Gov. Martin O'Malley on Wednesday kicked off an autumn-long series of appearances intended to highlight his record over the past seven years and to set the stage for the final year of his administration.
O'Malley has scheduled five "policy forums" organized around the theme of "Better Choices, Better Results."
The opening event, held Wednesday at Goucher College, promoted the governor's legacy, included a give-and-take with business leaders and allowed a campaign plug for Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown — O'Malley's choice to succeed him.
"We've restrained spending growth but we've also had the guts to make investments in education and innovation and, yes, in infrastructure, and I have the scars to prove it," O'Malley, a Democrat, told an audience largely made up of supportive business executives and state and local officials.
O'Malley's critics were quick to write the event off as political grandstanding. The Republican-oriented group Change Maryland called the Goucher event a "self-congratulatory dog-and-pony show" that was the first stop on the "O'Malley Reputation Rehabilitation Tour."
Herbert C. Smith, professor of political science at McDaniel College in Westminster, said "cynics will say it's akin to a victory lap," but the forum series is also a way for O'Malley to establish his qualifications as he moves toward a possible campaign for the Democratic nomination for president in 2016.
"This is what governors do when they're on a presidential quest," he said.
O'Malley focused Wednesday on job creation, a central theme of his administration. Future sessions, scheduled through the fall, are to concentrate on education, health, public safety and the environment.
Later Wednesday, the governor enjoyed a moment on the national stage when he briefly addressed the crowd gathered in Washington for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.
In Maryland, O'Malley and his critics gave different interpretations of his record on jobs.
"Governor O'Malley is pretty good at weaving magical tales with no basis in reality," said Larry Hogan, chairman of Change Maryland. "But no amount of false spin can change the cold hard fact that no other governor in Maryland history has ever lost as many jobs as Martin O'Malley."
He cited statistics showing 218,741 unemployed in Maryland, an increase of 110,645 since O'Malley took office in January 2007.
O'Malley boasted of the state's No. 1 ranking in entrepreneurship in a U.S. Chamber of Commerce survey. He emphasized figures showing Maryland had recovered 94 percent of the jobs it lost in the recession and that its rate of job creation was higher than Virginia's over the past year.
The 94 percent figure was a bittersweet boast because it represented a slip from the previous month, when O'Malley could report 99 percent jobs recovery until a dismal July employment report set the state back.
"We had a bad month last month," O'Malley admitted. "Hopefully next month will be better."
The governor predicted robust job growth ahead as revenue from the recent gas tax increase rolls in. He said it would create more than 57,000 jobs over the next six years.
O'Malley praised his lieutenant governor and would-be successor as the struggle for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2014 gets under way.
"Anthony Brown has been an integral part of everything we've done in this administration," O'Malley said.
By shedding a favorable light on his administration, Smith said, O'Malley helps both Brown and himself.
"If Anthony Brown wins the governorship, that raises O'Malley's clout on the [presidential] campaign trail," Smith said. Brown is expected to face Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and Del. Heather Mizeur of Montgomery County in the Democratic primary next June.
Donald F. Norris, chairman of the department of public policy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, said the O'Malley events would play the triple role of promoting the governor's record in preparation for a presidential race, supporting Brown and preparing for the governor's final legislative session.
While the first half of the event Wednesday event was devoted to touting the O'Malley record, the second consisted of a discussion of what Maryland can do to foster economic growth and job creation.
The governor pointed to his administration's efforts to improve work force training and to help startup businesses secure investment capital.
"We need to do more. We need to educate at higher and better levels," the governor said. "We have to innovate in ways that move those ideas out of the laboratories."
Smith said the timing for the forums is just right for the governor. He said that attention will shift when the General Assembly returns to Annapolis in January.
Then, when the legislature adjourns in April, Smith said, the media will focus on the primary and the general election for his successor.
"O'Malley will be in effect old news," Smith said.