No fewer than six times in the past five months New York Post Albany bureau chief and capitol power-broker Fred Dicker has columnized about the very real possibility that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is gearing up for a presidential run in 2016. The New York Times and The Washington Post jumped on the chatter too, with the latter describing him as at “the front of the pack for 2016” and the former suggesting that if President Obama loses next year, “Mr. Cuomo’s approach toward leadership is one that many Democratic voters will have an appetite for.”
New Yorkers notoriously believe that the rest of the nation shares their sense of self-regard, so we know how this movie usually ends—witness Hillary, Giuliani, Bloomberg, Pataki, Mario Cuomo—but there is reason to believe that in Mr. Cuomo’s case, the absurdly early 2016 chatter may be more than idle. He boasts sky-high approval ratings and has balanced the budget without raising taxes (by bending a recalcitrant Legislature to his will). Perhaps most important, with regard to the 2016 Democratic primary electorate, he pushed through a historical legalization of same-sex marriage.
You can’t get from New York to the White House, however, without going through the state of Maryland, and sitting in the Revolutionary War-era statehouse there is another governor. His name is Martin O’Malley, and although five years is a millennium away in political time, he has emerged as perhaps the single biggest threat to Andrew Cuomo’s well-documented political ambitions.
Democratic insiders in both states say that the two have been eyeing one another warily since they each won election by healthy margins last year—Mr. O’Malley to a second term, Mr. Cuomo to a first. And just as Mr. Cuomo was basking in the glory of a the same-sex marriage victory, Mr. O’Malley announced that down in Maryland, he too was gearing up for a major push to bring marriage equality to the Old Line State. Check, meet mate.
Sitting in his office, his right leg up on a coffee table in front of him, Mr. O’Malley described gay marriage as “one of the fastest evolving and emerging issues of social justice and civil rights in our time.”
On the wall were oil paintings and drawings featuring images from the Revolution and the Civil War. Under one framed battle scene were the words “Fire When Provoked.” Four portraits of Abraham Lincoln hung on the wall as well, a touchstone Mr. O’Malley refers to repeatedly when talking about the needs to persuade members of the Republican party—”the party of Lincoln” he says, gesturing toward the drawings.
Just like in New York, marriage equality failed the first time it came up. And, like in New York, the failure was largely due to the fact that there wasn’t a strong governor to push the agenda, only in this case that governor was Mr. O’Malley, and not his predecessor. Despite huge Democratic majorities in both houses of the Legislature, a number of African-American Democrats pulled their support at the last minute amid pressure from clergy.
“We came very close to passing it as a state last session.We fell a little short. So the thing we haven’t tried, as hard as we worked for it last session, is to make it a part of the governor’s legislative package. We have a tradition—a lot of states have it, I guess—that the governor will have a handful of priority bills for the session. … We allowed it to take a more organic course, if you will, hoping to avoid this sort of Democrat-Republican polization that can get in the way of passage, and we almost pulled it off. But almost doesn’t count.”
Mr. O’Malley portrays his reluctance to get involved in the same-sex marriage fight until recently as a matter of strategy, but in truth he was getting pilloried by advocates and in the press for his trepidation—”Gov. Martin O’Malley is getting a lot of taunting these days about how Governor Cuomo has suddenly vaulted to the top of the list of Democratic presidential contenders in 2016,” The Baltimore Sun editorialized, while The Washington Post proclaimed that “being on the right side while standing in the wings isn’t enough.”
“He wasn’t a cheerleader for it the way that Cuomo was” said one national gay rights leader. “But he is certainly a cheerleader for it now. One can draw the conclusion that he saw some of the excitement among progressives that Cuomo generated, and began to feel he needed some of that.”
In Annapolis, Mr. O’Malley proclaimed that he was only vaguely aware of the goings-on in New York.
“We have been doing a lot more reconstruction of it since it passed, and I would like to hope that the advocates in New York drew some lessons for what we did in our state. I think there have been people looking at it since. But how closely did I follow it?” Here Mr. O’Malley pauses for several seconds.
“It was certainly big news.”
Last month, in widely reported remarks an Empire State Pride Awards dinner, Mr. Cuomo cast himself as a national leader on gay rights, proclaiming “We need marriage equality in every state in this nation. Otherwise, no state really has marriage equality, and we will not rest until it is a reality.”
Mr. O’Malley said he was unaware of the speech.
“I would imagine what he is talking about, I think, is that the actions of New York have reverberated all around the country,” he said.
So who is this Cuomo-killer? Like the New York governor, he is handsome, tall, charismatic, young and, by reputation and fact, remarkably ambitious and calculating. But unlike Mr. Cuomo, who grew up the son of an old-school Democratic lifer, Mr. O’Malley got his first taste of politics as a youth organizer for Gary Hart. He grew up in the D.C. suburbs, attending Catholic schools and Catholic University. He married the daughter of the politically well-connected state attorney general and, at the tender age of 27, ran for the State Senate. He lost, but the next year ran for the City Council, representing a white working class area of Baltimore.
The city was at the time on a sharp, downward trajectory, with the ineffective Mayor Kurt Schmoke at the helm. Mr. O’Malley quickly developed a reputation as a young pol in a hurry, and in 1999, ran for mayor while railing against a police department and a city workforce that had grown lazy. Two black lawmakers split the vote, and Mr. O’Malley, with the backing of a powerful black powerbroker, won a surprising election in a largely black city. He promptly instituted a series of reforms based around the need to bring a data-driven system of accountability to the functions of government and began plotting his run for governor.
Sound familiar? That’s because it is also largely the trajectory of Tommy Carcetti, the mayor of Baltimore in HBO’s The Wire.
David Simon, the show’s creator, has always insisted that the character is a composite, and Mr. O’Malley quickly cut off a question about it, pointing a finger and saying, “I’m not that guy.”
What he is however, is a courtly Southern gentleman, far more soft-spoken and the polar opposite of Mr. Cuomo, but with a reputation as someone who is able to fire up the faithful on the stump. Mr. Cuomo has his muscle-cars obsession, and Mr. O’Malley has O’Malley’s March, a Celtic rock band fronted by the governor in which he often appears on stage in a too-tight black T-shirt with the sleeves ripped off. “They have a national tourinig schedule, which gets him in front of a lot of women, who love him,” said Barry Raskovar, a local consultant.
Advisers to Mr. O’Malley think that he will play better on the national stage than his New York counterpart, who will come across as too New York for the heartland. If Mr. O’Malley’s ambition is shrouded behind that good-old boy charm and his muscle shirts, Mr. Cuomo, they think, won’t be able to hide it quite as well, his New York-style sharp elbows pushing aside even those inclined to like him.
And, they think that Mr. Cuomo isn’t helping with his apparent refusal to ever leave his home state (since being sworn in in January, Mr. Cuomo has left the confines of the state only a handful of times, and then mostly to just pass through New Jersey en route to a New York destination) and to eschew any kind of national attention.
Mr. O’Malley, meanwhile, has kept up an aggressive touring schedule, and regularly appears on the Sunday morning talk shows, mostly due to his official duties as head of the Democratic Governor’s Association, a job that has introduced him to the bigwig donors to the Democratic Party and has led him to occasionally cross paths with Mr. Cuomo.
Asked if he had spoken with Mr. Cuomo about their gay marriage strategy, Mr. O’Malley replied, “I think so. Not in depth. We certainly have talked on the phone periodically over the course of coordinating Democratic Governor’s Association activities and meetings and the like, and I certainly congratulate him not only on this accomplishment but on the outstanding job he has done as governor for the people of New York in a very challenging time.”
If the two face-off in 2016 however, it will be about more than just two handsome and popular young governors pitted against each other: it could be about the very soul of the Democratic Party. Mr. Cuomo has kept respectful distance from President Obama, seldom making the president’s case in public. (A Dicker column from July suggested even that Mr. Cuomo would prefer Mr. Obama lose to better increase his own chances of winning the White House.)
Mr. O’Malley, meanwhile, has become one of Mr. Obama’s most prominent surrogates, making the case for a vision of an active government in the service of a just society to whomever will listen.
“O’Malley seems a little more willing to be a more outfront progressive and I think that is a good thing to do as you speculate about the make-up of the electorate in 2016,” said Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, who recently invited Mr. O’Malley to a private, off-the record lunch meeting with some of his colleagues at the Brookings Institution.
Maryland political observers say that the best way to figure out what Mr. O’Malley is going to do or say next is to look and see what Mr. Obama does. If Mr. Obama makes a speech on jobs, you can expect a similar one from Mr. O’Malley soon after; if Mr. Obama talks up his commitment to the environment, expect to see Mr. O’Malley posing in front of wind turbines soon after.
“He is essentially in the Roosevelt/LBJ social Democratic tradition,” said Mr. Raskovar. “He believes in government as a vehicle to assist people in need in society.”
His critics say that this desire led Mr. O’Malley to oversee the creation of huge budget deficits in Maryland. To close the gaps, Mr. O’Malley has pushed for higher taxes on alcohol, tobacco, sales and gasoline, and in his first term hiked up a surcharge on the state’s upper-income earners, something that Mr. Cuomo has refused to do so, despite regulars calls from the Occupy protesters and even some members of his own party that he do so.
“Of the two, Andrew Cuomo has a much more complicated track to run,” said Bob Shrum, a veteran Democratic consultant, pointing out that the politics of New York, plus its huge financial problems, making for a treacherous couple of years. “We are talking about a race five years away. I imagine both will be out campaigning for Democrats next year,” he said, “and after that, you can look for this to really start.” All of this has a lot of time to shake out. In five years, Mr. O’Malley could tack to the left. Mr. Cuomo could lurch to the right. The politics of gay marriage may move far slower than anyone anticipates. Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden could clear the Democratic field. But for the next several years, at least, the base of power in the Democratic party will be in an ideological tug-of-war along the I-95 corridor.
“There are no popular decisions a man or a woman who is a governor of state can make right now. But I think Governor Cuomo has been very effective,” Mr. O’Malley said. “So far.”