and gentleman, the point of this lesson is: All fame is fleeting,'" O'Malley told The Baltimore Sun in a recent interview. "If you do this because you think you are going to be remembered, that is a fool's errand."

But O'Malley begins his second and final term Wednesday in a commanding position as a Democrat who decisively won re-election against a popular former governor in a Republican year, now looking forward to working with a friendly legislature to help him build his gubernatorial legacy.

His new role as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, meanwhile, gives him a platform from which to reach a national audience — and the opportunity to expand his donor base, should his ambitions reach beyond Maryland's borders.

"Martin is a young man and has not even begun to approach a burnout," said Glendening, a two-term Democratic governor. "He will deny vehemently, up until he files something, that he is thinking of higher office. But it must be very prominent in his thinking."

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland, the House minority whip and a national campaigner for congressional Democrats, said O'Malley is "getting respect around the country" for his 14-point victory over Ehrlich.

State Republicans acknowledge the buzz around O'Malley but predict that his politics would not play well outside Maryland.

He is "just as liberal as [President Barack] Obama, if not more so," said Anthony J. O'Donnell, minority leader in Maryland's House of Delegates.

State GOP Chairman Alex Mooney said a national audience would view an O'Malley record of raising taxes, trying to end the death penalty and signaling that he would sign a gay marriage bill as "too far to the left."

O'Malley, who turned 48 on Tuesday, deflects questions about his ambitions. He plays down any interest in a run for the U.S. Senate, should the opportunity arise (Maryland's seats are held by fellow Democrats, Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski, in whose office O'Malley once worked) — saying it would be hard to work in a legislature after serving as the state's chief executive.

He replied no when asked whether he has thought about running for president. He says he is not thinking beyond the next four years: "I want to see the other side of this recession."

For now, he says, his priorities are fixing the imbalanced state budget and controlling the cost of state pensions — a pair of challenges that could consume much of the political capital that he banked with his November victory.

He speaks also of retooling state rules to attract and expand high-tech and biotech businesses, pushing an environmental agenda with a new stress on wind power and implementing the national health care overhaul.

Asked about initiatives, such as his effort to abolish the death penalty, that failed in his first term, he speaks about crime reduction.

"Some of these things we work on, I'm not going to be here to see happen," O'Malley said. "But they are things that will happen because I've been here."

Political strategists say the best way for O'Malley to secure a political future is to be sure the state runs smoothly over the next four years.

"In today's environment, good governing matters," said William H. Leighty, who served as chief of staff to Virginia Govs. Mark Warner, now a member of the Senate, and Tim Kaine, now chairman of the Democratic National Committee. "As much as the headlines, it is actually the nuts-and-bolts things that you do to run the state that people remember in the long run."

The nitty-gritty is an area in which O'Malley feels comfortable. As mayor of Baltimore, he scheduled weekly meetings to review data on government performance; his successors continue to use his CitiStat system.

As governor, he brought the system to Annapolis and put it on display recently in a succession of post-election presentations across the state.

At a forum on sustainability that drew hundreds to Chesapeake College, O'Malley clicked through a PowerPoint presentation and recited data on nitrogen and phosphorous levels in the Chesapeake Bay. He earned nods of approval when he showed the audience how his administration is tracking dissolved oxygen levels (even though the numbers are trending in the wrong direction for bay health).

"The things that get measured are the things that get done," O'Malley told the audience.

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