O'Malley's brisk agenda finds its bookend in the comparably ambitious records of Republican governors such as Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, who has signed legislation to authorize private-school vouchers and retrench teacher tenure (although courts have blocked both measures), and to expand mandatory ultrasound examinations before abortions. Jindal also has rejected participation in President Obama's health care law and sought to replace the state income and corporate taxes with an expanded sales tax before resistance forced him to shelve the plan this week.
O'Malley, through initiatives such as his public-employee pension reform, has probably shown more willingness than Jindal to challenge his party's key constituencies. Still, each man captures a subtle but significant shift in the way governors are influencing the national debate. While state executives from the 1970s through the 1990s gained notice mostly by blurring party differences, today's governors are emerging more by building state-level testing grounds for their party's national agenda. States with the most ambitious governors are operating not so much as "laboratories of democracy" — where policies are empirically tested without much regard to ideology — than as workshops where each side is seeking to prove the superiority of its model over the other party's.
In that competition, O'Malley has pushed to the forefront of Democratic governors since his election in 2006. "He's offering "¦ the progressive answer to the country's challenges," says Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, a leading liberal group. O'Malley can point to progress on almost all of the major cultural issues important to his party, with breakthroughs accumulating at an accelerating pace. In 2012, he steered through ballot initiatives legalizing gay marriage and preserving legislation that provided in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants. This year, he won approval of a repeal of the death penalty and a comprehensive gun-control package that includes an assault-weapons ban and a finger-printing requirement for handgun purchases. With less involvement, the governor also helped to pass bills to provide driver's licenses to illegal immigrants and to authorize the medicinal use of marijuana (through academic hospitals only). "As leaders "¦ we are at our best when we appeal to people's better instincts," O'Malley said in a recent interview in his office, flanked by historic paintings. "And that's what we were able to do on the [in-state tuition] "¦ marriage equality [and] "¦ the death penalty. And a lot of that was under the banner of dignity."
In a manner reminiscent of Bill Clinton, O'Malley has balanced his activism with a sustained focus on government reform that has largely faded from his party's national agenda. He has implemented a "State-Stat" system to drive government performance, similar to the approach Rudy Giuliani and other big-city mayors have used to better allocate police resources to fight crime. His aides are also quick to note he has squeezed the state workforce to its smallest level, relative to state population, since 1973, and has cut more than $8 billion in spending. In 2011, over resistance from public-employee unions, O'Malley pushed through reforms that maintained defined benefit-pensions but imposed longer vesting periods and demanded larger contributions from workers. Patrick Moran, president of Maryland Council 3 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, which represents state workers, says that although O'Malley has "worked with us to resolve things "¦ in a very fair way in most cases," on the pension issue, he took a position with the unions that was "fairly adversarial."