If voters remember anything from Martin O'Malley's first run for governor eight years ago, it's probably two big promises: to roll back a big increase in BGE rates and to end the culture of divisiveness in Annapolis to bring lawmakers together to get things done. The first promise didn't happen. But the second? Boy did it ever.
Mr. O'Malley wrapped up his eighth and final General Assembly session as governor on Monday, bringing to close what is a remarkable run of success even by the standards of Maryland's powerful governors. For better or worse (and, by our estimation, mostly for the better), there is almost literally nothing he asked the General Assembly to do that he didn't get.
A brief highlight reel of his eight regular and four special sessions would include: legalizing and then expanding casino gambling; allowing same-sex marriage; abolishing the death penalty; providing in-state tuition for some illegal immigrants; raising taxes — personal income, sales, corporate income, gas, tobacco and alcohol, plus assorted fees; limiting development on septic systems, establishing a Chesapeake Bay trust fund and enacting storm water fees; banning assault weapons and large ammunition magazines and requiring registration for handgun purchasers; establishing a plan for wind turbines off the Ocean City coast; raising the minimum wage; providing $1 billion for Baltimore school construction; and redrawing the political map to squeeze yet one more Democrat into the state's congressional delegation.
Critics of Mr. O'Malley have frequently pointed to his increasingly open ambition to run for president and accused him of being an absentee leader in Annapolis as he appeared on Sunday morning talk shows and took occasional jaunts to Iowa and New Hampshire. There may have been some validity to that when negotiations over the budget collapsed at the end of the 2012 session, requiring not one but two special sessions to fix. On the whole, though, what more could he have done? (And frankly, those who have complained about his level of engagement generally wish he had done a whole lot less.)
A more trenchant observation is that Mr. O'Malley got credit (or blame, depending on your point of view) for a lot of initiatives that weren't really his. To be sure, he deserves full credit for some major legislation, particularly Maryland's new gun control law and many of the recent environmental initiatives, as well as spending and taxation decisions that have maintained support for K-12 education and held down college tuition. But proposals for a Maryland Dream Act had been kicking around long before he got involved. He was by no means in the vanguard of the fight for marriage equality — in fact, he opposed it until relatively late in his governorship. The Baltimore schools construction plan was the product of extensive work by others, as was this year's minimum wage increase. He was even resigned to giving up on his long standing priority of repealing the death penalty until then-NAACP President Ben Jealous put it back on the agenda last year.
More to the point, there were times when he worked hard to round up votes for legislation about which he appeared ambivalent at best. He went from opining as Baltimore mayor that slots were a "pretty morally bankrupt" way to finance education to pushing for a constitutional amendment to legalize gambling. Whatever his true preferences were, he recognized that he had no chance of enacting the rest of his fiscal program without it. Expanding gambling was most assuredly not on his to-do list in 2012, but he threw himself into that, too, as the only way to pick up the pieces from that year's budget fiasco.
In as much as Mr. O'Malley has imposed his will on the legislature, he has also been adept at reading what direction it was going and joining in or getting out of the way. That was certainly the case with his surprising announcement last week that he — a believer in the notion that the answer to Baltimore violence is thousands more arrests — would sign a bill decriminalizing marijuana possession. If the rubric for evaluating a governor's effectiveness in dealing with the legislature is how much of his agenda he gets passed, Mr. O'Malley has few peers. If one also measures a governor's ability to stop things he doesn't want, the picture is more mixed.
Nonetheless, his record is remarkable when one considers that Mr. O'Malley came to Annapolis with more an executive than legislative mindset — as a former Baltimore mayor, he saw himself as a fix-the-pothole, jump on the trash truck kind of leader. But in the final analysis, the biggest black marks on his tenure — the Baltimore City jail scandal and the Maryland health insurance exchange debacle — occurred mostly outside of a legislative context, whereas his most identifiable accomplishments came from what he did when the General Assembly was in session.