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Ambition City

Martin O'Malley endorses Hillary Clinton.

12:00 AM, Jul 6, 2007 • By RUSS SMITH
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AT FIRST BLUSH, Gov. Martin O'Malley's May 9 endorsement of Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination seemed impulsive. After all, the 44-year-old former mayor of Baltimore, who restored Maryland to one-party-state status last November when he ousted Republican incumbent Robert Ehrlich, presided over an unremarkable and cautious first legislative session in Annapolis earlier this year. Four years ago, O'Malley had hopped on the Howard Dean bandwagon when it was fashionable, although he was canny enough to ingratiate himself with eventual nominee John Kerry. Still, O'Malley did well enough with Kerry that he was given a speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention and it was thought he'd withhold an endorsement this time around until it was clear which candidate could best help his national political ambitions.

But as observers of O'Malley's career can attest to, there's a striking difference between the bold, sometimes reckless politician and largely passive administrator.

DESPITE the populist rhetoric that O'Malley spouted during his campaign last fall--about reversing the supposed pro-business excesses of Ehrlich's one-term administration--his accomplishments were few. He disappointed liberals by not immediately punishing corporations and wealthy individuals by raising their taxes; his effort to repeal capital punishment failed; and perhaps the most significant bill to pass was one banning smoking in bars and restaurants--hardly an original measure in 21st century America.

In addition, O'Malley is now under fire for his inability to stop a 72 percent hike in BG&E electricity rates, which took effect June 1. People who live in the greater Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area might remember one of O'Malley's television advertisements last fall which said, "The special interests already have their governor [Ehrlich]. We need one of our own. Martin O'Malley is taking on BGE to stop the rate hike." The Baltimore Examiner ran an acidic editorial on June 4, saying, "If [O'Malley] truly believed he could stop a rate hike, he is delusional. If he did not believe and spewed the lie as a campaign ploy, he is a deceiver."

Never mind that O'Malley is in a real pickle over the projected $1.5 billion budget deficit that will require him to make massive cuts in the state's bureaucracy and raise property and sales taxes. And then, to the consternation of the Baltimore Sun, his virtual mouthpiece since becoming mayor in 1999, there is the matter of O'Malley embracing his predecessor's most controversial policy initiative: the expansion of legalized gambling in Maryland (mostly in the form of slot machines).

The ambitious and charismatic O'Malley is strikingly like Bill Clinton, far more interested pressing flesh and looking ahead than actually working at his current job. So his early foray into next year's presidential contest isn't that surprising. It's certainly preferable to sparring with Democratic legislative leaders over the budget. O'Malley isn't at all close with state Senate President Mike Miller, one of the few Democrats who sided with Ehrlich in the slots controversy and who is backing John Edwards for 2008.

WHEN O'MALLEY formally endorsed Clinton in Annapolis earlier this year, joining only New Jersey's Jon Corzine as a sitting governor to back New York's junior senator, his remarks were boilerplate and more notable for the buzz they created in Maryland about a hidden desire he might harbor for being her vice presidential pick. His uninspiring words of endorsement: "We are in immediate need of a strong leader of intelligence, of insight, of toughness and understanding. Standing with me today is that leader, Hillary Rodham Clinton."

Obviously, O'Malley could have mouthed the same platitudes about Obama or Edwards; that he chose Clinton is a sign of the political calculus he's done. If Clinton survives the nastiness between her campaign and Obama's--and possibly that of Al Gore's--O'Malley, at least on paper, is a suitable match for the former first lady. It's not a matter of geography--Maryland hasn't voted for a Republican in a presidential election since Ronald Reagan's 1984 landslide--but rather the energy, youth, and positive media attention that O'Malley would bring to the ticket. And as the handsome, guitar-playing governor of a border state who has four young children and a wife who's a judge and daughter of Maryland's former attorney general, the photo-ops would satisfy any political consultant.