O’Malley’s Catholic values will propel potential 2016 run

Governor Martin O’Malley (D) announced last week he will commute the sentences of Maryland’s last four death row inmates. Given his leadership in repealing the state’s death penalty two years ago, his decision was not a surprise. But, just weeks before he completes eight years as governor and a year before Iowa’s presidential caucuses, it dramatizes O’Malley’s values and skills. 

Soon after he was elected governor and I elected to the state senate, we met to discuss the 2007 legislative session. He discussed his priorities and I pitched my ideas for higher education. As we walked out of his office, he asked my position on the death penalty. I told him I’d voted to limit it when I was in the House but had mixed opinions on full repeal. He said he hoped to end the death penalty in Maryland during his term as governor and asked me to keep an open mind. 

{mosads}Nothing characterizes O’Malley more for me than that brief conversation. In less than sixty seconds, he showed me the kind of leader he is: principled, progressive, strategic, and skillful. 

He knew his Catholic values, had no reservation about expressing them, was focused on the long game — and lobbied with an engaged and respectful touch. 

But ending the death penalty was hardly his only goal. 

O’Malley took office after four years of partisan and social division, immigrant bashing, fiscal gridlock and underinvestment in jobs and justice. His predecessor, Republican Bob Erhlich (whom O’Malley defeated twice) governed with the pugnaciousness of Chris Christie. He left O’Malley with skyrocketing college tuition and electric rates, political gridlock, and a billion dollar structural deficit. 

In his first year, 2007, O’Malley moved decisively to get the state back on track. He called a special legislative session to clean up the deficit he inherited, raising revenue by making the income tax more progressive and cutting the budget. The result? Maryland’s AAA bond rating was reaffirmed – we’re one of only 7 states to keep it throughout the recession. 

He also brought a new tone to Annapolis: respect for political opponents, immigrants — and even legislators. When I came to the Senate, I was astonished to hear Republican colleagues say they were being consulted more by O’Malley than they had been by his predecessor. 

O’Malley has shown he’s an A student in working with diverse personalities and interests. More than anything else, that’s why he’s been able to get so much done in just eight years. O’Malley has won almost his whole agenda — including repealing the death penalty. 

To date, national pundits have focused on his youth, his record of progressive accomplishments, and his obvious political and musical skills. Governor O’Malley—an accomplished singer and guitar player—beat an incumbent Republican in 2006 and then won re-election by 14 points in 2010. This year, his Democratic lieutenant governor lost election to succeed him, while Democrats kept veto-proof control of both houses of the Maryland legislature. 

But, as one who has watched O’Malley up close during his years as governor, I find him more interesting and unusual in the modern Democratic Party. He’s a social justice Catholic—or, as some have called him, a Pope Francis Democrat—in the tradition of Mario Cuomo and Robert Kennedy. 

Consider O’Malley’s outspoken leadership last summer on the crisis of refugee children on America’s border with Mexico. When demagogues claimed that frightened ten year olds from El Salvador are a threat to our way of life, O’Malley asked Americans to remember the biblical injunction of hospitality to strangers and protection of children. He brought together faith leaders in Maryland to find the right refuges for young refugees in his own state. According to the federal government, more than 2,200 of these children have found refuge in Maryland. 

That’s the Martin O’Malley I know — acting on the values he learned from his family, from his Jesuit high school teachers, and from his college years at the Catholic University. And acting with the leadership skills of an Irish Catholic Democrat he learned in seven years as mayor of Baltimore and eight years as governor of Maryland. 

Today, Maryland is first in median family income, a top three state in income mobility, and first in K-12 education and boosting college affordability five years in a row. And Maryland is one of only nineteen states to recover all the jobs lost in the Great Recession. That’s change working families can take to the bank. 

O’Malley didn’t do this all by himself. But, with his Catholic social justice values and Irish political skills, he’s led Maryland’s progress for the past eight years. These are the traits he brings to the national stage.

Rosapepe, from College Park, Maryland, was U.S. Ambassador to Romania from 1998 to 2001.

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