O'Malley performing for wider audience

When the new interns arrive in the State House reception room, Gov. Martin O'Malley puts them to a test. He directs them to look at a wall displaying portraits of Maryland's most recent governors and tells them to name as many as they can.

About half, he says, are unable to identify O'Malley's immediate predecessor and most recent opponent, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Of those who recognize Ehrlich, half are stumped by Gov. Parris N. Glendening. Nobody makes it past Harry R. Hughes, who left office in 1987.

"I say to them, 'Ladies and gentleman, the point of this lesson is: All fame is fleeting,'" O'Malley told The Baltimore Sun in a recent interview. "If you do this because you think you are going to be remembered, that is a fool's errand."

But O'Malley begins his second and final term Wednesday in a commanding position as a Democrat who decisively won re-election against a popular former governor in a Republican year, now looking forward to working with a friendly legislature to help him build his gubernatorial legacy.

His new role as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, meanwhile, gives him a platform from which to reach a national audience — and the opportunity to expand his donor base, should his ambitions reach beyond Maryland's borders.

"Martin is a young man and has not even begun to approach a burnout," said Glendening, a two-term Democratic governor. "He will deny vehemently, up until he files something, that he is thinking of higher office. But it must be very prominent in his thinking."

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland, the House minority whip and a national campaigner for congressional Democrats, said O'Malley is "getting respect around the country" for his 14-point victory over Ehrlich.

State Republicans acknowledge the buzz around O'Malley but predict that his politics would not play well outside Maryland.

He is "just as liberal as [President Barack] Obama, if not more so," said Anthony J. O'Donnell, minority leader in Maryland's House of Delegates.

State GOP Chairman Alex Mooney said a national audience would view an O'Malley record of raising taxes, trying to end the death penalty and signaling that he would sign a gay marriage bill as "too far to the left."

O'Malley, who turned 48 on Tuesday, deflects questions about his ambitions. He plays down any interest in a run for the U.S. Senate, should the opportunity arise (Maryland's seats are held by fellow Democrats, Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski, in whose office O'Malley once worked) — saying it would be hard to work in a legislature after serving as the state's chief executive.

He replied no when asked whether he has thought about running for president. He says he is not thinking beyond the next four years: "I want to see the other side of this recession."

For now, he says, his priorities are fixing the imbalanced state budget and controlling the cost of state pensions — a pair of challenges that could consume much of the political capital that he banked with his November victory.

He speaks also of retooling state rules to attract and expand high-tech and biotech businesses, pushing an environmental agenda with a new stress on wind power and implementing the national health care overhaul.

Asked about initiatives, such as his effort to abolish the death penalty, that failed in his first term, he speaks about crime reduction.

"Some of these things we work on, I'm not going to be here to see happen," O'Malley said. "But they are things that will happen because I've been here."

Political strategists say the best way for O'Malley to secure a political future is to be sure the state runs smoothly over the next four years.

"In today's environment, good governing matters," said William H. Leighty, who served as chief of staff to Virginia Govs. Mark Warner, now a member of the Senate, and Tim Kaine, now chairman of the Democratic National Committee. "As much as the headlines, it is actually the nuts-and-bolts things that you do to run the state that people remember in the long run."

The nitty-gritty is an area in which O'Malley feels comfortable. As mayor of Baltimore, he scheduled weekly meetings to review data on government performance; his successors continue to use his CitiStat system.

As governor, he brought the system to Annapolis and put it on display recently in a succession of post-election presentations across the state.

At a forum on sustainability that drew hundreds to Chesapeake College, O'Malley clicked through a PowerPoint presentation and recited data on nitrogen and phosphorous levels in the Chesapeake Bay. He earned nods of approval when he showed the audience how his administration is tracking dissolved oxygen levels (even though the numbers are trending in the wrong direction for bay health).

"The things that get measured are the things that get done," O'Malley told the audience.

On Tuesday, he made one of his occasional forays into federal policy, joining Health Secretary Kathleen Sibelius and Delaware Gov. Jack Markell in a conference call with reporters to talk about the potential consequences of repealing the health care overhaul.

And O'Malley is an evangelist for data-driven governing. In Washington next month, he is scheduled to speak at a conference sponsored by Governing magazine, which named him public official of the year in 2009.

Fred Kuhn, the magazine's publisher, said O'Malley was selected because of his outstanding work in Baltimore and Annapolis.

Back home, the greatest challenge that O'Malley faces is the state's persistently out-of-balance budget, projected to have a $1.6 billion shortfall for the 2012 fiscal year. He has promised that he won't propose tax increases, but says he could sign off on increases proposed by the General Assembly.

That has left some Maryland lawmakers grumbling that O'Malley is positioning himself nationally as a fiscal moderate while leaving them to take the political hit for raising taxes.

The cost-cutting approach to state government has paid dividends elsewhere: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has become a Republican Party favorite for taking on public employee unions and forcing budget cuts. Christie finished first among possible GOP presidential candidates this month in a Zogby Poll, which showed him leading Obama by 3 percentage points in a head-to-head matchup.

For O'Malley, talk of a White House bid is "light-years away," said Joe Trippi, the Maryland-based strategist who managed former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's presidential bid.

On the national scene, stars rise and fall quickly: At the 2000 Democratic convention, then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend was hailed as a link between the party's past and future. Two years later, Ehrlich defeated her to become the first Republican governor of Maryland since Spiro T. Agnew.

In Maryland, at least, speculation has swirled about O'Malley's ambitions ever since he emerged from a field of two dozen in 1999 to become mayor of Baltimore. He turned up on the cover of Esquire magazine, which called him one of the country's best young mayors. Soon after, Time magazine named him one of the nation's top five big-city mayors.

In 2002, when O'Malley spoke at a Democratic Leadership Council meeting in New York, one Maryland pollster speculated that he was already crafting a moderate image for a national audience. Two years later, O'Malley addressed the Democratic National Convention.

He has long been interested in presidential politics. At 20, he worked in Iowa for Democratic presidential hopeful Gary Hart. As governor in 2007, O'Malley knocked on doors in New Hampshire for Hillary Clinton.

Outside of political circles, O'Malley's national profile is limited. But that could change, Trippi says: "All the building blocks are there. He's doing everything right."

Exhibit "A" is his involvement with the Democratic Governors Association.

Fellow governors picked O'Malley last month as their chairman, an office that has been held by Bill Clinton, Sibelius and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

The job gives O'Malley an opportunity to test a national message, build relationships with national party members, meet campaign operatives and expand his donor base.

"It is fairly simple, Trippi said. "Do a great job as governor of Maryland and do a great job at the DGA and there is a good chance you'll be seen as a mover."

Doing a good job means raising money for other Democrats — and Maryland companies already are writing checks. In the past year, the Democratic Governors Association banked $50,000 from Next Generation Technologies of Baltimore, $25,000 from Erikson Retirement Communities, $25,000 from Constellation Energy and $5,000 from AFSCME Maryland.

On Thursday, O'Malley is scheduled to give a brief address to House Democrats meeting for their annual retreat in Cambridge. Next month, he is to deliver the keynote address to the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Richmond, a gathering of Virginia Democrats that attracted presidential hopefuls Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008.

Were he to harbor presidential ambitions, a few factors seem to work to his advantage. A bruising year for Democrats has tightened the circle of potential party leaders. Republican victories in November cut the number of Democratic governors from 26 to 20 — several of whom are in their first term.

O'Malley is one of 10 Democratic governors whose party also controls the state legislature, which should make for a smoother four years than if he were battling Republicans.

And his term ends at the beginning of 2015, time enough to finish his work in Annapolis and turn to a national campaign for 2016.

"You are looking at six years," said Glendening, "two years of which would not be in office. That is why you build the relationships … and create the base and the opportunities."

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

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