WASHINGTON -- When he was mayor of Baltimore, Martin O'Malley was a star among the leaders of America's big cities, winning praise and recognition from his peers coast to coast. But when he walked into a National Governors Association meeting for the first time yesterday, he found himself a rookie in a much more exclusive league.
The governor will spend much of the next three days at the NGA's annual winter meeting in Washington attending seminars on education policy, the environment and economic development - all the while rubbing elbows with some of the nation's most prominent leaders, including at least one candidate for president.
O'Malley and his aides said he is at this weekend's meetings to get policy ideas, not for political networking. Although he gained national recognition for his efforts as mayor, landing in Time magazine's list of the top five in the country, he only knows a few governors, and he said he is in Washington this weekend to listen and learn.
"It is great to be here with other people who have this important and difficult job and to see things they're doing that are important and innovative," O'Malley said on his way into the meeting yesterday. "You're standing with people who have been studying the course for four years versus you walking in on the first day of law school."
But if history is any guide, O'Malley could take advantage of groups like the NGA to build the kind of national profile he would need if he ever decides to seek higher office.
"It's a great platform, without a doubt, to chair the nation's governors," said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican who was NGA chairman in 2005-2006 and is now running for president. "You're dealing with the nuts and bolts of domestic policy. You have a national platform to articulate a message ... and afterwards, you end up making a number of contacts throughout the country."
What makes O'Malley's attendance at an NGA meeting unusual is that his predecessor, former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., tended to avoid them, even when they were in Washington. That's a contrast to previous Maryland governors, who have tended to be heavily involved. Maryland has produced five NGA chairmen in the group's 99-year history, including Parris N. Glendening and Marvin Mandel.
Ehrlich was initially greeted as a rock star at the Republican Governors Association, based on his fame from defeating a member of the Kennedy family in a heavily Democratic state. But over the years, he didn't participate much in that organization, either.
O'Malley, by contrast, has been building a national Rolodex of political contacts for years, dating back to his days working on Gary Hart's presidential campaign, where he met Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, among others.
Years later, he took a strong role in the U.S. Conference of Mayors, chairing its homeland security committee and, in the process, making friends across the nation, some of whom helped him raise money for last year's gubernatorial race. O'Malley said he always came away from conference of mayors meetings with "three or four new ideas." Targeted interventions for youth at risk of violence came from Providence, R.I. Police cameras came from Chicago.
Getting involved in the national discussion among governors is perhaps the best possible preparation for national office, Huckabee said.
"It gives you a national perspective, but it also reminds you that the issues that are faced, whether they are in Connecticut or California, are very similar. [Being governor] is just a job where you have to be results-oriented ... and I think that's one of the reasons governors tend to get elected president and, frankly, do well," he said.
The nation's governor's mansions have been a breeding ground for national leaders in recent years - four of the past five men elected president were former governors. And some of the most high-profile policy ideas that have emerged in recent years originated with governors, such as health care access expansion plans in Massachusetts and California.
The group's primary purpose is to foster an exchange of those sorts of policy ideas. Current NGA Chairwoman Janet Napolitano, Arizona's Democratic governor, made innovation in education and economic development the signature issue of her one-year term, and governors are scheduled to spend the weekend talking about that idea and other topics they deal with on a daily basis in the state capitals.
"In a whole host of areas, governors are doing a lot," Napolitano said. "Education, health care reform, energy - all across the country, governors are doing things. They may not be the same things, but we borrow ideas from each other and that's one of the points of meetings like this one."
The governors in Washington repeatedly emphasized the bipartisan nature of their organization and the relatively nonpartisan nature of state governance. State leaders are often able to launch innovative ideas that would have gotten bogged down in partisan bickering on the federal level, the governors said.
"Governors have a role to play as leaders of the laboratories of democracy," said Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, a Republican who is NGA vice chairman.
Governors who have taken prominent roles in the association have frequently gone on to become major players on the national stage.
Former President Bill Clinton was NGA chairman in the 1980s and used the connections he gained through the organization to help launch his first national campaign in 1992.
Two other NGA chairmen, Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin and John Ashcroft of Missouri, became Cabinet members in the Bush administration. Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey served as chairwoman of the NGA's Committee on Natural Resources before President Bush named her Environmental Protection Agency administrator. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is running for president, was an officer in the organization. And Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, a Democratic presidential candidate, is scheduled to speak at the NGA meeting tomorrow.
O'Malley has never publicly said he is interested in being more than governor of Maryland, but speculation about his national political ambitions has followed him for years - talk that got a major boost when he was given a speaking slot at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. During last year's campaign, former Gov. William Donald Schaefer frequently criticized O'Malley for what he saw as an excess of ambition, a tendency to look to the next job before the current one is done.
O'Malley said yesterday that political networking wasn't on his mind. "That's a fourth- or fifth-level benefit of coming here," he said.