The governor of Maryland is a long shot for the White House—and the best manager in government today.
Encore?: O’Malley’s data-driven style of management has earned him accolades as both a mayor and a governor, leaving pundits to wonder where he’s going next. (Jay Baker/Office of Governor Martin O’Malley)
The governor is hungry.
Brown paper bag in hand, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley strides into a conference room on the fourth floor of an old government building in downtown Annapolis. “I brought lunch,” he whispers to no one in particular and, stooping slightly in the way that people do when they enter a meeting late, takes a seat. For a moment, he is quiet.
He’d spent the morning in discussion with various members of the state legislature, which is in session just a few steps away at the statehouse on the hill. Up there, laws are being shaped and votes cast, mostly in the governor’s favor, but it’s down here, in this windowless room, packed with staff from three of Maryland’s state agencies and his own executive team, that O’Malley’s political impact is deepest. In 2000, as a young mayor of Baltimore, he pioneered this type of meeting—biweekly, multi-agency, data-driven performance reviews—and thirteen years later they’re still the cornerstone of his legacy as a politician.
“So that’s the carrot at the end of the stick that you hope the community colleges are going to close in after?” O’Malley asks, breaking his short silence. He leans forward in his chair, his elbows on the table and the contents of his lunch—a dry deli sandwich, a bag of potato chips—lined up in front of him like a control panel.
“That’s right, sir,” a man in the back of the room says. They’re referring to an incentive to get students to use Maryland’s Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation’s online Workforce Dashboard. It was designed to help colleges, businesses, and job seekers get a snapshot of employment opportunities in the state, but also to allow the state to gather better data on who’s looking for jobs, where, and with what skills, to improve both monitoring and outreach efforts. As of now, not enough people are using the Dashboard to make it a valuable tool.
“I know everyone’s got budget constraints, but why don’t we all talk about how to market this more?” the governor asks, and as is typical in these meetings, the attention turns to an array of charts, maps, and digital reams of Excel spreadsheets, each illustrating the nuts and bolts of the program, the population it’s serving, and the various outputs and inputs and outcomes over the past few months. The idea is to use data like a scalpel to dissect how a government program works, to pinpoint where, exactly, it’s breaking down, and then to use these collaborative meetings to solve the problem at hand.
“We gotta get those numbers up,” O’Malley says, gesturing to one graph in particular and taking a bite of the sandwich. In addition to the Department of Labor, the Departments of Business and Economic Development (DBEV) and Veterans Affairs are also present. “What about DBEV? Can you guys help with this?” he asks, still chewing.
And with that, the governor launches a spirited question-and-answer session—he compares it to a cross-examination—that lasts for the better part of forty-five minutes, his voice sometimes muffled by mouthfuls of bread. As the meeting unspools, the topics shift, from the jobs Web site to foreclosure rates to reducing recidivism among recently released convicts.
Nearly an hour later, the governor stops for some air. He attends meetings like this only about once every couple months, usually delegating the day-to-day management to his executive staff, but it’s clear he enjoys the role. He leans back in his chair and wipes the smudges of his lunch off his iPad with his green-striped tie. “Sorry, Sam,” he says, chuckling and turning to one of his staffers, who usually heads up these meetings. “The witness is yours!”
O’Malley is not the kind of person who’s afraid to take over a meeting. “I’m an operations guy,” he tells me afterward, partly by way of explanation. “I’ve always liked digging into the numbers, figuring out what’s going on and doing the kind of analysis that the other guys won’t do.” In the hallway after the meeting, two staffers corroborate the point. He seems so much more relaxed in meetings like that, they say, when he’s not “doing all the politician stuff.”
In truth, O’Malley, who is fifty and handsome in a Kennedy sort of way, has made a career out of all the politician stuff, chomping his way up the political food chain like a man hungry for more than a deli sandwich. After serving as a Baltimore city councilman in the 1990s, he was elected mayor of Baltimore in 1999 and then governor of Maryland seven years later, where he’ll remain until 2015. Because of term limits, he can’t run again. Every pundit in America has predicted he’s going to run for president in 2016, and O’Malley has done everything he can to encourage that speculation, short of outright admitting it’s true.
As governor, he’s pushed a series of bills that are all but guaranteed to impress Democratic primary and caucus voters three years from now, on topics ranging from guns (against), gay marriage (for), the death penalty (against), medical marijuana (for), and implementing Dream Act-like policies at Maryland’s colleges and universities. Just as Bill Clinton did in the 1980s, when he too was a relative unknown, O’Malley has also sought positions in recent years that have allowed him to sidle into the national limelight. In both 2011 and 2012, he served as chair of the Democratic Governors Association, and he’s since stayed on as the finance chairman, which will allow him to continue to meet top donors. During the election last year, he was a regular fixture on the talk show circuit, often playing the role of President Barack Obama’s personal attack dog. In one interview with ABC’s This Week last summer, O’Malley managed to mention former Governor Mitt Romney’s “Swiss bank accounts” and “offshore” tax havens seventeen times in three minutes flat.
With that iron message discipline, plus his standing as one of the Democrats’ most successful governors (with thirty statehouses in GOP hands, the Dems’ roster is slim), O’Malley won a coveted primetime speaking slot for the second time (he spoke in 2004, too) at the Democratic National Convention last September. He whiffed it—again, just as Clinton did in 1988—but spent the remaining time juggling a packed schedule of schmooze, addressing swing state delegates by day and jamming with his Irish rock band, O’Malley’s March, by night. In recent years, the governor has also made public forays into Iowa and New Hampshire and launched a political action committee, the O’Say Can You See PAC, to raise money that he will be at liberty to distribute, one of his critics groused, “like favor-doing fairy dust,” to fellow Democrats before the midterm races in 2014.
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