O'Malley rules Maryland with obsession for detail, but some wonder at what cost

By Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 19, 2010; 10:32 PM

Before Gov. Martin O'Malley prays in the morning and launches into a regimented daily routine, he says he always studies the latest pages added to "the book."

At his insistence nearly four years ago, Maryland State Police and other agencies began compiling them before dawn to provide a daily snapshot of homicides, traffic deaths, new flu cases and other statewide trends.

"The good book," as O'Malley (D) sometimes calls his management bible, encapsulates nearly everything about the way he has governed Maryland behind closed doors and would continue to if reelected Nov. 2. Its spreadsheets, summaries, charts and graphs - collated, three-hole-punched and color-coded - build on daily updates he used to demand as mayor of Baltimore. They are also manifestations of O'Malley's obsessive, workaholic and often in-the-weeds approach to running Maryland's government.

Monthly developments on crime rates, water pollution, student test scores and hundreds of other measures are watched and graded and are either grounds for correction or congratulation.

"We're in a battle for our children's future," O'Malley said in a speech Monday night in Annapolis, adding that only through setting benchmarks and working toward them can the state build a better future. "I still believe, as Frederick Douglass believed, that 'we are one, our cause is one and we must help each other if we are to succeed.' "

Much has been written about O'Malley's love for Irish poetry, quotation and Scripture, which infuse his public speeches with soaring phrase. But behind the high-minded rhetoric, a review of his book, along with interviews with the governor, members of his inner circle, family members and friends, reveal a pragmatic chief executive who is focused more on smaller, short-term goals and who is always in a near-constant state of planning or evaluation - and virtually never unplugged.

"I don't feel like, you're never off work when you're governor," O'Malley said. His aides said that he often works 18-hour days and that they begin receiving BlackBerry messages from him before 6 a.m. in a barrage that can continue past midnight.

"I don't look at the BlackBerry at Mass, and I don't look at the BlackBerry when Katie and I are out. When I'm asleep, I don't look at it, but I'm probably imagining that I'm reading it," O'Malley said, referring to rare date nights with his wife.

Although views of the legacy of O'Malley's first term vary dramatically, as do opinions of what kind of a governor he would be if reelected next month, his data-driven and nonstop style of governance would remain a core element in a second term, he said.

Analysts say the good in that is that O'Malley would remain close to the inner workings of state government during years when budget shortfalls of $1 billion or more may require him to decide whether programs are effective and whether their funding should continue. The bad, they say, is that it can prevent a chief executive from thinking big and looking beyond the daily scoresheets.

House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell (Calvert) is one of several Republicans who question how detail-oriented O'Malley really wants to get when it comes to solving the budget. O'Donnell said he's also suspicious about the progress O'Malley's stat-based governing sometimes shows. "They spend a lot of taxpayer dollars with this stuff and use it as window dressing for their performance, when they can make it say whatever they want it to say."

O'Malley, who is being challenged by former Republican governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., has a list of 15 little-noticed "strategic goals" that were developed halfway through his term and that are designed to guide the administration partway into a second term. They include increasing public transit ridership by 10 percent a year, reducing violent crime against women and children by 25 percent by 2012, and ending childhood hunger in Maryland by 2015.

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