A Conversation with Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley

Governing caught up with the chairman of the Democratic Governors Association at last week's convention in Charlotte, N.C.
by | September 13, 2012

Governing sat down with Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., last week to discuss his two terms as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association (DGA), his party's prospects in gubernatorial races, what he's learned about governing Maryland and what he thinks of HBO's "The Wire."

Here are excerpts from that conversation.

Why do governors matter for a party?

Governors matter because, look, we are the United States. There are 50 states that make this great union, and our country only moves forward when our states are also moving forward. The leadership the Democratic governors believes this is not ideological. It's very pragmatic and it's very practical. We believe in doing the things that work in order to create jobs and expand opportunity, and we believe in doing those things right now, however tough those decisions might be.

2010 was obviously not a great year for the Democrats in general, but especially for the Democratic governors. The party has a lot fewer governors than it did before the election, and a lot fewer state legislatures as well. How much of a problem does that pose for the party, both for passing the kinds of laws you want to pass, and also from a party-building, farm-team perspective?

Maryland+Governor+Martin+O%27Malley+at+the+DNC+in+CharlotteIt makes the challenge of recovering from the Bush job losses even more challenging, in the sense that when Republican obstructionists, like the House Tea Party Republicans, decide to vote against every single jobs measure. They can slow the progress we can otherwise be making, and then cynically blame the Democrats for not making it happen faster.

On other hand, some of these Tea Party-era Republicans, as they've taken over legislatures or as they've been elected to governors' offices, have shown just what right-wing ideologues they are. I think there are a lot of voters that heard their phony promise that they would restore the economy, and then saw them govern by rolling back individual freedoms -- rolling back women's rights, rolling back workers' rights, rolling back voters' rights. Those voters are experiencing a lot of buyer's remorse two years later. They're scratching their heads, wondering how these regressive social policies or these ideological trickle-down economic policies have anything to do with creating jobs or expanding opportunity.

A pithier way of saying that is that the 2010 election, while it brought forward a more ideological Republican Party, also offered up to Democrats a pretty sharp contrast between government that works and policies that work, and old, divisive ideologies that do not work to create jobs and opportunity.

How realistic do you think it is that the Democrats could retake a majority of the governor's seats in 2014?

We're on a drive to 25 by 2014. I think we have a very realistic shot about that. The Democratic Governors Association every year has become stronger and more effective as an organization.

I think we're going to pick up seats in Congress, too, especially after these three days in Charlotte.

What have you learned that you didn't know before from chairing the DGA? What did it add to your skill set?

Given the diversity across the states, one of the new disciplines I've had to develop is to speak in language broad enough to encompass all our differences of opinion. For years and years, the DGA shied away from even having a message, for fear that we may not be able to agree on a unified one. For instance, in some states, the Second Amendment is a much bigger issue than it is in other states.

Gov. Dave Freudenthal, the former Democratic governor of Wyoming, turned to me a couple years ago during a presentation on politics and national polling. He said to me, "You might find we'd raise more money if we had a message!" So when it became my turn, I was very determined that we had a message. And it is "jobs, opportunity, now." Implicit in "now" is the courage to make the tough decisions required of leaders to move forward.

How is the polarization by party and ideology affecting governors? It seems to affect them less, but is it still having some impact on how governors operate?

It absolutely is. This current strain of libertarian, government-dismantling, Tea Party Republicans has made the task of moving forward much harder in every state. But at the same time, they have also, by their overreaching, provided a pretty stark contrast to the much more balanced approach with which President Obama is leading our country.

For example, New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch is going to be ending his service with higher poll numbers than he went in with. Part of the reason for that is John's talent and his practical approach. But part of that is also that the Tea Party Republicans that took over the Legislature showed themselves to be such rank, self-destructive, right-wing ideologues that it provided a very sharp contrast to John's leadership.

You see that in other states. You see that especially in governorships like Rick Scott's Florida. When the president wins Florida, and I believe he will win Florida, part of that will be attributable to the really poor leadership we've seen in Florida. Rick Scott is subscribing to this ideological approach of rolling back voting rights, rolling back workers' rights, rolling back women's rights.

Are there a couple Democratic governors who you would point to as rising stars, the future of the party?

Sure, look at how effective Brian Schweitzer was in his eight years in Montana. It's a tough state for Democrats, yet Steve Bullock has the ability to continue to move Montana forward because Brian Schweitzer delivered results.

In Colorado, you see a governor who used to be a mayor who speaks in a very candid, pragmatic way, and who believes that government should deliver results and be entrepreneurial and not ideological. That's John Hickenlooper, who has a background as a business owner.

Look at Pete Shumlin in Vermont. He drives the ideological Republican governors crazy at National Governors Association meetings, because he begins every statement by saying, "I approach this from a pragmatic standpoint, because I was a small business owner, and I want to do the things that work."

You look at Jay Nixon, who has led Missouri forward with courage and compassion, and who is an example for all Democratic governors to emulate, after he led his people through the tornado that damaged so many lives. So we have a lot of strong governors in our association.

Looking at the 2012 races, is there a sleeper race out there?

I would keep an eye on Indiana. John Gregg is from the southern part of Indiana. He is a person who not only understands how government works, but more importantly, he speaks very directly about coming together to accomplish results. He's running against probably the biggest ideologue in Congressman Mike Pence -- a total right-wing ideologue.

I think Hoosiers have seen the Republican Party turn on Richard Lugar, a good and decent moderate man of the party of Lincoln. I think some Hoosiers, when the election gets closer, are going to give John Gregg a very, very serious look, because he's not an ideologue. He's a practical, plainspoken, hard-working man, and he's running against one of the biggest ideologues in the Republican field.

As far as your own governorship of the state, what have you learned from your tenure so far?

If there's anything I've learned from these years as a governor is that there is no progress without jobs, and the top priority of every governor should be job creation. It's crucial to look at every decision -- every budget decision, every tax and revenue decision -- in terms of how that will impact your state's ability to create jobs and expand opportunity. Everything else we hope to accomplish depends on fuller and higher employment.

In Maryland, we have the highest median income in the country, but we have not been immune from this downturn. Unlike other states in this recession, instead of dismantling our government, we actually invested more in public education, and we were named the No. 1 public school system in America four years in a row. That never happened before, even in easier times.

Instead of increasing college tuition, we froze it for four years in a row -- not with pixie dust or a magic wand or some trickle-down fairy tale. We did it by investing more in our state colleges and universities, so more families could afford to send their children to college. We've invested more rather than less in school construction and clean water infrastructure, all the while maintaining a AAA bond rating.

We've now recovered 70 percent of the jobs we lost in the Bush recession. Steady progress. Last calendar year, our rate of job creation was ninth among the 50 states. We understand progress is a choice. Job creation is a choice, whether you move forward or whether you move back. These things are choices. That's what self-governance is all about, making better choices for our kids.

I've got to ask, what's the likelihood of a presidential run in 2016?

Thank you for asking! It's a very humbling and flattering question. I'm focused on nothing but governing my state, helping Democratic governors get reelected and helping the president get reelected in the next 60 days. I haven't really thought about what happens two years from now when my term ends. I need to do that. I honestly haven't had time to do that. Once this election is past, my wife and I will figure that out, and do it with a deliberateness and seriousness that is required of responsible public servants.

To what extent do you identify with Thomas Carcetti, the mayor in "The Wire"?

(Laughs) I'm not that guy. I mean, there are aspects of that character -- how can I say this? David Simon and I both came from Montgomery County, Md. David came to Baltimore and saw nothing but suffering and hopelessness, and made a lot of money on it. I moved from Montgomery County to Baltimore and saw the tremendous opportunity to heal and save lives. I haven't made a lot of money, but the people of Baltimore achieved the biggest reduction in part 1* crime over the last 10 years of any of the major cities in America.

David Simon has a very, very cynical view of what we're capable of accomplishing as a free people in the face of challenges like the level of drug addiction and violent crime that we had allowed ourselves to sink into in Baltimore. But I've seen the goodness in the people of Baltimore, and that's the power I've chosen to tap into.

I'm glad that I have outlived "The Wire." More importantly, I'm glad Baltimore has outlived "The Wire."

* Part 1 crimes are a category the FBI uses to denote crimes that are generally more serious and more reliably reported to the authorities.

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