If Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley decides to run for president in 2016, his high-profile, progressive résumé will put him in strong position to run as the liberal standard-bearer in a Democratic primary.
His list of base-pleasing accomplishments in Maryland is long. O’Malley was one of the first governors to legalize gay marriage in his home state, taking the lead on the issue well before Hillary Rodham Clinton. He successfully pushed to end the death penalty, and is now open to legalizing medical marijuana. Even on immigration, a federal issue, O’Malley threw his weight behind a state equivalent of the Dream Act, allowing undocumented immigrants access to in-state tuition for universities.
All of this adds up to a candidate who could make a play to win over party activists in a Democratic primary, much the same way that little-known Vermont Gov. Howard Dean emerged from anonymity in 2004.
O’Malley’s headline-grabbing legislative moves have political implications should he run in 2016. As chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, he was frequently in the spotlight as he stumped for President Obama. O’Malley established a federal PAC before Election Day and it's been active ever since—it even raised money off of his gay-marriage referendum victory.
“Once the campaign actually engages, in addition to raising as much money as humanly possible right now, a lot of prospective candidates try to get right on the various issues that might motivate constituencies in the nominating process,” said Phil Singer, a Democratic consultant and former spokesman for Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.
Securing constitutional recognition of gay marriage is the hallmark of O’Malley’s list of accomplishments. Gay-rights advocates pushed for a same-sex marriage measure in Maryland’s 2011 legislative session. While O’Malley pledged he'd sign the bill, his support was limited to behind-the-scenes advocacy. It eventually failed in early 2011.
Then New York legalized gay marriage in the summer of 2011, and gay-rights advocates pushed O’Malley to take on a more public role in the fight. He made gay marriage a legislative priority and promised to make it one of the few pieces of legislation he’d sponsor. A gay-marriage law barely passed through a tough regular legislative session that otherwise saw major legislative failures for O’Malley. Gay-marriage opponents secured a voter referendum on the law, and the measure narrowly passed in November, 52 to 48 percent. But it was a huge triumph for O’Malley nonetheless, who had risked much to see it through.
Election Day also brought other victories for O’Malley; he had campaigned to defend a 2011 state Dream Act that had gone to referendum in 2012. It passed, 59 to 41 percent, making Maryland the first state with a voter-approved law allowing for undocumented immigrants to qualify for in-state tuition and student aid.
After the Newtown, Conn., shootings, he supported one of the country’s most ambitious gun-control packages this year. He’s not new to the issue—he’s touted his data-driven and tough-on-crime chops from his days as mayor of Baltimore—and he’s long pushed for an assault-weapons ban.
The gun-control package made it through the state legislature mostly intact, and included limiting the capacity on magazines, requiring fingerprints to get a gun license, and further restricting gun ownership for those with mental illnesses.
O’Malley also threw the weight of his office behind repealing the death penalty, even as most Marylanders are pro-death penalty; 60 percent support it, according to a Washington Post poll. The repeal, which was approved last week, could be challenged in a voter referendum, but it’s unclear whether state Republicans want to wage that fight.
Next up: marijuana. This week, the state Senate approved a measure that would make possession of up to 10 ounces a civil rather than criminal offense, carrying a $100 fine. There’s also a medical-marijuana measure on the docket. O’Malley has in the past been opposed to legalizing marijuana, but telegraphed that he’d support a limited measure that would make it available at academic research centers. “I’m focused on other things this year” he told reporters when he suggested he’d sign such a bill.
But just as with any governor, O’Malley’s popularity depends on the status of his state’s economy. His job-approval rating was only 49 percent in a recent Post poll, with over half the voters surveyed saying the state of Maryland’s economy was “poor” or “not so good.” The unemployment rate is 6.7 percent, and O’Malley often touts rankings that place Maryland high in the country for education and entrepreneurship, which he’ll emphasize in a speech at an Democratic “issues” conference Saturday in South Carolina, an early primary state.
“While some of the issues, like reducing gun violence and repealing the death penalty, get outside national attention, his focus has been on delivering better results for the people of Maryland,” O’Malley adviser Elisabeth Smith said.
O’Malley can count on majority approval for gay marriage and immigration reform in Democratic Maryland, but the death penalty is more politically controversial. He has taken a pragmatic approach, focusing on its cost to taxpayers and criticizing its effectiveness in making the case for repeal. But most voters support the death penalty, and by going against public opinion, he’s taking a principled stance that plays better with the base than with Maryland voters.
“Anyone who’s looking at the polling knows that Gov. O’Malley didn’t pursue repealing the death penalty for political gain. He took on the repeal because it’s the right thing to do,” Smith said.
The full array of his liberal principles make for good national politics, too. “No single niche issue is going to propel someone to the nomination—it’s the full package,” Singer said.