O'Malley takes time getting up to speed

The Baltimore Sun

Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley has the look of a man determined to hit the ground walking.

In the weeks since he was elected, the Democrat has avoided specifics about his first-year legislative agenda. He has pushed off talk of tax increases until at least next year. He has named heads of a few departments but held off on the rest. When he met with legislative leaders, he did a lot of listening and not much talking.

Seven years ago, O'Malley was a brash and energetic young Baltimore mayor who followed the mellow Kurt L. Schmoke administration with a major City Hall shake-up, closing firehouses, implementing new police strategies, laying off city employees and privatizing services in his first months on the job.

Next week, he will take over a State House roiled by conflict after four years under Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., but this time he is intent on calming things down. At least for the moment.

"There's a lot of pent-up desire to make a lot of progress on a lot of issues really quickly," O'Malley said. "There's a sense among a lot of legislators that we have to make up for the lost time from these last four years, and I think that will be our biggest challenge, ... making that balance between their expectations and the art of the possible."

But the slow-going approach is starting to annoy some of the Democrats whose support will be crucial to the success of the O'Malley administration.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller has publicly grumbled about the lack of progress in naming new appointments for government posts, and the absence of leadership from the O'Malley administration on key issues in the legislative session that began this week. Others are quietly wondering what the governor-elect is doing all day.

"Politically, it might be the proper thing to do, but from a problem-solving standpoint, it leaves a lot to be desired," Miller said. "We do have a lot of problems in government that need to be addressed. There are a number of us who want to work with this governor, but we need his leadership."

O'Malley has not taken a position on legislation to require stricter emissions standards for cars sold in the state. He has not said whether he would support a statewide smoking ban in bars and restaurants. He has not said whether he would sign or veto a tobacco tax increase to expand health care access.

When the Court of Appeals put Maryland's death penalty in legal limbo, O'Malley reaffirmed his general opposition to capital punishment, but he didn't say whether he would push to abolish it.

O'Malley has identified the budget shortfalls the state is projected to face in the coming years as one of the major challenges of his term. But beyond a pledge not to raise taxes this year, he hasn't said what he would do about it.

When he was asked in a forum last week what the O'Malley administration's position would be on slot machine gambling, the governor's chief policy adviser, Joseph C. Bryce, answered: "One mistake that has been made has been to refer to slots in a vacuum. ... I think it is unproductive to engage in an isolated discussion of issues that are part of a much broader context."

As soon as Bryce finished, an evidently amused House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a slots foe who was also on the panel, hopped up to the microphone.

"I thought that was a great answer," Busch said. "Did everybody get that?"

Of the 21 Cabinet secretaries he has to choose, O'Malley has nominated five: Jeanne Hitchcock (for appointments secretary), John D. Porcari (transportation secretary), T. Eloise Foster (budget secretary), John M. Colmers (health secretary) and Shari T. Wilson (environment secretary). He hasn't even begun naming the hundreds of aides and deputies who will be charged with carrying out his vision.

"The ones they've named have been superb," Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, said on the eve of this week's start to the General Assembly session. "I just hope they get the rest of them on board quickly."

O'Malley said he will likely name more appointees before he is inaugurated, but he said many of the departments will be headed by interim leaders or, in some cases, by Ehrlich's Cabinet secretaries serving on a temporary or permanent basis.

"If there's any lesson I've learned, it is to take your time with Cabinet appointments," O'Malley said. "I can recall regretting moving too quickly with appointments. I can't recall regretting moving too slowly."

Newly elected political leaders often try to make a splash in the opening days of their terms in hopes of translating their election mandates into policy.

Franklin D. Roosevelt worked after the 1932 election to enact many of the New Deal economic reforms within the first 100 days of his presidency. When Republicans took over Congress in 1994, they pledged to introduce 10 bills in the first 100 days, which they named their Contract with America. This year, House Speaker Nancy D. Pelosi went further, offering a blitz of legislation in the first 100 hours of the new Democratic Congress.

O'Malley's counterpart in New York didn't even take that long. According to news reports, New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer was sworn in at 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 1. He slept for a few hours, went for a jog in the rain and then signed five executive orders overhauling the state's ethics laws before 9 a.m.

The cautious approach has its devotees, who say it will take time for the mayor to learn the ways of Annapolis. Both of the previous two Democrats to make the jump from local leader to governor, William Donald Schaefer and Parris N. Glendening, stumbled in their first years in Annapolis because they had difficulty learning to share power with the legislature.

"O'Malley has been very deliberative in showing his ability to seek consensus," said former House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. "I think it's very wise to distance ourselves from the heat and rhetoric of a long, hard-fought campaign and get us in governing mode."

But the governor-elect also faces pressure from a variety of groups who felt their influence wane under Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Environmentalists, who supported O'Malley against Ehrlich, are pushing for him to restrict automobile emissions and enact protections for the Chesapeake Bay.

A coalition of health care advocates is launching an advertising campaign to back the proposed tobacco tax increase. Child welfare advocates want quick action on reforms to Maryland's juvenile justice system, more school construction money and more funds for some local school districts.

Also, budget watchers say O'Malley would be wise not to wait to make major cuts or raise new revenues. Acting before the budget reaches a crisis point, they say, could allow O'Malley to make a smaller course correction than he would if he waited until next year, when revenues are expected to fall more than $1 billion short of spending.

But even when the governor and legislative leaders are from the same party, big ideas can take time to gain momentum in Annapolis.

A comprehensive solution on the budget, for example, will probably take a year to coalesce, even though the issue has been studied many times before, said Robert R. Neall, a former state senator respected for his fiscal acumen.

Not only do the state's leaders need to figure out what combination of changes would be most beneficial, but they also need to convince lawmakers, interest groups and average citizens that there is a problem in need of solving, he said.

"Large, complex problems take time," Neall said.

O'Malley indicated recently that the pace of his transition is more a matter of necessity than strategy. He said most of his transition team's energy is wrapped up in job interviews. And while he's working to prepare himself for Annapolis, he is still mayor and charged with handing over the leadership of Baltimore to City Council President Sheila Dixon.

"I feel like a guy who has his feet firmly in two stirrups," O'Malley told other Democrats at a luncheon this week. "Unfortunately, they're attached to two opposite-moving horses. ... I beg for your patience."

andy.green@baltsun.com

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