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O'Malley provides a personal touch

The Baltimore Sun

Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he got a phone call from Gov. Martin O'Malley the night before the legislative session ended that left him "pumped up" for what promised to be an arduous day of getting final approval for the rest of the governor's legislative agenda.

"He thanked me for all my hard work, and it felt great," Miller said. "Then I come to work the next day and found out that everybody in the Senate got the same call."

The anecdote, told at a bill signing ceremony this week, illustrates the extent to which O'Malley, a Democrat, has strived to forge personal relationships in the 188-member legislature, advertising an open-door policy and sending hand-written notes, at one point dispatching his 10-year-old son, William, to deliver a missive.

Though he had to accept compromises to get legislation through, the goodwill helped O'Malley win approval for all but one of the bills he submitted.

The cooperation between the General Assembly and the governor represents a shift from previous administrations, during which the two branches were frequently at odds even when, as now, Democrats were in control of both.

Former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, the last Democrat in the governor's mansion, saw three of his legislative proposals die in committee in his final year, for example.

Behind O'Malley, Miller and House of Delegates Speaker Michael E. Busch did the arm-twisting to amass the necessary votes.

The two men, who have been in the legislature for a combined 58 years, repeatedly say they want to see O'Malley succeed in his first term.

The three Democratic leaders are particularly united after four years under former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Miller and Busch frequently clashed with him and each other, rarely agreeing on policy and often trading personal barbs.

Miller and Busch are well aware that Ehrlich has kept himself in the public eye and is gearing up for a possible rematch against O'Malley in 2010.

"The citizens expect us to come down here and compromise and make this work," said Busch, who represents Anne Arundel County.

"If we don't make this work over the next four years, they have the right to go back to the polls and throw all of us out of office."

Governors often enjoy broad support early in their tenures, but O'Malley's success has been notable because he pushed through his agenda during an economic downturn and in the face of massive deficits.

While O'Malley put forth a modest agenda this year with few big-ticket spending items, it did include significant policy changes.

Among them: A package of bills to bolster oversight of the mortgage industry and help homeowners facing foreclosure, which O'Malley will promote during a hearing on Capitol Hill today; an expansion of the state's DNA database and legislation that sets goals for reducing energy consumption and increasing reliance on renewable power.

Del. Tom Hucker, a Montgomery County Democrat who spent years in Annapolis as an advocate, said O'Malley has built "a reservoir of good will" and the governor was flexible enough to accept compromises with lawmakers on his proposals.

"He lives up to the rhetoric," Hucker said. "It's OK to disagree. He trusts people's judgment and doesn't question motivation."

Republicans, however, took the occasions when the legislature resisted as a sign that O'Malley's agenda was too liberal.

They point to the death, in the final hours of the session, of a greenhouse-gas reduction proposal, which the administration didn't draft but ended up backing. Nonetheless, Republicans said they expect Democratic leaders will continue to deliver victories for O'Malley.

"They were certainly more accommodating to this administration than when Ehrlich was here," said Senate Minority Whip Allan H. Kittleman, a Howard County Republican.

"We fully expect they will work to protect each other for fear of having a Republican comeback in 2010."

Besides the political reasons, O'Malley also has the advantage of having hired a staff that is widely respected by lawmakers from both parties, including his chief legislative aide, Joseph C. Bryce, Health Secretary John M. Colmers and Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari, all of whom held positions in Glendening's administration.

"You can certainly augment your lack of experience by hiring people with strong relationships and a history of being able to get things done," said Bobby Neall, a former Anne Arundel County delegate and senator who served through the administrations of four Democratic governors.

Many State House observers compare O'Malley's first term with William Donald Schaefer's second term during the recession in the early 1990s or Spiro T. Agnew's early years in the 1960s.

The former governors raised taxes and cut spending or laid off state workers to balance the budget, but some say O'Malley's financial jam was even more vexing.

"This session that O'Malley has faced is the first time, I think, in 40 years [that] a governor has had to face the kind of problems he has," said former Gov. Harry R. Hughes, a Democrat.

Hughes was known for being deferential almost to a fault to the legislature, and Schaefer was known for being more dogmatic in demanding what he wanted from the legislature, while Glendening was viewed as more focused on policy than developing relationships.

O'Malley, of course, has his own style.

"When he turns that charm on you, you listen," said Barbara A. Hoffman, a former senator who chaired the powerful Budget and Taxation Committee.

"He could sell ice to the Eskimos."

Sun reporter Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.

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