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In a red sea change, unclear course for Governor O'Malley in blue Maryland

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Gov. Martin O'Malley talks with The Post's Aaron C. Davis in October about the difficulty of communicating his message on the need to prepare for the "new economy" and to increase "sustainability" -- tasks that he says will remain a big part of his second term as Md. governor.

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By Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 7, 2010; 9:49 PM

Thirty-six hours after his decisive win made him a rare Democratic star on a big night for Republicans, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley responded to a standing ovation from his Cabinet by rattling off a familiar list of his first-term accomplishments - including the expansion of health-insurance rolls and a reduction in crime rates.

No one in the ornate State House room needed the lecture. The assembled agency chiefs, staff members and reporters had all but committed the list to memory months ago.

But that's where the public portion of O'Malley's first Cabinet meeting after his reelection began and ended. There was no presentation of grand plans or goals for a second term, no talk of new initiatives.

The election had simply proved, O'Malley said, "that good governance is the best politics of all." Pointing to the kitchen table that he'd dragged behind his lime-green campaign Winnebago this fall, the governor said budget cuts, as in the past, would be made with families in mind.

Then, as the door closed and the executive session began, familiar words from O'Malley's budget secretary revealed the grim reality of the second term: "Each department has been instructed to begin identifying positions . . . "

Although O'Malley was reelected by nearly 14 percentage points and had one of the best nights of any Democratic governor in the nation, there's little sign of any mandate to put through a specific agenda in the next four years.

"The mission is the same," O'Malley said in the campaign's final week. "What I hope will be different is the waters are less stormy and the winds of an economic comeback are in our sails."

Even in less troubled times, O'Malley has often seemed to govern primarily as a reactive but intense leader, marshaling resources to tackle the biggest crisis of the moment. As mayor of Baltimore, he backed aggressive policing tactics to lower the city's skyrocketing homicide rate. In his first year in Annapolis, he orchestrated the state's biggest-ever package of tax increases to fix a structural imbalance. Since then, he has answered falling tax revenue with $5.6 billion in budget cuts.

The state's 7.5 percent unemployment rate and fragile budget remain its most pressing problems, but there are more, including unfunded pension and health-care obligations and a nearly bankrupt transportation-trust fund.

O'Malley has refrained from speaking of any mandate, and he was careful during the campaign to avoid expensive promises, knowing that his first order of business would be closing a $1.2 billion budget shortfall - his fourth of at least that size in as many years. To begin closing it, O'Malley's administration must eliminate 500 positions, probably all vacant, under the budget bill passed by the legislature this spring.

Other than vowing to keep "moving Maryland forward," O'Malley's campaign offered a second-term vision that spoke only abstractly about preparing the state for the "new economy." Translation: More jobs. But how the governor might get there is not clear.

In a rough economy, avoiding specific promises doesn't liberate a politician from high expectations, and a look around the room at O'Malley's reelection party last week offered a hint of the forces that will come knocking when the legislature reconvenes in January.


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