Gov. Martin O'Malley struck an exuberant and defiant tone Tuesday as he launched his campaign for re-election at a Baltimore rally, leaving no doubt that he's happy to run on his four-year record of leading Maryland through some of its most difficult times in recent decades.
Joined by Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown in Fells Point, Democrat O'Malley pledged to resist any effort to take Maryland backward — an implicit criticism of former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., his expected general election opponent.
After a second rally in the afternoon in Prince George's County, O'Malley refused to apologize for raising sales and other taxes in 2007, contending it was necessary for the state's fiscal well-being. He dared Ehrlich to show how he would pay for his signature proposal — to roll the state sales tax back to 5 percent — without cutting funding for education and other state priorities.
"He used to be a governor. Why doesn't he put up a budget?" O'Malley told reporters at Prince George's County Community College in Largo.
Earlier in the day, O'Malley gathered in Fells Point a who's who of local Democratic officials led by Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski for the first of four kickoff events on a busy first day of active campaigning. The rally took place in weather an advance staffer might have ordered out of a catalog — with blue skies and cool weather and a backdrop of the Inner Harbor and the Domino Sugars plant.
Blake kicked off the event with a rousing endorsement of the former mayor.
"Martin O'Malley is Baltimore's own," she said. "In these difficult times, he's a leader we can trust."
O'Malley pounded repeatedly on his campaign theme of "Moving Maryland Forward," consistently portraying his opponents as advocates of throwing the state into reverse. He left little doubt that Ehrlich, the Republican he ousted in 2006, is his chief target.
"There are some out there who say they want to take Maryland back, and to all of that we might ask: 'Back to what?'" O'Malley recited a list of things he believes voters would not want to return to: $3 billion in toll, tax and fee increases under Ehrlich, a 40 percent increase in college tuition and "wealthy special interests" going to the front of the line.
He presented his term as a period during which Maryland made significant strides despite a crippling recession, pointing to rankings that put Maryland's public schools first in the nation and what he called "the lowest violent crime rate since 1975." He noted that Maryland had the nation's largest increase in jobs last month.
But Maryland State Republican Party Chairman Audrey Scott dismissed the latest numbers and pointed to the overall increase in unemployment since O'Malley took office.
"We must ask ourselves the proverbial question in politics: 'Are we better off today than we were before Governor O'Malley took office?' The answer is no," she said. "When O'Malley was handed the keys to the Governor's Mansion, Maryland had a growing job market and a budget surplus. In four short years, his policies have erased all progress made by the Ehrlich administration."
O'Malley's sunny day was somewhat darkened by the announcement that the giant defense contractor Northrop-Grumman had chosen Virginia over Maryland as the site of its new corporate headquarters. Scott and the Ehrlich campaign wasted no time in portraying the decision as a reflection on what it contends is a sour business climate in Maryland.
O'Malley was having none of it. "We try to go after every opportunity. We don't always succeed," he said.
The governor said he is proud of his administration's record of stimulating employment, pointing to the 5,700 jobs expected to be created by a recently negotiated public-private partnership at Seagirt Marine Terminal in Baltimore.
The Fells Point event brought out a broad representation of O'Malley supporters, from family members to devotees of the causes his administration has adopted.
On a bench near the stage was O'Malley's father-in-law, former state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. The veteran Baltimore politician said he's not worrying about the campaign even though Maryland has gone through tough times.
"The ship of state is going as good as it can," he said before O'Malley took the stage with his wife, Judge Catherine Curran O'Malley and their four children. "You show your skills at leadership when it's difficult times, and certainly Martin has had four years of difficult times."
Vincent De Marco, president of the advocacy group Maryland Citizens Health Care Initiative, showed up to cheer O'Malley and praise his record on health care issues.
"The health care difference between Martin O'Malley and Bob Ehrlich is stark," De Marco said. He said his organization does not endorse candidates, but stated that under O'Malley, Maryland had risen from 44th to 16th in the nation in health care coverage for low-income adults.
Mubariz Razvi and Ahmed Awad of the Maryland Muslim Council hailed O'Malley's "inclusiveness" toward minorities.
"I think he's connected with the common man more than the previous governor," Awad said.
The Baltimore and Largo rallies were the first of 11 events this week across the state. O'Malley and Brown also made a campaign stop Tuesday in Waldorf at the farm of Sen. Thomas M. "Mac" Middleton, followed by an evening barbecue in Rockville.
Bowie State University English professor Brenda Doharris came to the Largo rally with a plea: no more furloughs of state workers to balance the budget. A fervent Democrat, she said the issue would not cause her to defect to Ehrlich but warned that other state employees had told her they would stay home if the unwanted, unpaid time off continued.
Among those supporting O'Malley in Largo was longtime Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, whose district includes part of Prince George's County.
Miller said he expects a tough, closely contested race, pointing to polls showing O'Malley with a lead of 3 to 6 points. "Any time you're in single-digits between candidates, it's a close race," he said.
Nevertheless, Miller expressed confidence that the governor would prevail. He said O'Malley has been receiving help from President Barack Obama's political operation and that Obama's 2008 campaign chief in Prince George's will play the same role for O'Malley.
Miller criticized Ehrlich's pledge to repeal the sales tax increase, calling it a "nonstarter" even in the improbable event of a Republican takeover of the General Assembly. "It's just not doable," he said.
The Senate president said Democrats need to come together after a series of sometimes bruising primary races for legislative seats and local offices.
"The key challenge here is going to be healing the wounds between September and November," he said.
O'Malley faces former Calvert County Del. George Owings, who served in Ehrlich's Cabinet as veterans affairs secretary, in the Democratic primary Sept. 14. Ehrlich is being challenged in the GOP primary by Montgomery County business owner Brian Murphy. But most political observers expect a rematch of the 2006 contest in which O'Malley ousted Ehrlich.
Todd Eberly, a professor of political science at St. Mary's College, said that in 2002, Ehrlich had the advantage of running against a candidate whose competence voters doubted, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. With O'Malley, Eberly said, Ehrlich doesn't have that advantage.
Still, Eberly said, neither O'Malley nor Ehrlich has really outlined a clear vision of how he would govern going forward. That, he said, puts more pressure on Ehrlich, because in deeply blue Maryland a Democrat without vision beats a Republican without vision.