When Gov. Martin O’Malley steps to the podium Wednesday, it will be the seventh time he has addressed a joint session of the Maryland General Assembly — and probably the last time that his words can be expected to make much of a difference.
Framed by both U.S. and Maryland flags, O’Malley (D) is expected to urge lawmakers to pass a far-reaching gun-control package, repeal the death penalty and embrace a twice-shunned measure designed to jump-start the state’s wind-power industry — all measures that could help cement a progressive legacy as he weighs a 2016 presidential bid.
It won’t be O’Malley’s final State of the State address — that will come a year from now — but by then, the collective attention of Maryland politics will largely have shifted to the race to succeed the once-brash former mayor of Baltimore rather than any remaining ambitions he might have for a part-time legislature that is heavily Democratic but presents a minefield of personalities to navigate.
“This really is his last chance to build on a brand identity that carries him beyond the state,” said Mike Morrill, a longtime Democratic strategist in Maryland. “What he’s doing now is polishing.”
It remains to be seen whether the polishing is merely for the Maryland history books or whether it’s the foundation for a national primary campaign in which O’Malley could position himself to the left of other possible contenders.
His past two years spent as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association has given O’Malley a national profile, allowing him to become a regular on the Sunday morning talk shows, a surrogate for President Obama and a prime-time speaker at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.
Yet in early nominating states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, O’Malley remains largely undefined compared with Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vice President Biden, two far better-known Democrats also weighing a run for the nomination.
If O’Malley moves forward with a presidential bid, “he’s got to give people a compelling reason to vote for him,” said Mo Elleithee, a Democratic consultant and veteran of national and state campaigns. “Whatever message he settles on, he’s got to be able to point to concrete things in his record to back it up.”
In recent interviews, O’Malley, who turned 50 this month and is term-limited in Maryland, has been dismissive of “the legacy stuff,” but aides say he is keenly aware that his time in office is fleeting — and that sometimes the legacies of even the most effective governors can be forgotten.
When schoolchildren visit the State House, O’Malley often brings them into a reception room where portraits of his predecessors hang.
Starting with his Republican predecessor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., and working backward, he asks for shows of hands on how many of the youths can identify the person in the portrait. By the time he gets to Harry Hughes (D), four governors ago, the game is always close to done.
O’Malley’s political career took off unexpectedly, when in 1999 he announced what was seen as a longshot bid for mayor from a drug corner in the majority-black city of Baltimore. He was at the time best known as a feisty white council member who played late nights in the city’s bars with his Celtic rock band.
During his seven years as mayor, he won a reputation as a no-nonsense, tough-on-crime politician and garnered national attention for using statistics to measure the performance of bloated city bureaucracies.
Although he made progress, O’Malley fell short of the most high-profile goal he set for himself: reducing the city’s stubbornly high murder count to no more than 175 a year.
In 2006, when O’Malley defeated Ehrlich, the state’s first Republican governor in a generation, he was embraced by Democratic lawmakers and liberal activists in Annapolis, who had four years worth of pent-up initiatives they were looking for a governor to champion.
The initiatives O’Malley will push during this 90-day session would cap a record in Annapolis that liberals have cheered but critics say better reflects O’Malley’s national ambitions than mainstream Maryland.
“I think the issues he’s chosen to focus on are far more important to a national Democratic liberal base than of primary concern to average working people in Maryland,” said Larry Hogan, a former Ehrlich Cabinet official who now leads Change Maryland, a group that bills itself as a nonpartisan grass-roots organization.
O’Malley’s legacy thus far includes the passage of same-sex marriage and its successful defense at the ballot box last year, something no state had ever done before. The same was true of the Dream Act, a measure that extends in-state college tuition rates to illegal immigrants.
It also includes an array of tax increases — including hikes in the sales tax and income tax on higher earners — that has gained O’Malley the nickname of “O’Taxey” among detractors and could serve as a liability in a national campaign.
Aides say Wednesday’s speech will include a beefier section than in previous addresses that boast his accomplishments, including record investments in K-12 education despite a string of recession-constrained budgets.
Those in the chamber can also expect to hear of his efforts to maintain smaller increases in public university tuition than any other state, of an expansion in subsidized health insurance that began well before Obama’s health-care initiative and the rebound of the blue crab population in the Chesapeake Bay.
“He’s got two months to flesh out the résumé, and then the rest is telling the story about the O’Malley years,” said a former senior staff member, who requested anonymity to more freely discuss the governor’s future.
In his speech, O’Malley is expected to acknowledge the need to raise additional revenue to fund state transportation projects, including the long-planned Purple Line in the Washington region. But aides said he will probably stop short of offering or endorsing a particular proposal, as he did last year.
What O’Malley will push reflects a combination of unfinished business and new opportunities.
Gun control was not on O’Malley’s agenda before last month’s school massacre in Connecticut. In Wednesday’s speech, he will push some of the nation’s most aggressive measures, including new strict licensing requirements.
O’Malley is among several governors who have been spurred to action, including New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D), a potential 2016 rival, who has already muscled a guns package through the New York legislature.
Repeal of the death penalty has long been an O’Malley priority, but he has not sponsored legislation to make it happen since 2009. This year, it only became clear that O’Malley would put the full weight of his office behind it again once Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., who supports capital punishment, signaled he would make some procedural accommodations for the governor.
Miller (D-Calvert), too, has bolstered prospects for passage of a bill that would provide incentives for a privately built wind farm in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Ocean City.
Miller removed a bottleneck for the bill by shifting membership on a committee that had killed the proposal twice before.
Whatever one thinks of his agenda, O’Malley would start a national race with some consensus surrounding his past efforts.
“No one will be able to say he was a wallflower as governor, that he didn’t have a record,” Elleithee said.