By KATE PRAHLAD, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - He trekked through kitchens and parking lots, climbed rooftops and even trotted out to a horse farm.
Over the past two weeks, Gov. Martin O'Malley crisscrossed the state with rolled-up shirtsleeves and posterboard presentations, pitching his plan to fix a $1.7 billion budget shortfall.
He dropped crumbs to the public over six days, an "incremental" strategy that allowed him to keep his whole hand hidden until ready, said Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University.
"I think he handled this very shrewdly, but I don't know that he's fooling anybody," Crenson said. "It's an enormous tax increase and he transformed it into a different kind of issue, one about tax fairness."
He said O'Malley's strategy prevented opponents from coalescing against his plan, and providing only vague details allowed the administration to plumb reactions and shape as-yet-unformed parts of the proposals.
The move was good PR, said Allan Lichtman, an American University history professor. "To take the sting out of taxes, it was a good way of doing it."
But while the presentations reassured ordinary citizens that the plan would hit only special interests and the very rich, Lichtman said they concealed the most controversial aspects of the package.
That was never the intention, said Patrick Gonzales, president of Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies.
"People are going to understand the major components like tax increases and slots," he said. "In this day and age, politicians don't go around on those kind of issues thinking they're going to fool anyone."
Lobbyist Carolyn Burridge Bonnett said her clients thought O'Malley's roll-out was like "being pecked to death by ducks." But if his goal was to avoid a headline screaming "tax increase," she said, he's done a good job.
A spokesman for the governor said the reasoning behind the 10-day campaign was that O'Malley wanted Marylanders to hear about each of the individual components, and not have one aspect dominate.
"Had we rolled them out all together, the coverage would have centered largely around the slots proposal to preserve horse racing jobs in Maryland," Rick Abbruzzese said.
At the horse farm Tuesday, O'Malley was flanked by veterinarians, breeders, owners and trainers as he unveiled his slots plan. He sat at middle-class families' kitchen tables for income and sales tax proposals, and surrounded himself with senior citizens concerned about health coverage as he talked about a cigarette tax increase.
"He's giving the impression that he's arriving at this package of tax increases and expenditures in consultation with constituents," Crenson said. "That it's not a closed process."
Crenson noted that O'Malley's strategy was very similar to former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner's 2004 push for his tax plan, tactics that may garner O'Malley an attentive audience outside the state.
"Warner was later regarded as presidential material," he said, "which is exactly the way the governor (O'Malley) would like to be regarded."
But O'Malley must appear more middle-of-the-road if he does have national aspirations, said Richard Vatz, a political communication professor at Towson University.
"He cannot be perceived as crossing the line between over-taxing and plundering," Vatz said. "I don't think he'll reach that point, but if it ever seems that he is plundering people in Maryland who make more than average, he really hurts himself politically."
Overall, experts agree O'Malley handled a difficult—and essential—part of the job gracefully. But they worry the public may have difficulty catching up.
Phyllis Brotman, president of Image Dynamics Inc., called his move "courageous," but doubts the public has added up the total impact.
"It's a quixotic operation," said George Wills, chairman of Wills & Associates, a public relations and communications firm in Bethesda. "Now it's a question of getting under the veneer."
The governor's been "hither and yon," Wills said. "I don't think people are absorbing the total impact."
Skepticism from business firms, wealthy Marylanders and Republicans has surfaced, Crenson said, but it's "failed to rouse mass opposition yet."
"O'Malley is a very politically smart, persuasive politician," Lichtman said. "And he wants to rush into a special session, so there might not be much of a second look."