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This Time, O'Malley Takes a Patient Approach

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Whatever else one sees in Martin O'Malley as he is sworn in today as Maryland's 61st governor, he is a politician markedly different from the brash 36-year-old who took the reins of an ailing Baltimore just over seven years ago.

The word "impatient" was affixed to the young mayor as he railed against those who he felt were moving too slowly to eradicate his city's open-air drug markets and fight its stubborn homicide rate. There was little time to dwell on niceties or missteps, such as O'Malley's choice of a police commissioner, whose hiring he called "the biggest decision I've ever made in my life" but who resigned 57 days later.

Today, O'Malley (D) will step to the podium outside the State House in Annapolis having made only seven of his 20 Cabinet appointments during what even some of his allies acknowledge has been a painfully deliberate transition process.

He arrives having all but decided to delay action on some of the biggest issues facing the state -- most notably a recurring budget imbalance -- until the second year of his term to allow time to build consensus.

And O'Malley, 43, has so far mostly resisted myriad calls to champion initiatives stymied during four years of Maryland government bitterly divided between Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the heavily Democratic legislature. "The most important thing we need to do in Annapolis is reestablish mutual respect for one another, regardless of our differences," O'Malley said in an interview. "We could waste an entire session talking about the issues where there's a tremendous amount of division, or we could focus on getting things done again."

Whether O'Malley's cautious approach -- he dubbed it "prudence" -- ultimately serves him well remains to be seen. But he is following a very different model than others recently new to power.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), for example, arrived with a "100 hours" agenda, including an increase in the federal minimum wage, as Democrats took control of the U.S. House of Representatives this month. And D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) took office having assembled a list of 200 goals for his first 100 days.

Aides said O'Malley will start to flesh out his agenda in his inaugural address today, in the release of his first budget this week and in his first State of the State address Jan. 31. He has made no secret about some priorities, including spending a record $400 million on school construction next year and holding the line on college tuition.

Even before O'Malley takes the oath of office, some in Annapolis are questioning whether he will take advantage of a honeymoon period typically afforded new chief executives. "If you play not to win, but just to stay in the game, that's a failure," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who has criticized the pace of O'Malley's transition. "It's not what John F. Kennedy did, and it's not what Lyndon Johnson did. Leaders lead. When you have a window of opportunity, you move forward."

Others have suggested that O'Malley will benefit in the long run by building goodwill and relationships he can trade upon later in his four-year term.

Moreover, allies say, the move to Annapolis is a far different challenge than what O'Malley faced in 1999, when he became Baltimore's mayor after two terms on the City Council there.

"To be a mayor of that city required putting your foot on the pedal and never letting up," said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore). "He had to wake up a sleeping bureaucracy. . . . He's now becoming governor of the third-wealthiest state in the country. He has more time to look at issues in a deliberate manner. He can take his time and get it right."

A late entrant into the 1999 mayor's race, O'Malley became a white mayor in a majority-black city with among the nation's worst drug-addiction and violent-crime problems. From the outset, he showed little patience with Baltimore's criminal justice system, publicly criticizing his own police department and the city's top prosecutor.

Although reports of violent crime dropped significantly during O'Malley's tenure, he never came close to a goal of reducing the number of murders each year to fewer than 175. His tenure was also marked by clashes locally with entrenched community leaders and praise nationally for his statistics-based program to hold agency heads accountable.

"In seven years as a mayor of a big city, you take a lot of knocks, and you learn a lot," McIntosh said. "All of that has made Martin a more patient and tolerant leader."

O'Malley said during the interview that he is no less eager to tackle his new job, but that one challenge will be the impatience of lawmakers reinvigorated by a return to one-party rule in Annapolis.

"I think the greatest tension of this session will be between what we want to do and what we're capable of doing," O'Malley said. "The experience of the last four years has a lot of legislators wanting to accomplish four years of legislation in one session."

Without waiting for O'Malley, lawmakers have started pushing plans for a statewide smoking ban; expansion of subsidized health coverage paid for by doubling the tobacco tax; and tighter vehicle emissions standards.

When asked about "clean cars" legislation at a town-hall-style meeting last week in Kensington, O'Malley asked for patience. "I'd like to be able to talk with various stakeholders before I make a decision," he said.

Advocates of repealing the death penalty, including Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore), say they are trying to be patient. O'Malley is personally opposed to capital punishment, and Rosenberg said he would like to see him champion its repeal.

In a "diary" that Rosenberg distributes to his supporters via e-mail, he recently wrote of "a host of issues" confronting lawmakers:

" 'Is the governor going to take a leadership position on these issues?' a lobbyist said to me . . . . That may be the central question of the next 90 days."

O'Malley said the answers will become clearer with the release of his budget and what he described as a "tight" legislative agenda. Aides say bills on health care, the environment, gang violence and other issues are drafted.

The ambitions of O'Malley and lawmakers are being held in check by a dour budget outlook.

O'Malley is expected to present a budget this week that would bridge a $400 million shortfall in fiscal 2008 without raising taxes. But that task would become far more difficult the next year, with a projected shortfall of more than $1.5 billion.

Some lawmakers have argued that raising taxes this year would make next year's task far easier. But O'Malley said waiting a year would allow time for his new administration to scour for savings first and build consensus behind any actions beyond that.

"It would be irresponsible on my part, before putting a new management team in place, to turn to the public" for a tax increase, he said during a town-hall-style meeting last week in Southern Maryland.

Although O'Malley has taken flak for the pace at which he is assembling that team, the Cabinet picks he has made have been generally very well-received. He was quick to note that among those who will be in place today are his secretaries of health and transportation, who oversee two of the largest departments in state government.

O'Malley said he is also more interested in making quality picks than quick ones. In at least a couple of cases, that has led him beyond the borders of Maryland.

Ultimately, he suggested, his legacy might rest more on his management skill than on the number of bills he pushes through.

"This first year is going to be very heavy on the administrative side of governing," O'Malley said. "We have a lot of great laws, and we have a lot of great policy. What we don't have is a lot of great administration."

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