When Gov. Martin O’Malley leaves Maryland these days, he often carries a cudgel.
Since ascending to the chairmanship of the Democratic Governors Association (DGA), O’Malley has been on a mission to toughen up the organization and make it a more pointed voice on issues that divide Democrats and Republicans.
It’s a different posture than the one he presents in Annapolis, where he governs a state dominated by like-minded Democrats, but it was on full display when he arrived in Salt Lake City last week for a gathering of colleagues from across the country.
Over the course of a few days, O’Malley chided Republican governors for staying silent while “the dinosaur wing” of their party dominated debt talks in Washington.
He blasted “a new breed of tea-partying, FDR-hating” governors who have come to power, singling out Chris Christie of New Jersey for additional scorn. That “colorful character,” O’Malley said, lives in a “make-believe world, where down is up, up is down, candy is a vegetable, and vegetables are candy.”
The summer meeting of the National Governors Association (NGA) was officially a nonpartisan event. But O’Malley drew the most attention for his rhetoric at off-site events and in media interviews in which he pulled few punches.
With the tough persona, O’Malley is starting to make a name for himself among activists in his party whose support could be crucial if he has a political future beyond Maryland, a consideration not lost on his advisers.
O’Malley said he has made it a priority of his DGA chairmanship to draw sharper contrasts between the parties’ governors. Besides mocking Republicans, he has also argued that Democrats are far more willing to invest in education and infrastructure, even in times of shrinking budgets, and are far less inclined to make policy decisions that would endanger the nation’s “jobs recovery.”
In recent days, on cable TV and in national news accounts, he has emerged as a leading voice on the impact the debt issue in Washington could have on the states.
“In the past, we haven’t done a very good job of branding those choices so that people can readily see what we’re about,” O’Malley said.
A White House contender?
O’Malley played down talk about his personal ambitions, saying he took the job of DGA chairman in December because he thought it was his turn “to lead the parish council,” a reference to the nation’s 20 Democratic governors.
During his four-day stay in Salt Lake City, however, O’Malley got more than his share of attention. He was routinely pulled out of NGA meetings to give media interviews. He led a news conference at which Democratic governors weighed in on the federal debt negotiations. And O’Malley headlined a dinner sponsored by the Utah State Democratic Party, the latest in a series of similar appearances that have taken him to Virginia, New Jersey and Kentucky.
Since this month’s passage of a same-sex marriage bill in New York, there has been more buzz about the political future of that state’s governor, Andrew M. Cuomo, than any other Democrat. But O’Malley’s name routinely appears on lists of potential 2016 presidential contenders — something he declined to discuss.
The dominance of his party in Maryland has given O’Malley considerably more latitude than some of his DGA predecessors in making the case against Republicans. Back home, O’Malley’s initiatives typically rise or fall on his ability to convince fellow Democrats. Republicans hold small enough minorities that they alone are powerless to stop him.
That still hasn’t stopped them from grumbling.
“He is not endearing himself to anyone, except the most extreme elements of his party,” said House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell (R-Calvert). “One would think he would be trying to broaden his appeal, not narrow it.”
The greater threat to O’Malley, some say, is if a perception takes root more broadly that he is neglecting his duties at home — a notion he vigorously disputes.
Aides say O’Malley has turned down more speaking invitations than he has accepted, including one in Iowa, the first presidential nominating state.
O’Malley’s political future would clearly be helped by more legislative victories, and he has some heavy lifting to do next year. Among other things, he is planning to make another run at a top environmental priority, a bill on jump-starting the state’s wind-energy industry that failed last session.
Creating a national profile
As he becomes more vocal nationally, O’Malley is also certain to face more scrutiny. Last Thursday, as he was preparing to hold a news conference on the debt impasse, the Republican Governors Association distributed a report showing that Maryland lagged in job creation.
Still, a leading analyst sees little downside in O’Malley’s outspoken DGA leadership.