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Annapolis State House
The State House. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Legislative session shaped the campaign to come

Past is prologue, and much of what happened, and didn’t happen, in the 90-day General Assembly session was all about setting the table for the coming elections.

For Gov. Martin O’Malley, who isn’t seeking election this year, the focus is on legacy building — hitting his checklist for a potential Democratic presidential bid in 2016 and extending the O’Malley administration to a third term through the election of his lieutenant governor.

In the race for governor, the expansion of early childhood education and decriminalization of marijuana has helped one dark-horse candidate become more of a contender.

A tightly controlled redistricting process and a presumed agreement to limit controversy may have taken all of the drama out of almost all of the legislative races.

And little changed for front-runners and challengers for the open attorney general spot.

But all of that could change over the next 72 days heading into the June 24 primary election.

“The campaign started today,” said Sen. Bill Ferguson, D-Baltimore City, as he sat in the governor’s reception room waiting for the first bills to be signed just hours after the session ended.

Fringe no more

Del. Heather R. Mizeur, D-Montgomery, might be the one gubernatorial candidate most dramatically affected by the session. She came in a long-shot, some might even say fringe candidate.

“She’s definitely out of the dark-horse category,” said Matthew Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at Johns Hopkins University.

Mizeur entered the session with a “pot for tots” plan that used revenues from a proposal to legalize the recreational use of marijuana to pay for expanded early childhood education and a call to decriminalize possession of small amounts of the drug.

Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown and Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler scrambled to put together their own plans for pre-K education.

The Black Legislative Caucus in the House of Delegates whipped votes to keep the decriminalization bill from dying and to move it to the governor’s desk. Mizeur was part of driving the conversation, according to John Bullock, a political science professor at Towson University.

O’Malley says he’s still opposed to decriminalization but will sign the bill at the request of his lieutenant governor — again a nod to Mizeur.

“Heather has improved her position,” said Donald F. Norris, chair of the department of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Brown entered the session as the frontrunner and left in the same position, but observers believe there’s been a shift.

Norris and Todd Eberly, a professor of political science at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, said Mizeur’s lot has improved so much that she could see a rise in the polling.

“I can see a scenario where she slips ahead of Gansler,” Norris said.

The O’Malley legacy

The 2014 session may have looked tame compared to the previous two years, when there were budget meltdowns and the passage of controversial legislation such as repealing the death penalty, allowing same-sex marriage and expanding in-state tuition rates for some children who are living in the country without legal permission.

But appearances are deceiving.

The legislature passed once-controversial transgender anti-discrimination legislation and decriminalization of marijuana, a modest expansion of early childhood education and an increase in the minimum wage to $10.10 by 2018.

And on a number of those efforts — minimum wage and pre-K education for example — O’Malley let Brown lead.

“Brown will be part of O’Malley’s legacy,” said Norris. “If Maryland elects its first African-American governor, it will be O’Malley’s legacy.”

O’Malley remains a relatively popular governor among Maryland Democrats. It allows him to help Brown in a way that then-Gov. Parris N. Glendenning, who was unpopular in his last year, could not help Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

“His legacy is tied to making sure his lieutenant governor is elected,” said Eberly. “It’s the third term for the O’Malley administration.”

And in helping Brown, O’Malley can tick off the minimum wage increase on his Democratic presidential primary to-do list, even though some believe that accomplishment and others are somewhat tainted by compromise.

“Some of these legislative accomplishments have been called victories, but they’ve been heavily scaled back,” said Bullock, the Towson professor. “It’s a mixed bag. If you’re running for president, you can hold it up and say, ‘I got it done,’ but it’s not as shiny as it looks.”

The name game

In the attorney general’s race, one name continues to lead the others — Del. Jon S. Cardin.

“Voters seem prone to political family dynasties,” said Crenson, noting that Cardin’s uncle, Ben, is a U.S. senator. “It’s very difficult to overcome unless someone makes a mistake.”

Cardin didn’t have a leading role in any of the meatier issues in Annapolis, but he also didn’t hurt himself.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery, seen as Cardin’s chief rival in a three-way primary that includes Del. Aisha N. Braveboy, D-Prince George’s, also didn’t have a session that lent itself to overcoming Cardin’s name recognition.

Eberly, the St. Mary’s College professor, said Frosh would have been in a better position if the election were held last year, when the gun control and death penalty repeal bills moved through the committee he chaired.

“That was a better year for [Frosh],” Eberly said. “That doesn’t mean this year was bad. It just wasn’t the high-profile session he had before.”

Low-key races

The relatively non-contentious session means there will be little in the way of added drama for Senate and House of Delegates races. That’s by design.

“It looks, feels and smells very much like the presiding officers [Senate president and House speaker] and the governor got together and said, ‘We don’t want any controversy,’ so there wasn’t one,” Norris said. “These are three powerful figures, and when they agree, stuff happens.”

One exception to the overall theme of sleepy legislative races might be the campaign for state Senate in District 42, which stretches from the city’s northern border with Baltimore County to the Pennsylvania line. Incumbent Democratic Sen. James Brochin faces a difficult primary challenge from former Del. Connie DeJuliis, who has support from O’Malley. If Brochin survives, he’ll face Tim Robinson, an anesthesiologist who will have the backing of Rep. Andy Harris.

Also driving down the wow factor in the race for 47 Senate seats and 141 House seats is that redistricting has already decided a lot of contests because the process was tightly controlled by House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., according to Eberly.

“The assembly is now almost beyond what happens with the prevailing political winds,” Eberly said. “I’m not expecting much in the way of drama.”