OCEAN CITY — — Gov. Martin O'Malley worked the room at one of Maryland's biggest political events of the year Thursday, grinning for photos, slapping the backs of fellow politicians and causing bottlenecks wherever he stopped.
Most years, the governor sticks around Ocean City until Saturday to deliver a speech to the annual Maryland Association of Counties convention. But in O'Malley's final year in office, he will instead spend the next two days working on his political future.
"I hear you're supposed to be in New Hampshire this weekend," Wendy Frosh, sister of Democratic attorney general candidate Brian Frosh, told O'Malley. After the governor moved on to shake more hands, Frosh said she was pleasantly surprised to see him at the conference despite his presumed national ambitions.
"It makes a strong statement about his priorities," she said.
As the governor weighs a presidential bid for 2016, he has built a national network of followers, wooing party activists as he travels to early primary states and headlines Democratic fundraisers across the country. On Friday night, O'Malley will be the keynote speaker at an event for the Mississippi Democratic Party. On Sunday, he will attend a Democratic fundraiser picnic in Strafford County, New Hampshire, a state with a first-in-the-nation primary that O'Malley has visited at least twice within the past year.
First, the governor briefly swept through the annual four-day MACO convention at the Maryland resort, where hundreds of the state's elected officials talk policy by day and attend parties by night. It's an event the governor began attending long before he entered politics 23 years ago, back when he was an aide to now-Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.
O'Malley, who fronts a Celtic rock band and said he keeps his guitar in his car, gave an impromptu solo performance Wednesday night at the Irish bar Shenanigans in Ocean City.
"Nostalgia's not what it used be," O'Malley joked. "But I am nostalgic about Shenanigans."
Despite his out-of-state commitments, the governor said he wanted to attend this year's conference to listen to a panel discussion about how to reduce deaths from heroin overdose, which have claimed more lives in Maryland this year than auto accidents and homicides combined.
O'Malley dropped into the discussion, one of about a half dozen sessions on government policy occurring at the same time. He sat in the front row and peppered Anne Arundel County Police Chief Kevin Davis with questions.
"I don't mean to monopolize," O'Malley said, before asking the suburban police chief to describe the demographics of a typical overdose victim and then asking how law enforcement can use health data to help prevent overdoses.
Outside the session, he ran into longtime ally Del. Frank Turner, a Democrat from Howard County, who helped usher legislation on casino gambling and gay marriage through the General Assembly. O'Malley had endorsed a candidate who wasn't on Turner's slate in the June primary, and the governor pleaded mea culpa Thursday afternoon.
"Should we hug it out," O'Malley asked him, before embracing Turner and promising to help raise cash for Turner's election. It was one of several fundraising promises O'Malley made as he mingled with public officials.
The governor has secured a national reputation as a willing fundraiser and surrogate campaigner, stumping for President Barack Obama in 2012 and hosting a variety of fundraisers for party leadership, including on the Eastern Shore.
Republicans, who typically look askance at O'Malley's out-of-state travels, for the most part treated the governor like a celebrity as he worked the room in Ocean City. State Senate Minority Leader Joe Getty of Frederick posed for a photo with him, and outspoken Republican Del. Pat McDonough of Baltimore County went over to shake O'Malley's hand.
But Del. Bonnie Cullison, a Montgomery County Democrat, was unimpressed as she worked her way through one of the crowds forming around O'Malley.
"I was trying to figure out who they are all taking pictures of," she said. "It's just the governor."