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C. Fraser Smith: O’Malley’s march toward what?

Gov. Martin O’Malley has said little if anything about the widespread assumption that he’d like to run for president in 2016.

Almost everyone else in Maryland politics has said something, of course.

If asked, he offers the well-worn response of political leaders in his situation: I’m plenty busy being mayor, governor, etc. That takes all my time and energy.

But the governor’s detractors — not to mention interested friends — have assumed that he has “national” ambitions. And of course he’s become something of a national figure.

He’s been a go-to spokesman for Democrats occasionally on the Sunday morning television talk shows. He’s head of the Democratic Governor’s Association. And he’s been an effective fundraiser for his party’s candidates across the country.

Yesterday he was the keynote speaker at the Education Week magazine event in Washington, D.C., where he had an opportunity to remind us that schools in Maryland are No. 1 for the fourth year in a row.

Republicans have been quick to suggest that all this is unseemly self-aggrandizing or, alternatively, a serious distraction from what he says he’s really doing.

If O’Malley gets behind a tax increase or a jobs program or environmental issues like wind power or land-use controls, it’s an irresistible opportunity to intone about O’Malley running for president.

“This is about national policy,” state Senate Minority Leader E.J. Pipkin told The Sun when asked about some of the governor’s plans. “The citizens will be paying his taxes when he is running for national office. Some of us are not going to let that happen.”

Burnishing liberal credentials?

Pipkin is not alone in his search for indications that O’Malley wants to tailor his record to win support for a White House run in 2016. His take? O’Malley wants to burnish his liberal credentials by raising taxes for job development or infrastructure improvements — roads and bridges, water treatment, wind power and the like.

It’s inconvenient for the critics, though, when something like a tax increase is supported by distinctly un-liberal groups like the Maryland Chamber of Commerce. And, indeed, one might have some difficulty sorting through the governor’s plans in search of a doctrinaire policy.

You could almost conclude O’Malley really is doing the job he has now.

He’s been reluctant, for example, to grant as many pardons or commutations as some would like.

“We’re the eighth-most violent state in the nation,” he said Wednesday during an interview with WEAA talk show host Mark Steiner. Data show, O’Malley said, that too often “those that murder once, murder again.”

Some might wish to put a liberal or conservative or libertarian label on such action or inaction. O’Malley called it attending to the business of public safety — one of government’s most essential functions.

By intervening in a lawsuit brought by the University of Maryland law school, he might have been seen as taking a stand against intrusive government or over-regulation. Was he currying favor with conservatives or libertarians?

He said his letter opposing the suit was motivated by his feeling that a mom-and-pop Eastern Shore chicken farm was the victim of an “injustice” perpetrated by state-financed law students.

Proceeding methodically

At the same time, O’Malley has seemed perfectly happy to address volatile land-use issues, which led some critics to charge him with declaring “war on rural Maryland” — not necessarily the most libertarian objective.

He said he is proceeding methodically to prevent more sprawl — “to grow in ways that are good for the [Chesapeake] Bay.”

Similarly, asked about natural gas extraction via hydraulic fracturing in Western Maryland, he said a panel is searching for what he called “a gold standard” set of regulations. Grave concerns have been raised about this activity and its effect on water quality.

The idea of the study, O’Malley said, is to learn whether the gas can be accessed without “giving up the Savage River.”

He seems determined to find the smartest, least politically dangerous way to pay for the government — and job development — we need. Maybe those national talent scouts will be impressed by someone with the courage to say a tax increase of some kind is needed.

He said he isn’t interested in trying to solve the state’s fiscal problems with more gambling.

“Our parents didn’t build the Bay Bridge with bake sales,” he said. “We didn’t go to war on blackjack proceeds.”

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.