Martin O’Malley’s bumbling at home isn’t going to help his national image.
The well-traveled governor is spending less and less time on Maryland affairs, and it shows. His lack of enthusiasm for aggressively pushing his policy objectives — and making sure he wins — is quite startling.
O’Malley has been delegating to legislators the hard but crucial job of hammering out tough compromises, thereby relinquishing a key element of gubernatorial power and influence.
In the latest episode — gambling expansion — O’Malley was outmaneuvered by House Speaker Mike Busch, who slyly undercut attempts to broker an agreement.
While O’Malley and his staff may feel that the speaker misled them — and Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker says the speaker “lied to” him — Busch’s strategy worked.
He capitalized on O’Malley’s oft-expressed disinterest toward gambling matters, his growing absences from Maryland and his failure to apply political pressure to win over delegates on the gambling work group.
That made it easy for the speaker to block, for now, chances of a special session aimed at increasing the state’s gambling revenue by hundreds of millions of dollars.
O’Malley removed himself as the central player in these discussions, effectively giving the anti-gambling speaker all the leverage he needed to control events.
From the start O’Malley was a half-hearted participant in gambling debates. But once his staff realized how revenue from a sixth casino and table games could be raised to help balance next year’s budget, the governor agreed to roll the dice.
Until then, Senate President Mike Miller had been the only clear, consistent top leader promoting gambling expansion to help stave off future budget cuts or more tax hikes.
O’Malley believed — wrongly, as it turned out — that reaching a general agreement with Miller and Busch would lead to swift approval of a gambling bill. He was half-right: Miller is a consummate power broker who knows how to control a strong majority in the Senate.
Busch, though, doesn’t have as firm a grip on the House. He also never intended to work strenuously on behalf of gambling legislation.
Several times, the speaker sent a message to O’Malley via reporters that if the governor wanted gambling expansion, O’Malley would have to line up the necessary House votes himself.
Apparently, the governor wasn’t listening or his attention was distracted by all those campaign trips on behalf of President Obama.
The result was another embarrassment for O’Malley when delegates on the gambling work group turned hostile at the last minute.
Now the governor is trying to salvage the work group’s proposal, canvassing delegates for support. He knows he won’t get much help from Busch.
In this ongoing saga, O’Malley has looked weak and ineffective, much as he did in the closing days of the General Assembly session when he failed to intervene effectively to prevent a meltdown in House-Senate budget negotiations.
Compounding matters is the state’s tenuous economy and fourth straight month of job losses — one of the worst records in the country. O’Malley can preach about being a pro-jobs governor, but recent results don’t back up that claim.
None of this aids the Marylander’s efforts to sell himself to Democrats across the country as a future presidential contender.
Republicans already view him as an ideal Democratic target in 2016.
Earlier this month, Karl Rove, a top GOP strategist, told Maryland Republicans that O’Malley would be a perfect presidential opponent because he represents the worst excesses of Democrats.
“I love the fact that the man is talking about running for president … We would be blessed as a party,” Rove said at the annual state Republican dinner.
“Let him go out there and say, ‘Let’s tax everybody more; let’s spend everything we got; we are really concerned about the state and local government employees…’ ”
Rove then added, with heavy sarcasm, “Even in the Democratic primary they aren’t that dumb.”
Such political hyperbole brings heavy applause from a Republican crowd, but how will O’Malley respond?
He can’t point to a progressive gaming policy that brings thousands of well-paying jobs to Maryland. Indeed, he’s now fending off growing charges that his policies are responsible for Maryland’s anti-business reputation.
Compounding the governor’s situation is that next year he may have to ask legislators for more tax increases to close what could be a $500 billion budget gap. A bump in the state’s gasoline tax is a distinct possibility, too.
Meanwhile, two ballot questions in November could prove deeply embarrassing if O’Malley can’t persuade voters to support gay marriage and tuition breaks for children of illegal immigrants.
Clearly, the governor has lots of unfinished business to attend to in his home state — even as he increases his out-of-state appearances to boost the president’s chances in November.
Failure to focus sufficiently on local Maryland matters could leave O’Malley with an image so tarnished that his national ambitions become more of a pipe dream than a realistic possibility.
Barry Rascovar is a political columnist and a communications consultant. He can be reached at email@example.com.