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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

With Eye on White House, O'Malley Shifts Tactics

The Washington Post is reporting that Governor Martin O'Malley is considering whether to sponsor legislation in the 2012 Legislative Session that would legalize same-sex marriage in Maryland. O'Malley was largely silent on the issue when it was considered, and defeated, during the 2011 session.

The defeat of same-sex marriage in Maryland was viewed as a major defeat for an issue that has recently earned the support of a majority of Americans, but remains deeply unpopular among many influential groups - including African-American religious leaders, the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, and multiple conservative Christian organizations.

The movement was revitalized, however, when the New York Assembly approved a measure legalizing same-sex marriage in the Empire State. New York became only the sixth, but the largest, state to legalize same-sex marriage. That same-sex marriage was legalized in New York and not Maryland is made even more interesting given that the New York State Senate is controlled by Republicans. Maryland's State Senate is home to 35 Democrats and only 12 Republicans - Republicans lack even sufficient numbers to filibuster legislation - same sex marriage narrowly passed in the Maryland Senate in 2011. Maryland's House of delegates is home to 98 Democrats and 43 Republicans - same-sex marriage died in the House of Delegates after an intense effort by African-American religious leaders and state Catholic leaders convinced several sponsors of the legislation to withdraw their support.

Nearly every analyst agrees that the crucial player in New York was the state's governor Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo, a Democrat, is in his first term and has not shied away from wading into some of the most difficult positions facing his state.  Cuomo fought vigorously both publicly and behind the scenes to ensure passage of the bill. Upon taking office he made legalization of same-sex unions a priority.

Like Maryland (and most other states), New York is facing tremendous budget troubles - in New York, like Maryland (and most other states) a significant portion of the budget woes stem from obligations to public employee health and pension plans. Cuomo negotiated a deal with state labor leaders that should save nearly $1.6 billion over 5 years via a three year wage freeze raise, the retirement age for most state workers was raised from 62 to 65 and from 57 to 65 for teachers. Additionally, workers’ contributions to their pensions are to increase from 3 percent to 6 percent of their salaries. And Cuomo won those concessions via amicable negotiations with union leaders.

All of this success has raised Cuomo's profile. Not only are folks viewing him as a leading contender for the 2016 Democratic nomination there have been recent whispers that he may replace Joe Biden as President Obama's running mate in 2012.

For O'Malley, Cuomo's success is anything but a cause for celebration. O'Malley has been using his current position as Chair of the Democratic Governor's Association to raise his own profile. He has picked fights with prominent Republicans like Chris Christie in New Jersey and Scott Walker in Wisconsin and he frequently wades into the national debate - especially with regard to the nation's debt.

O'Malley's intentions are clear - he wants to be the Democratic nominee for president in 2016. Unfortunate to his plans, he is being upstaged by a younger, more dynamic, and far more aggressive Democratic governor - Andrew Cuomo. O'Malley's tenure as governor has been marked by a play it safe, take no chances approach to governing. One of O'Malley's first tests as governor was whether Maryland would allow slot machine gambling in the state - rather than propose legislation legalizing slots O'Malley proposed legislation calling for a voter referendum on the issue. When faced with a $1.4 billion budget shortfall during the 2011 legislative session O'Malley presented a budget with no tax increases, but said he would consider increases proposed by the assembly. O'Malley is not a risk taker - he's a caretaker. When public employees took to Annapolis streets to protest the rather modest changes he proposed to their health and pension system O'Malley joined the protest... he protested his own proposal to avoid alienating a key constituency.

I have argued on this blog that O'Malley has been an effective caretaker of the state's budget, but even there, O'Malley is more focused on balancing the books each year than he is with finding long term solutions. Such solutions would carry greater political risk and likely be tied to a grander vision for the state's future. Even when O'Malley has tried to express a vision, it's often little more than boilerplate slogans lacking in specifics. The problem for O'Malley is that voters tend not to respond to politicians that play it safe and govern with no real vision. There is little to inspire loyalty or to stir passions. Running for president requires the passionate commitment of supporters willing to give money, participate in caucuses and primaries, make phone calls, and knock on doors. Becoming governor of Maryland or Mayor of Baltimore simply requires being the candidate with a (D) after your name.

Governor O'Malley enjoys a House of Delegates that is 2 to 1 Democrat and a Senate that is 3 to 1 Democrat - yet he has struggled to have any of his modest agenda enacted. His proposal for the development of offshore wind power was rejected, his proposal for tax credits to bring investors to Maryland was dramatically scaled back. Maryland is home to one of the most powerful governors (on paper) in the nation and O'Malley won re-election in 2010 by a 14.5 point margin - yet he appears to have little influence over a General Assembly dominated by members of his own party. If he were President, he would likely face a Congress either partially or fully controlled by an opposition party.

Cuomo has worked successfully with a divided legislature and has been willing to challenge key members of his constituency. He bargained and exerted his influence on members of both parties to ensure passage of the bills that he supports. Cuomo is a risk taker.

O'Malley and his advisors have seen the future of the Democratic Party and that future looks like Andrew Cuomo - not Martin O'Malley. The O'Malley camp is now attempting to retool the Governor's image. For O'Malley the stakes are high. O'Malley must vacate the governor's mansion in January of 2015 and one assumes that he will transition immediately into full-time presidential candidate. But O'Malley will be coming off of a lame-duck term as governor and worries that his record may compare poorly to that of Cuomo who is likely to be in the midst of his second term as governor in a state with no term limits and therefor no lame-ducks.

Expect to see a more active O'Malley in the coming years - same-sex marriage will be one of many issues that he is likely to pursue more vigorously. Unfortunately for O'Malley his 2 most influential years were the years immediately following his election and subsequent re-election. If the General Assembly felt comfortable ignoring him after a 14.5 percentage point landslide, why would they start to listen to him now?

I support marriage equality, but it's quite unlikely that the Maryland General Assembly will consider, or pass, same-sex legislation in the foreseeable future - owing to the successful petition drive that has at least temporarily halted legislation enacted in 2011 that would grant in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants. Opponents of the measure gathered over 110,000 signatures (more than twice the number required) on a petition to have the measure placed on the ballot in 2012 and either approved or rejected by the voters - the first time in 20 years that such an effort has succeeded.

The success of that ballot initiative (regardless of the outcome in 2012) will serve as a warning to members of the Assembly as they consider same-sex marriage. A similar petition and ballot initiative would likely result in the question of same-sex marriage being put on the ballot in 2014 (though it's possible it would be on the 2012 ballot, state Republicans would likely use whatever means available to defer the issue until the 2014 election) - when Marylanders will elect a Governor, an Attorney General, and every member of the General Assembly. Members of the Assembly will not want to face election or re-election in a year that would see tremendous turn-out by conservative and religious voters determined to defeat same-sex marriage. O'Malley's support of the legislation is likely to have little impact, but had he taken the risk and thrown his support behind the measure in 2011 it may have made the difference.