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

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.

The next initiative proposed, using global positioning system technology to monitor juvenile offenders, was also accompanied by a modest price tag -- $1 million a year.

Maryland's economy, which has been hurt by slumping home sales, could also curtail O'Malley's ambitions. This week, lawmakers started considering additional spending cuts to prepare for a possible economic downturn that could slow tax collections.

Other issues being pushed by O'Malley, including several energy conservation measures, are not likely to produce a short-term bounce in the polls, regardless of their merits, analysts say.

O'Malley aides say the drop in popularity was expected and cite examples in which other governors recovered from similar situations.

New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine (D) rebounded after championing a sales tax increase that ended his honeymoon with voters in 2006. Corzine's approval rating plunged to 35 percent shortly after he made the proposal, according to a poll conducted by Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn. A poll conducted by the school a year later showed that 51 percent of respondents said they approved of the job he was doing.

Timothy F. Maloney, a former Democratic delegate from Prince George's County, predicted that O'Malley's standing with voters would also rise with time.

"There is a hunger for real leaders," said Maloney, who served on O'Malley's transition committee and remains an informal adviser. "People will remember the governor's courage long after the anger on tax day has faded."

Kevin Igoe, a GOP strategist, said that anger over tax increases is not likely to dissipate soon. "The challenge for his opponents is to keep the issue alive," he said. "I'm not sure that will be that difficult."

Republicans have kept the special session tax increases in the news to a greater degree than Democrats expected.

A GOP lawsuit seeking to invalidate the session over a technicality failed this month, but media coverage of the case reminded voters what had happened in Annapolis. Moreover, an effort to repeal a new tax on computer services is likely to be a big issue during the current session.

Pollsters say one troubling sign for O'Malley is that the erosion in support for him has been much greater in the Baltimore suburbs than in the Washington region. One key to O'Malley's victory over Ehrlich in 2006 was his relatively strong performance in the counties ringing Baltimore, which are home to many conservative Democrats who voted for Ehrlich in 2002.

Steve Raabe of OpinionWorks, a polling company in Annapolis, said that O'Malley, a former Baltimore mayor, "got hammered in Baltimore County" in the company's most recent survey for the Baltimore Sun. "As mayor, he was like God in Baltimore County," Raabe said.

Several of O'Malley's recent events have been held in Baltimore County. Last week, he traveled to a school in Catonsville for what was billed as an announcement of his plans to spend $333 million next year on school construction. He had made the same announcement the day before in Annapolis. But television cameras from four Baltimore news channels showed up at the school, where O'Malley emphasized how local residents would benefit from his proposal.

"This school is in desperate need, and has been for a good long while, of a new roof," O'Malley said, pledging to make it happen if lawmakers pass his request.

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