O'Malley's band performing at the The Creative Alliance in Baltimore in March.
Governor O'Malley appears alongside Newt Gingrich on Meet the Press in 2012 to discuss the year's presidential race. Political analysts have named O'Malley as a potential contender for the nation's top post in 2016.
O'Malley often plays his Epiphone guitar to blow off steam during late nights at his office.
O'Malley addresses the crowd before President Barack Obama (not pictured) speaks at Ellicott Dredges, a manufacturing facility in Baltimore, in May.
First Lady Michelle Obama stands by as Maryland Senate President Mike Miller and O'Malley sign a state bill in April.
O'Malley's views quality educationâ€”one of his primary concernsâ€”as a bipartisan effort.
Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley stands outside the State House in Annapolis.
O'Malley speaks to advocates for stricter gun control laws this past March.
by john briley | August 5, 2013 | People
Looking hale and polished, Martin O’Malley—Bethesda native, second-term governor of Maryland, former mayor of Baltimore, and suspected White House aspirant—glides into a reception hall at the Maryland State House with the ease and demeanor befitting a politician much older than his 50 years. Dressed in a power suit and steel-blue tie, he stands surrounded by numerous cameras and towering, hot lights that pepper the space; staff handlers, a photographer, and crew hover nearby, fidgeting while waiting to capture the governor’s image for posterity. The room’s collective agita is enough to make the most unflappable politico break into a flop sweat, but this is a man who shows neither annoyance nor fear. With an increasingly national profile, he has surely faced tougher days.
Unfazed by his critics—many of them loud and incontrovertibly partisan—O’Malley eagerly and regularly defends his nearly seven-year run as the Free State’s chief executive, a time in which he has become renowned as an irrefutably liberal and distinctly successful man of the people. And, still rare for a politician, he remains unafraid of transparency and risk-taking—and the sometimes-difficult dialogue that bubbles up from both.
Relaxing on a couch inside his Annapolis office, O’Malley hands over a sheet of paper listing 16 goals, from boosting job growth and improving education to restoring the Chesapeake Bay and lowering infant mortality, each with progress to date. His administration maintains this “dashboard” online via the state’s website and also calls prominent attention to its set of selfimposed deadlines. This information is the core of his data-driven StateStat program, an evolution of the CitiStat initiative he pioneered as Baltimore mayor. “[The information age] has called forward a different type of leadership,” he explains. “Voters have demanded a shift away [from] the style of leadership that our parents accepted—bureaucratic, ideological, hierarchical—to one that is more interactive, collaborative, and open, and makes intelligent use of big data.” The administration’s report card for meeting its 16 goals shows mostly gold stars, suggesting one of three things: startlingly effective leadership, less-than-ambitious goal setting or, as some critics have charged, bait-and-switch interpretation of data.
A May 13 piece for the National Review Online by Red Maryland blogger Mark Newgent and public policy consultant Jim Pettit called StateStat “a data dump” that amounts to “a pile of meaningless statistics… from employee sick leave to the number of jobs the government takes credit for creating.” Newgent and Pettit argue that O’Malley has used reams of numbers to distract voters from problems, detailed in legislative audits, ranging from a lack of accountability for the state’s speed-camera vendors and procurement violations at the State Highway Administration to failure of the education department to conduct background checks for child-care workers.
But to the governor, his method of using and showing numbers is a consistent way to hold himself and his staff accountable. In fact, O’Malley invites voters across the state to judge him on his promise-to-fulfillment ratio, and sees sharing the specifics as the cleanest method of staying connected with voters, who vary in occupation from alpaca farmers in Garrett County and brew-pub owners in Frederick to Baltimore teachers, suburban DC federal employees, and summer tourism workers in Ocean City. O’Malley revels in one-on-one interaction with voters, and says it is one thing he misses about his days as Baltimore mayor. When running a city, the governor explains, “the voters are more direct, and there are more opportunities to talk with them in small settings.”
The Data Manager
O’Malley has been known for his love of data-driven policy since his 1999 to 2007 tenure as mayor of Baltimore. He used it as the basis for his assault on the port city’s rampant drug trafficking and related gun violence, an approach that was widely viewed as successful—it is still in use in Baltimore today. To him the achievements that matter most are the ones citizens notice in their everyday lives, and O’Malley concedes that he has had to master a more nuanced style of leadership—and a higher plane of patience—in pursuit of statewide goals as governor. “As a mayor, there are either two guys selling drugs on the corner where there used to be 20, or there are 20 guys where there used to be two. Either the trash gets picked up from the street or it doesn’t,” he says. “It is very apparent what’s working and what isn’t.”
Advancing objectives across an entire state, particularly one as varied and diverse as Maryland, requires more reliance on partnerships and a longer “chain of delivery,” O’Malley says. “For example, improving test scores [of] third and fourth graders across the state. There are a lot of players involved in making that happen.”
By many measures O’Malley has found a successful formula for building the foundation of what he repeatedly calls Maryland’s “innovation economy”: the state has boasted the top-performing public schools in the US for five years running, per Education Week rankings; has recovered 91 percent of the jobs lost during what he calls the “Bush recession”; and was ranked this year by the US Chamber of Commerce as the top state in the country for innovation and entrepreneurship, and among the top 10 states for economic performance.
Parris Glendening, a longtime Maryland Democratic Party leader who served as Maryland governor from 1995 to 2003 and is now president of Smart Growth America’s Leadership Institute, says O’Malley has achieved “a pragmatic balance between taxes and controlling expenses, and has continued to invest in the future.” O’Malley’s increased funding to universities, Glendening says, has made higher education more affordable in Maryland—a significant but little heralded accomplishment. Glendening lauds O’Malley as “a very effective leader... whether or not you agree with some of the things he’s done,” adding that O’Malley’s record makes him a legitimate contender to become president in the near future—he makes almost every short list of prospective 2016 candidates. But, Glendening predicts, the governor would not seek the nomination if former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton decides to run. “That’s political reality,” he says.
O’Malley’s comfort addressing crowds and delivering his lines date to his childhood, when he appeared in theatrical skits at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School in Bethesda. As a teenager and student at Gonzaga High School, he played solo guitar and sang in venues around the DC area and later launched the Celtic rock band O’Malley’s March, which still performs, albeit on a much diminished schedule. Live performance is all about preparation, passion, and willingness to weather judgment, which might explain O’Malley’s ease in planting his articulate flags in the public sand.
When he first did so as Baltimore mayor with his crime-reduction plan, “it was considered political suicide,” he recalls. “People said, ‘Are you crazy? What happens when you miss?’” Later, when he did in fact miss, “They said, ‘Aha! You didn’t reduce crime by 50 percent like you said!’ Well, OK, but we did get it down by 35 percent. And we had it out there, as a goal, so people knew where we stood.” Putting Maryland’s dashboard of goals and progress online, he asserts, forces state agencies to face what he calls “the imperative of results. We can look at each program and say, ‘Does it work?’”
The state’s recent successes in education and jobs, O’Malley believes, all feed upstream to a broader goal of growing the state as an incubator of innovation. To that end, he launched Startup Maryland, part of the Startup America Partnership, in March 2012 to help entrepreneurial ventures access capital, training, education, and relationships for new companies to have a fighting chance to succeed—and meet the baseline requirement of every recession-weary governor: to create more jobs. While O’Malley continues to push for state-centric victories in that quest—Prince George’s County is a rumored frontrunner for the location of a new FBI headquarters—he also sees Maryland’s future in a regional context, unconstrained by state borders.
The Virginia-DC-Maryland corridor, he says, “is a hotbed of science, technology, and innovation… and while there always is a level of competition [across state lines], the economic future is best understood in a regional way.” Pursuing that future in concert with leaders of Virginia and DC, O’Malley says, “would make for a very, very strong megaregion.”
Reaching Across the Aisle
Doing that, of course, necessitates bipartisanship in a geographic area defined by Red State–Blue State rivalry, not to mention differing priorities. And while many critics paint O’Malley as a classic tax-and-spend liberal, he makes no apologies for his agenda. On his steps to expand tolerance in Maryland for the LGBT community, immigrants, and other historically excluded populations, he says, “A society that cherishes diversity and views it as a strength is best for innovation,” he says. “The opposite is bad for the creative class.”
To support his point O’Malley summons more statistics: Maryland clocked the fourth-best job growth in the country in the first quarter of 2013. And according to the most recently available Census Bureau data, the state boasts the highest median income in the country ($70,004) and the second-lowest share of residents (10.1 percent) living below the poverty line. A focus on quality education for all, he adds, should be a bipartisan effort—one that can move the state forward.
“When we improve schools, we do it across the state, not just in one or two counties,” the governor says, while also noting that three-quarters of funding for county school systems comes from state coffers. “It’s the same with driving crime down to 30-year lows, making college more affordable, and cleaning up the environment. For me the question isn’t whether we move left or right, it’s whether we move forward or slip back.”
Some with opposing views believe the state’s most pressing problems move toward resolutions when both sides compromise—and that progress can’t be achieved when the governor stands so steadfastly by his convictions. Maryland Republican and Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin, who has served in the state’s senate since 2003, says O’Malley makes no effort to reach across the aisle. “It’s either his way or the highway—or, really, his way or mass transit, since he isn’t a highway guy,” Pipkin charges. He adds that O’Malley “has been driving a very far-left agenda, raising taxes and fees 37 times and raising taxes every year he’s been in office.” Pipkin points to some of O’Malley’s signature initiatives—gun control, deathpenalty repeal, and wind-farm subsidies—as evidence that he is “not a consensus governor. It’s like watching a presidential focus group and this guy is in the far-left box.”
When O’Malley calls Maryland “America in miniature” it certainly feels like he is test-driving presidential campaign rhetoric. Asked if he is ready to show his cards about a possible 2016 White House run, the governor flashes the broadest smile I will see during our interview, before stating in vague terms that all options are on the table.
But, for whoever may become the next commander in chief, he has a ready list of priorities and directives, the first of which is to strengthen the middle class through job creation. “What sort of better choices must we make to grow the middle class?” he muses. “We have created a barbell economy—heavy on both ends and hollow in the middle. People are very anxious about that.”
As he stands up to head out for an afternoon meeting, O’Malley wraps up our chat with casual banter about his Catholic schooling and longtime connections to DC, including time spent earning a bachelor’s degree at The Catholic University of America in the District. The experience, he adds in summation, still informs his life heavily today: “The dignity of every individual, the value of helping the less fortunate, the notion that everyone deserves a chance,” he says. “All of these things fuel my service.”
Where that service will end, at least for now, remains anyone’s guess.
Photography by jeff gale; getty images (gingrich, gun control, rally); jay l. baker (band)
August 29, 2018