By Barry Rascovar
Dec. 31, 2014 — Sometimes the most important man in the room isn’t there. That was the case with 2014’s Marylander of the Year, Gov. Martin O’Malley.
The state’s 61st chief executive dominated events throughout 2014, even when he often wasn’t present.
He was the centerpiece of the summer-fall gubernatorial campaign — though his name didn’t appear on the ballot and he was rarely spotted on the campaign trail.
He forcefully took control of Maryland’s fatally flawed health insurance internet exchange, assigned his best technology aides to take over — and didn’t say much after that.
As he has done in past years, O’Malley won nearly all his fights with the 2014 General Assembly — a much-needed higher minimum wage, marijuana decriminalization, domestic violence laws, expanded pre-kindergarten, education investments and public safety overhauls. Yet he did much of his work quietly this time.
He ended the year with a splash, too, grabbing headlines by commuting the death sentences of the last four inmates in Maryland on death row.
O’Malley also dominated what proved one of the state’s biggest stories — the ever-expanding billion-dollar budget deficit — by hesitating and then taking a meek step to tamp down expenses. He absented himself from stronger executive action that could have proactively reduced the troubling deficit for his successor.
Since the election of Republican Larry Hogan Jr. as the next governor, O’Malley has pretty much disappeared from view — except for his frequent forays to early primary states in his quest for the presidential nomination in 2016.
Most puzzling was the governor’s political vanishing act during the summer and fall.
This came as Hogan started pounding away at O’Malley’s tax-raising, big-spending record — the prime theme of the successful Hogan campaign.
By removing himself from the political fray, O’Malley thought he was doing Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown a favor. How wrong he was. Brown never seized control of the campaign.
Brown turned out to be a terrible defender of the eight-year O’Malley-Brown administration. The lieutenant governor essentially ran away from his own administration’s record.
Instead of trumpeting the good the Democratic team had achieved, Brown chose to ignore it. That left Hogan with the perfect opening to drum into voters’ minds the “evils” of the O’Malley-Brown years — dozens of new taxes, rampant overspending, open hostility to job-creating businesses and meager economic growth.
Without effective push-back from Brown, and with O’Malley missing in action, Hogan’s message resonated in the empty room.
By failing to take the field to defend his eight years in office, O’Malley damaged his reputation with voters.
Ironically, the governor is one of Maryland’s best-ever campaigners. When he rolls up his sleeves and plunges into crowds, when he pours out his story and tells what he’s been able to accomplish, Martin O’Malley is a powerful persuader.
Yet this time he failed to heed the clarion call to battle. He allowed Hogan to speak at length about the negatives of the O’Malley years without anyone raising a vocal, convincing counter-argument.
The governor also wasn’t present to energize the Democratic Party’s base. No wonder turnout was abysmal in key Democratic strongholds. Brown turned people off instead of turning them on.
It will be years, or even decades, before historians place Martin O’Malley’s record into proper context. The negative image of O’Malley’s years in office, planted in Marylanders’ minds by Hogan, will remain with them for a long time.
“The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.” (Shakespeare, from Julius Caesar)
This is the case with O’Malley’s years in the State House. His good deeds aren’t what’s being talked about.
It need not have been this way. There was ample time for the governor to mount an effective counter-argument, but he fixed his attention firmly on what comes next after he leaves Government House on Jan. 21.
For his continuing role as the most dominant presence in the Free State’s political drama — even when he wasn’t on the stage — Martin Joseph O’Malley has justified his selection as 2014’s Marylander of the Year.