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.
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.
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.
“If he does in fact have aspirations to do something bigger, he needs to draw contrasts and draw them in pretty stark terms,” said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at the Cook Political Report. “There’s not a lot of room for moderates in either party right now.”
Although O’Malley has sought to foster cooperation in Annapolis, longtime associates say he is at his best when he has a clearly defined enemy.
O’Malley, who got his start in politics working on the presidential campaigns of Gary Hart, appeared to relish both of his contests against former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) and frequently took shots at then-President George W. Bush.
For politicians trying to spread their wings nationally, the goal at the early stage is to impress a relatively small group of party activists and donors who could be helpful down the road. By that measure, O’Malley is clearly having some success, based on interviews with people who have seen him.
In Utah, that included Mark Gilbert, a major Democratic fundraiser from Florida who is welcoming Michelle Obama to his vacation home in Park City this month for an event benefiting her husband’s campaign.
“My wife and I were incredibly impressed by him,” Gilbert said of O’Malley, whom he met for the first time at the party dinner. “He was very engaging, and everyone in the room was energized.”
Ultimately, O’Malley’s performance as DGA chairman will be judged largely on the number of races Democrats win and the money he raises.
Four states have governor’s races on the ballot this year. Republicans are heavily favored in two, Louisiana and Mississippi. Most pundits give Democrats the nod in Kentucky and West Virginia. With races in 10 other states next year, it will provide a broader test if O’Malley stays on as chairman for a second year, which seems increasingly likely.
On the speaking circuit, O’Malley has sought to bolster his credentials and his party’s candidates as well as tear down Republican governors.
At a Democratic Jubilee dinner in Utah on Friday, O’Malley spoke of the importance of reelecting President Obama and relayed some of his accomplishments in Maryland, including a No. 1 ranking of its schools by a magazine for three years in a row.
The line was met with applause, but it was the zingers that followed that drew the largest response. As he has elsewhere, O’Malley relayed one often-overlooked dictionary definition of “tea party”: “A group of children who play with imaginary friends.”