Next 90 days could be crucial for O'Malley

For Martin O'Malley, the next 90 days will likely be the most important that remain in his tenure as Maryland's governor.

As the General Assembly opens its 2013 session Wednesday, O'Malley will be looking to cap a record that many people believe he will use as a springboard for a future presidential run.

Among the legislative matters to be debated are issues of national resonance, including a death penalty repeal, assault weapons ban and offshore wind power. Each potential initiative has important, Democratic-oriented constituency groups behind it and determined foes.

This year's session will be O'Malley's seventh as governor and probably the last in which he can expect to get difficult, nationally noteworthy tasks done. Next year, the attention of political Maryland will shift to the gubernatorial race, and lawmakers typically grow hyper-cautious as an election approaches.

"If you need legislative action to emphasize and further your priorities, this is the year to do it," said John T. Willis, former Maryland secretary of state and now professor of government and public policy at the University of Baltimore. "It becomes more difficult in the election year."

O'Malley, who is term-limited, repeated a refrain when asked about his national ambitions, that he's concentrating on doing his current job well.

"There's a wisdom in politics that the next job always depends on doing a good job with the job you have," he said in an interview.

The governor professed to feel no more pressure to accomplish his agenda than in other years. "I wake every day with a sense of urgency to get things done," he said.

But Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat who served two terms as governor from 1995 to 2003, said a governor's sixth and seventh years are the keys to cementing a political legacy.

"You're at the crux of your power, but the descent on the other side of the crux is very steep and very fast," Glendening said. "The last year is, I don't want to say wasted, but you can almost touch political power draining out of the room."

Glendening said O'Malley is going into this year in an strong position because of his victories at the polls on referendums challenging his policies — on same-sex marriage, in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, expanded gambling and congressional redistricting. The former governor said O'Malley's opponents were trying to weaken him.

"That strategy backfired," Glendening said.

O'Malley has touted a number of accomplishments during his first six years. He steered the state through difficult economic times — albeit with two major tax increases. He burnished his "green" credentials with significant environmental legislation. Maryland's schools are ranked No. 1 nationally, and he has held the rate of college tuition increases well below the national average.

But the governor enters the 2013 session with some significant unfinished business — an attempt to repeal the death penalty that fell short in 2009, legislation to promote offshore wind energy that has stalled in the past two years and a transportation system that barely brings in enough money to maintain what's already there.

O'Malley has yet to lay out his full legislative agenda but has signaled that his wish list would address most, if not all, of these issues. As he has in most recent years, he said creating jobs was the top objective on his agenda, but he also stressed the need for transportation funding — likely in the form of a gas or sales tax increase.

Lawmakers also will debate an issue put on the agenda by a gunman who killed 26 at a Connecticut elementary school last month.

At a Democratic Party lunch Tuesday in Annapolis, O'Malley called for a ban on assault weapons, additional school safety measures and improved coordination within the mental health services system — though he did not provide specifics.

U.S. Senator Benjamin L. Cardin said fellow Democrats around the country will be watching to see what happens in Maryland on gun control. "People are looking at the assault weapons issue because of what happened in Connecticut," Cardin said. "That's always a tough one to take on."

Donald Norris, chairman of the public policy department of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, said O'Malley has a strong record to take to caucus-goers in Iowa or primary voters in New Hampshire if he seeks the presidency in 2016.

"Objectively, if you look at what he's proposed and what he's gotten, he's gotten a lot of what he proposed," Norris said.

But a few more wins this year could make his case even stronger, he added.

"If he gets the death penalty nullified and wind energy, those kinds of things appeal to the liberal base of the Democratic Party," he said.

Conservative critics worry that the governor will add to a legacy they see as harmful to Maryland.

"It's hard to say what his agenda is other than pleasing interest groups that are important to the Democratic Party," said George Liebmann, volunteer executive director of the Calvert Institute and a onetime Republican candidate for U.S. Senate. "He has not been the most scrupulous person about fiscal restraints of any kind."

Liebmann said O'Malley typically looks for "pop issues" such as capital punishment and gay rights that appeal to the Democratic base.

"His game is to push hot-button issues and not make hard choices," he said. "There hasn't been any heavy lifting on criminal justice or on drugs. There hasn't been any heavy lifting on transportation."

While O'Malley downplays talk of presidential ambitions, some of his fellow Maryland Democrats, including Glendening and Cardin, say he's clearly part of the presidential mix for their party in 2016 — especially if outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton doesn't run.

Tim Hagle, a political scientist at the University of Iowa, said O'Malley's record could play well in that state, which traditionally holds the nation's first caucus in presidential election years.

"The wind energy thing is certainly big," Hagle said. "It's an emerging industry here in Iowa, taking the place of ethanol."

Hagle said that if O'Malley's can pass an assault weapons ban — having already passed same-sex marriage and the Dream Act that lowers college costs for illegal immigrants — the governor would be at the forefront of "Democratic issues of the day" and continue to be a desirable guest on national television shows that raise his profile.

Voters in Iowa already have a passing familiarity with O'Malley. This summer he was the "special guest" at Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin's Steak Fry, an event traditionally used to build support in the state.

"People took notice here and suggested that he's a potential contender if he wants to throw his hat in the ring," Hagle said.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a Democrat who sought his party's presidential nomination in 2004, said focusing on the state's needs is the best way for O'Malley to position himself for higher office.

"The governor has done a great job getting himself ready," said Dean, who also served as Democratic national chairman. "Probably the best way to get ready is to govern well. You just have to do your job, and the presidential election takes care of itself."

Willis, co-author of the book Maryland Government and Politics, warned that legislative victories don't guarantee a successful term. He recalled the cautionary tale of Gov. Harry R. Hughes, whose political career began to crumble a month after his seventh session in 1985 when Maryland got caught in a savings-and-loan crisis exacerbated by the poor performance of an obscure state agency. Instead of advancing to the U.S. Senate, Hughes ended his political career with a 1986 Democratic primary loss.

"O'Malley has to make sure in every department that that kind of thing doesn't explode," Willis said.