FROSTBURG - Cheryl Haberkam became despondent after losing her job as a dispatcher for a moving company late last year. The Baltimore resident had no income and no savings, and unemployment benefits had not kicked in. She didn't know where to turn.
So she e-mailed Gov. Martin O'Malley.
"I know you probably can't help me," she wrote, "but I think just saying this might help. Thank you for your time."
As the economy slid into recession, an increasing number of residents have apparently wanted to share their troubles - and their grievances - with the governor. In turn, O'Malley has shown a willingness to give them a greater forum, not only via the Internet but also through a series of town hall meetings, the first of which was held in Frostburg last night.
O'Malley, a Democrat, has said he wants to hear directly from Maryland's families, and he plans to take his Cabinet to the forums so residents can learn about state services. But the roadshow could also have political benefits by giving the governor the chance to interact with voters as he pushes his agenda in the General Assembly and gears up for re-election next year.
"It's good governance because he should be out there listening to what voters have to say," said Michael Cain, chairman of the political science department at St. Mary's College. "But there's certainly a political dimension to this as we're starting to get into the next season of elections."
Several hundred people attended the town hall at Mountain Ridge High School in Frostburg last night. O'Malley compared the event to a shareholders meeting, gesturing to Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown and department secretaries and calling them "your state government."
Wendy Atkinson and her daughter Ali, a sophomore at the school, attended the forum. Wendy, a Democrat, said she was inspired to get involved in politics after President Barack Obama's election and that she rarely hears much about O'Malley in the Republican stronghold of Western Maryland.
"I wanted to know more about what's going on with him," she said, adding that another draw was the governor's status as "a hottie."
Trips outside Annapolis ensure that O'Malley "breaks out of the bubble," said Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College in Westminster, adding that face-to-face interactions with voters are invariably beneficial. "It puts a personal face on the object of talk-radio scorn."
O'Malley has much to explain to voters, political observers say. His approval rating took a hit last year after he pushed to raise taxes by $1.3 billion during a special session of the General Assembly. And though his rating has risen to 49 percent in a January poll from Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies from a low of 37 percent last year, the governor still faces a $2 billion budget shortfall, and he has proposed cutting local aid and laying off state workers.
As governor, O'Malley has traveled around the state to places he has dubbed "capital for a day," and as Baltimore mayor he held "mayor's night out" forums. Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, made similar trips. The coming town hall meetings, though, are expected to elicit a deeper level of anxiety from those who attend as the economy has worsened.
That distress has increasingly come across in e-mails, aides said. The governor typically receives hundreds a week, a sampling of which are periodically included in reading materials prepared for him. His administration has also launched the "problem solver" Web site that directs needy families to state services, and his campaign Web site has been revamped to ask for feedback on the current legislative session.
The e-mails, some of which were provided to The Baltimore Sun, frequently refer to financial struggles. Some writers urged O'Malley not to cut funding for programs that help the elderly and poor; others offered suggestions for tackling the budget shortfall. And some were critical of his policies. One woman wrote that "the economic crisis has ruined me, in case he wants to know."
Haberkam, for one, was happy that she e-mailed the governor after getting angry that her unemployment check had not arrived. She said she received a phone call from a state supervisor within hours and that her check came a few days later. She also received a letter from Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez.
"I never expected a response because I'm sure they get thousands of e-mails, but I did it anyway because I got upset and I wanted to tell someone how I felt," said Haberkam, who is still looking for employment. "I was really overwhelmed that they called me, and they seemed concerned about me."