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C. Fraser Smith: Political ambitions and hard votes

Lawmakers in Annapolis are watching a somewhat unusual drama: Gov. Martin O’Malley running from pillar to post in search of their votes!

The governor has worked hard for votes in the past, of course, but the pace this year may be unprecedented.

Run he must, however, given the scope of his legislative agenda and given the politically difficult votes he’s after.

He wants a new 18-cent sales tax on gasoline phased in over three years.

He wants more money for sewage treatment plants.

He wants a kind of graduated tax on septic systems.

He wants to tweak the income tax to winkle a few more dollars from the wealthy.

He wants a wind farm off Ocean City.

One delegate was reminded of broadcaster Keith Jackson’s description of a burly NFL lineman: “A hoss and a half,” Jackson said.

And just to hype the drama a little more, the governor wants a yes vote on marriage equality. He’ll be the pivotal figure on that one.

Presidential ambitions

And why does he want so much?

Did I mention that he’s running for president? Almost everyone else has mentioned it, including The New York Times positively and Maryland’s comptroller, Peter Franchot, not so positively.

All of this demanding and mentioning could lead all of our elected representatives to get a bit testy.

The comptroller denounced O’Malley’s gas tax as misguided in a weak economy. The governor replied: “Peter never saw an issue he couldn’t be on both sides of.” He’s “kind of our version of Mitt Romney,” O’Malley said.

Sorry to rain on your presidential aspirations, said the comptroller. “It’s hard enough to do the day-to-day work of getting Maryland’s fiscal house in order without dropping a national campaign into the middle,” he said even as he has his own campaign underway — for governor in 2014.

The exchange could be seen as a placeholder for the wider debate in the collective legislative mind. Senators and delegates see the governor’s urging in light of their own political futures.

The governor, meanwhile, asks members of the assembly to vote for new revenue Maryland needs to keep its budget balanced, to preserve the Triple-A bond rating, to save the bay from further pollution and to keep the roadways passable. It’s just that the request has a subtext that everyone sees and some might even applaud.

Walking the plank

Sometimes in political life you have to suck it up and walk the plank. If you’re doing it for God and country, there’s nobility in it. Other times, you wonder if you’re being asked for the ultimate sacrifice in service to someone else’s ambitions. And of course sometimes the two are indistinguishable.

Every legislative session in Annapolis tends to acquire a profile, a character — and almost always a challenge. Every year lawmakers are asked take what are called “hard votes,” votes that could leave you vulnerable to being unseated in the next election. (This is where the plank-walking comes in.)

Before the 2012 session began just over a month ago, one of the House of Delegates committee chairmen said it was one thing to ask for one “hard” vote a session. But multiple career–threatening hard votes were too much to expect.

This is why House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. have been quite publicly urging the governor to don his roller skates. If he wants all these things, he’ll have to be seen publicly working for them.

Their urging arises in part from the concerns they have as Democratic legislative leaders for the welfare — and re-electability — of their members.

But O’Malley has this on his side:

The Maryland General Assembly remains a largely Democratic body. At the end of the legislative day, it will wish to point with pride at its work product.

It happens almost every year — even after years characterized by acrimony, strife and hard votes.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news editor at WYPR-FM. His column appears in The Daily Record on Fridays. His email address is [email protected]