On O'Malley's To-Do List: Rebuild Public Image

Maryland's governor, whose standing among legislative leaders has risen while falling among voters, gave the annual State of the State address today.
By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 23, 2008

As Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley steps onto the dais today to deliver his second State of the State address, he faces a striking dichotomy: His standing among Democratic legislative leaders has risen considerably during the past year while it has fallen precipitously among voters.

Today's speech at the State House, in which O'Malley (D) will urge lawmakers to continue "protecting our priorities," is part of what aides say is a long-term push to rebuild the governor's popularity after November's special session, in which lawmakers approved $1.4 billion in annual tax increases to help fix the state's finances. The effort will consist mainly of modest steps.

O'Malley's approach is also reflected in his legislative priorities for the 90-day session that started this month. He has proposed initiatives such as tightening oversight of the mortgage-lending industry and expanding the state's DNA database, but none that come with a large price tag or seem likely to redefine his tenure.

Among the priorities that the governor will pledge to protect today are keeping college tuition affordable and cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.

"It is absolutely possible for him to climb back, but it's not a guarantee," said Laslo V. Boyd, a partner in Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies, based in Annapolis, which conducted one of two recent polls that found that O'Malley's approval rating was lower than 40 percent. "I don't think there's a great bill that passes this session that turns things around. It's more a matter of demonstrating effective leadership over time."

Leaders of the Democrat-led General Assembly have praised O'Malley for tackling a largely inherited fiscal problem that legislators and Maryland's previous two governors deferred. But neither the urgency of the task, nor a solution that included raising multiple taxes, has been much appreciated by the public.

The Gonzales poll, which was conducted this month, put O'Malley's job approval rating at 39 percent. A survey conducted for the Baltimore Sun about the same time gauged the rating at 35 percent. A week before the special session started in October, the rating was measured at 53 percent in a poll conducted by The Washington Post.

The good news for O'Malley, as supporters and detractors agree, is that he has until 2010 before the next gubernatorial election. And much can change. One year into his term, former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) clashed with the legislature but had a 62 percent job approval rating from the public. He lost his bid for reelection.

Several factors -- including some beyond O'Malley's control, such as the economy -- could hinder his efforts to recover.

Legislative analysts say the actions taken in the special session should be sufficient to balance a $15.2 billion budget next year that would otherwise have fallen short by at least $1.5 billion. But under current projections, more modest budget gaps will reappear the following year, making it difficult to start programs that could boost O'Malley's standing.

The first few in a series of news conferences called to release O'Malley's agenda for this session were telling.

His first proposal was a plan to expand the state's DNA database to include samples taken from people arrested for violent crimes. Under current policy, samples are taken only from those convicted. Law enforcement officials say the change could make a difference in solving crimes, but it is also notable for its relatively low cost -- $1.7 million a year.

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