It won’t be O’Malley’s final State of the State address — that will come a year from now — but by then, the collective attention of Maryland politics will largely have shifted to the race to succeed the once-brash former mayor of Baltimore rather than any remaining ambitions he might have for a part-time legislature that is heavily Democratic but presents a minefield of personalities to navigate.
“This really is his last chance to build on a brand identity that carries him beyond the state,” said Mike Morrill, a longtime Democratic strategist in Maryland. “What he’s doing now is polishing.”
It remains to be seen whether the polishing is merely for the Maryland history books or whether it’s the foundation for a national primary campaign in which O’Malley could position himself to the left of other possible contenders.
His past two years spent as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association has given O’Malley a national profile, allowing him to become a regular on the Sunday morning talk shows, a surrogate for President Obama and a prime-time speaker at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.
Yet in early nominating states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, O’Malley remains largely undefined compared with Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vice President Biden, two far better-known Democrats also weighing a run for the nomination.
If O’Malley moves forward with a presidential bid, “he’s got to give people a compelling reason to vote for him,” said Mo Elleithee, a Democratic consultant and veteran of national and state campaigns. “Whatever message he settles on, he’s got to be able to point to concrete things in his record to back it up.”
In recent interviews, O’Malley, who turned 50 this month and is term-limited in Maryland, has been dismissive of “the legacy stuff,” but aides say he is keenly aware that his time in office is fleeting — and that sometimes the legacies of even the most effective governors can be forgotten.
When schoolchildren visit the State House, O’Malley often brings them into a reception room where portraits of his predecessors hang.
Starting with his Republican predecessor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., and working backward, he asks for shows of hands on how many of the youths can identify the person in the portrait. By the time he gets to Harry Hughes (D), four governors ago, the game is always close to done.
O’Malley’s political career took off unexpectedly, when in 1999 he announced what was seen as a longshot bid for mayor from a drug corner in the majority-black city of Baltimore. He was at the time best known as a feisty white council member who played late nights in the city’s bars with his Celtic rock band.