By KELLY WILSON, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS (Feb. 10, 2008) - Martin O'Malley came into the Maryland governor's office with a growing national profile and began his term with a successful legislative session that included passage of the nation's first living wage law.
He made immediate bipartisan efforts, inviting legislators from both parties to meet over meals. The former Baltimore mayor, who spoke at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, was being talked about as a potential player on the national scene.
But by the end of 2007, the honeymoon had ended. O'Malley signed tax increases to deal with a $1.7 billion budget deficit and found himself coping with Maryland's share of the national economic downturn.
Now, O'Malley is looking to pull together some more victories while navigating problems such as the state's mortgage crisis. He has put particular emphasis on public safety and other issues with bipartisan appeal.
O'Malley would gain one significant victory should Tuesday's Maryland Democratic primary go to New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, whom O'Malley endorsed in May.
Such a win might restore some of his political capital and could help him in the future if rumors of national political ambitions are true.
"The challenge to him is to demonstrate to people that he is managing the state well and managing money well," said Laslo Boyd, a partner in Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies. O'Malley is already headed in the right direction by showing concern for the environment and keeping in-state tuition rates down, Boyd said.
The governor's poll numbers sank recently because of the tax measures passed during a November special session to close the budget gap. Before the session began, O'Malley's approval rating was 46 percent, according to Boyd's polling firm.
Afterward, they were at 39 percent.
O'Malley is not the first Maryland governor to struggle with low approval ratings in his first term, Boyd said. He used former Gov. Parris Glendening as an example of one who fell far in the polls only to recover for a second term.
After an appearance in Hanover Wednesday, O'Malley said his priorities for the state include public safety, protecting the environment and helping victims of the foreclosure crisis, long-term problems that cannot be solved overnight.
"These are tough challenges that are facing the whole country and I haven't met the governor who has solved any of them yet," O'Malley said.
Early last year, O'Malley was in the "honeymoon" phase of his term, said Senate Minority Leader David Brinkley, R-Frederick. Many approved of O'Malley's bipartisan efforts in those days, when Brinkley said he was among legislators who met with the governor over breakfast.
"My personal exchanges with him have been very good and I applaud him for that," Brinkley said. "But when it gets to substantive matters of politics, we're still looking for some of that common ground."
Although Brinkley agrees with O'Malley on some public safety issues, such as the governor's plan to collect DNA samples from everyone arrested in Maryland, the minority leader and other Republicans have had trouble stomaching the unpopular tax hikes.
The trouble O'Malley has faced in the first year is nothing surprising, said Larry Harris, a principal with the non-partisan Mason-Dixon Research and Polling. The national economy and foreclosure crisis have meant problems for states and governors across the country, he said.
O'Malley also lacks sway over some long-standing legislators, he said. His recent decision to work with State Superintendent of Schools Nancy Grasmick rather than pursue past efforts to terminate her contract brings up questions of his judgment and political strength, Harris said.
One gauge of that strength could be how Clinton does in Tuesday's Democratic primary against Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois. Political observers see Maryland as a strong state for Obama, in part because of its sizeable African-American population.
Highlighting the difficulty of even that goal, state officials including Comptroller Peter Franchot gathered in Annapolis Wednesday in support of Obama's candidacy.
O'Malley and the Clintons have had a relationship for years, with former President Clinton appearing in a campaign commercial when O'Malley ran for governor. O'Malley has credited President Clinton with helping to support the city's police force, drug programs and other projects.
O'Malley said he is excited about the important role Maryland primary voters will have in the process after Super Tuesday failed to give any candidate the decisive advantage many had expected.
He and Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown will be working to help Clinton's Maryland campaign in preparation for "Chesapeake Tuesday," which also includes elections in Virginia and the District of Columbia.
O'Malley said he is happy as governor and is not looking for another job, even as vice president.
"I have one national ambition and that is to elect Hillary Clinton president of the United States," he said.
He added that his focus is on Maryland.
"I want to do this job to the very best of my ability and I want to be able to look over my shoulder when I'm done here and be able to say that I made a difference when I had the opportunity," O'Malley said.
Analysts agree that O'Malley is not yet in a position to consider a national campaign.
He is essentially a good vice presidential candidate but the Democrats do not need any help to win the governor's state, said Richard Vatz of Towson State University. O'Malley also would not be a great help in creating a moderate ticket to appeal to more right-leaning voters during the general election.
Plus, Maryland's not up for grabs in November, Vatz said: "He's a very attractive guy physically, but the Democrats couldn't lose Maryland if they begged people to vote against them."