“Get me that stat,” O’Malley whispers to Christian Johansson, the state secretary of business and economic development. Dan Mote, president of the University of Maryland, is rattling off statistics about the state’s prominence in the biotechnology industry as he introduces the governor at a State of Tech in the I-270 Corridor conference in June. For each fact and figure Mote utters, the governor leans over to Johansson: “Get me that stat.”
O’Malley occasionally sprinkles a verse from Irish poet Seamus Heaney into his speeches and tells a reporter he could go on reciting poetry for hours. He spends time every morning reading spiritual passages by Catholic authors and scholars such as Thomas Merton and John O’Donohue or poet Meister Eckhart “just to get going and get centered.”
But O’Malley is also inspired by numbers. His campaign speeches spill over with facts and figures that he believes add up to solid stewardship of the state: 40,000 new jobs this year . . . 24 percent lower unemployment than the national rate . . . 53 percent more in money for school construction than his predecessor . . . 60-percent increase in the blue-crab population.
When he was mayor of Baltimore, his database-management tool, CitiStat, which measured government performance, became a hallmark of his crime-fighting and budget-cutting efforts and won Harvard’s Innovations in American Government Award in 2004. As governor, he adapted the program into StateStat, and, to measure efforts related to the environment, BayStat. Last year, he was named one of Governing magazine’s public officials of the year.
But aides say he can be so much in the weeds of governing that he risks missing the connections with voters. The mayor who wore muscle shirts while playing guitar with his Celtic-rock band, O’Malley’s March—and was once tagged as being cocky and all flash and ambition—has become a more subdued governor, very disciplined and scripted and so guarded that he won’t begin an interview until a press aide is in the room.
“He’s smart enough, but nobody would mistake him for warm and fuzzy and personable,” says one Democratic elected official. “You can sit down for a long dinner with him and you don’t feel you know him any better at the end than when you sat down.”
Mixing with voters, O’Malley has the Clintonian gift of remembering names, faces, and relationships, say those who’ve watched his career, but not Bill Clinton’s charisma.
“O’Malley, for many people, is a difficult guy to love,” says Donald Norris of UMBC, “and many in the electorate just don’t get him personally. But Maryland voters tend to vote on policy preference and performance, and he’s going to campaign like hell.”
In fact, there’s a doggedness to O’Malley that has served him well as a candidate and a politician. Legislators say the governor pursues his agenda with such zeal that he once enlisted famed Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel to call a state senator on his behalf in his unsuccessful attempt to repeal the state death penalty.
And admirers say there’s a warmth and compassion to O’Malley that people don’t always see or that may have been more evident when he was mayor and closer to the streets. When 24-year-old state trooper Wesley Brown was gunned down outside an Applebee’s in Prince George’s County in June, O’Malley cut short an out-of-town trip and showed up at Brown’s mother’s home. He promised her he’d talk to the group of at-risk boys the trooper had mentored, the single request she made. One month later, the governor gave the boys a tour of his office, letting them take turns sitting in his chair, showing them photos of him with President Obama, and telling them to look after one another: “Don’t be afraid of the light that shines in you.”
O’Malley’s term has largely been shaped by economic pressures. With a friendly Democratic state legislature, he steered through a one-cent sales-tax increase in a 2007 special legislative session as well as higher income taxes on those making more than $1 million a year and on corporations.
“Was it popular?” he says. “No, it wasn’t popular. But it was necessary in order to move our state forward and protect as great a number of us as we possibly could through this recession.”
In that same session, he won approval for slot machines as a source of revenue, which Ehrlich had tried but failed to do, though no gambling operations have yet been set in place. The issue has reemerged this year: A referendum on a proposed casino for Arundel Mills Mall, which Ehrlich favors and O’Malley opposes, will be put to voters in Anne Arundel County in November.
Ehrlich’s administration was marked by frequent clashes with the heavily Democratic legislature. He failed to get a slots bill passed as O’Malley did, and high-profile medical-malpractice and energy bills were both enacted after the General Assembly overrode Ehrlich’s vetoes.
As a candidate again, Ehrlich has pledged to repeal the O’Malley sales-tax increase and make the state more welcoming to small businesses.
He started his campaign with visits to struggling small businesses around the state—visits that, fortuitously for him, came on the heels of Northrop Grumman’s selection of Virginia over Maryland for its new headquarters. At each stop, Ehrlich listened to complaints about taxes as well as heavy-handed business regulators and problems with unemployment insurance.
“We are in the process of closing the business and moving to Virginia,” Lucia Nazarian of Auto City Body Shop tells Ehrlich at a roundtable of businesswomen in Bethesda.
“Can you wait till November?” he responds. “I hear it daily—you better win or I’m gonna move.”
Ehrlich and his wife have attended several Tea Party rallies in Maryland, and he says the movement’s “pro-wealth, small-business-centric” ideals are a good fit with him. The Tea Party, however, is a likely source of momentum for Brian Murphy, who lumps O’Malley and Ehrlich together as career politicians who tax and spend too heavily.
O’Malley, for his part, has been highlighting growth—new school construction one day, an expanding business the next. Spending a day in Silver Spring in June, he toured Discovery Communications, which hired more than 500 people in the last two years; then he had lunch with community leaders at McGinty’s Pub, where he heralded Silver Spring’s redevelopment around the Metro’s Red Line. Noting that Ehrlich opposes the Purple Line as a light-rail project while he favors it, he told his lunchmates, “There’s a real clear difference between a vision for transportation that appreciates where mass transit is, especially in a state as crowded as ours, and the one the last fella had—if you want to call that a vision.”
Their political division is clear. But it’s not a big culture war. Ehrlich generally favors abortion rights—a position that left an opening for Murphy’s more conservative views—and social issues have played a minimal role in the campaign so far. They part company over fiscal matters and, more fundamentally, the role of government. O’Malley sees his office as a way of “connecting Maryland’s journey to its resources, creativity, and dreams,” as he said in this year’s State of the State speech. Ehrlich sees himself as a restraint—a call of “enough”—on a system that, he says, tends to grow in a limitless way.
“They see things very differently,” says Herb Smith, a political-science professor at McDaniel College and an O’Malley appointee to the Sport Fisheries Advisory Commission. “And they’re both pretty authentic and genuine in terms of their relationship to those two worlds.”