By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 1, 2010; 7:58 PM
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley was unanimously selected Wednesday as the new chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, a post that could boost his national profile at a time when his party is trying to find its way forward.
O'Malley's ascendancy to the organization's top position had been widely anticipated, given he had served for two years as the the group's vice chairman. But the case for O'Malley's leadership was bolstered by his strong reelection last month in Maryland during a banner year for Republicans elsewhere.
"Democratic governors will lead the way back to our party's resurgence," O'Malley said at a meeting with his Democratic colleagues at the St. Regis hotel in Washington. He succeeds Delaware Gov. Jack Markell at the helm of the organization, whose primary mission is to assist Democratic gubernatorial candidates in closely contested races.
The post also provides a platform to speak for the party on television and at gatherings around the country and provides exposure to top national Democratic donors.
Several past DGA chairmen, including Bill Clinton while governor of Arkansas and Bill Richardson while governor of New Mexico, have used the post as a stepping stone to larger national roles.
O'Malley acknowledged during Wednesday's luncheon that his party has "a lot of hard work ahead of us" and argued that Democratic candidates should not "run away from . . . important progressive values."
"Without a doubt, this is a time that will define us as a people, define us as a country," he said.
DGA Executive Director Nathan Daschle described O'Malley's reelection in Maryland as "the crown jewel" of Democratic efforts around the country in 2010. O'Malley defeated former Maryland governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) by more than 14 percentage points, twice the margin by which O'Malley won in 2006 - a much better year for Democrats nationally.
"Martin is absolutely the right man for this job," Markel said at a news conference after the luncheon. "He is really somebody who knows how to win."
It remains unclear how much O'Malley's position will detract from his duties in Maryland, but the state's Republicans sought to exploit that prospect even before his election as chairman was official.
"With a historic number of Marylanders still unemployed and a budget crisis looming, I would hope Governor O'Malley would focus on fixing Maryland instead of gallivanting around the country, raising money on behalf of other Democrat governors," Maryland Republican Party Chairman Audrey E. Scott said in a statement Tuesday night.
O'Malley, a former mayor of Baltimore, told reporters Wednesday that he thought Maryland would benefit from his chairmanship, in part because it would enable him to better share policy ideas with his colleagues from other states.
Wednesday's events offered a preview of the kind of questions O'Malley will face in his new role.
At the news conference where the chairmanship was announced, reporters peppered O'Malley with questions about the impact of a Republican-controlled House of Representatives, implementing federal health reforms, anticipated cuts in defense spending and the redistricting process that will unfold across the country.
O'Malley, who was joined on stage by several newly elected governors, largely avoided partisan answers, saying Democratic governors should stay focused on "getting results."
Democrats will hold the governorships in 20 states next year, assuming Mark Dayton prevails in a recount in Minnesota in which he is leading. That is five fewer than was the case prior to the 2010 elections.
North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue was selected as the DGA's vice chairwoman on Wednesday.
Former Maryland governor Parris N. Glendening (D), whose son works at the DGA, was among those in attendance Wednesday. Several Annapolis lobbyists were also on hand to witness O'Malley ascend to his new roll.