Gov. Martin O'Malley made his first major address as the head of the Democratic Governors Association on Saturday night, using an annual fundraising dinner for Virginia Democrats to urge elected leaders to invest in education and infrastructure.
The themes echoed his inaugural address and campaign stump speeches: Democrats should not run away from traditional priorities even in difficult economic times. Keeping schools and transportation projects funded will help states "move forward, not backward," he said, according to prepared remarks.
Political observers have been keeping close tabs on O'Malley since he became the head of the DGA late last year. Others, including former President Bill Clinton, used the job to build a national profile. And Saturday's event has previously drawn Democratic presidential contenders. O'Malley, who is term-limited, drew attention after winning a lopsided victory in a Republican year.
The governor has made frequent trips Washington, D.C., in the past two months and he has sharpened his partisan rhetoric, tangling in the media with the Republican governors of Florida and New Jersey.
O'Malley's address, delivered to about 1,400 at the party's annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner, was laced with partisan remarks. He was set to speak at 10 p.m. and, according to a draft, the governor derided the "current crop of tea partying Republican governors," saying they "live in a different world."
"The Republican governors' tea party is more Mad Hatter than James Madison," according to the speech.
He took a jab at New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, calling the Republican darling a "colorful character."
The Republicans, he said, live in a world where "there is no need to pay bills, no need to protect bond ratings, no need to invest in the future. Down is up, up is down; candy is a vegetable, and vegetables are candy," according to prepared remarks.
O'Malley frequently wraps his message of investing in education and transportation as an economic plan: He nationalized it Saturday, saying that America will not be able to compete globally if those priorities slide.
Several hours before O'Malley's address, Bob McDonnell, the Republican governor of Virginia and the No. 2 official at the Republican Governors Association, sent out his own statement making the opposite point.
Economic success "is found in limited government and fiscal restraint," he said.
He noted that other states led by Democratic governors are seeing tax increases, including Illinois, where the income tax is going up 67 percent to cover a huge budget shortfall.
Maryland may also see tax increases this year — O'Malley's budget was balanced on cuts and one-time transfers, but he has not ruled out signing tax hikes approved by the General Assembly.
This year, O'Malley is proposing a $95 million cut to education. He's also continuing a longstanding cut to local roads.
His legislative centerpiece, to create a $100 million venture capital fund to invest in start-up firms, was met by skepticism last week in House and Senate committees.
O'Malley tailored his addresses to the local crowd: He told the group that he grew up "just across the Potomac" and has fond memories of weekend trips to Virginia.
Though many attendees didn't know much about O'Malley, several said they wanted to hear his recipe for Democratic success. "I'm hoping he's going to telling us how to win," said Jesse Lewis, 81, of Virginia Beach.
Highlights of O'Malley's speech were leaked to Politico on Friday, a move that reminded Washington's elite political class of his coming address.
But much of the chatter Saturday focused on a local political topic: whether Democratic National Convention chairman Tim Kaine would run for the Senate seat that opened up unexpectedly when Sen. Jim Webb said he will not run for re-election.
Kaine didn't have news to share. "I'm taking a few more days to figure it out," he told reporters.