Martin O'Malley was selected by his peers Wednesday to chair the Democratic Governors Association, a platform from which he says he will build the party and promote candidates who will invest in education and infrastructure.
"Our agenda is one of creating jobs," O'Malley said. "That is what our agenda is. It is about the agenda of each of our states."
He also said the group would not "run away" from progressive values.
O'Malley, who begins his second and final term as governor in January, deflected questions about whether the new role indicates ambitions beyond Maryland. He noted that he was the vice chairman of the organization for the past two years, and added jokingly that his proximity to Washington made him a practical choice for the job.
The role will boost O 'Malley's national standing, allowing him to build relationships with top donors, opinion makers and elected leaders, and giving him greater access to the White House. He said it would benefit Maryland, because it will give the state a louder leadership voice.
Though O'Malley took pains to stress the governors' shared policy goals, his tenure will be judged in political terms: The organization's sole goal is to elect more Democratic governors.
There are just three gubernatorial elections scheduled for 2011, all in states that will challenge Democrats: Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi. A special election could be held in West Virginia to replace Gov. Joe Manchin, who was elected to the Senate last month.
The Maryland Republican Party criticized O'Malley's election.
"We need a governor more concerned with recruiting new businesses to open in Maryland rather than recruiting new Democrats to run for office in other states," state GOP Chairwoman Audrey Scott said in a statement.
The 12 Democratic governors at the meeting Wednesday in Washington voiced unanimous support for O'Malley, whose election had become a foregone conclusion: The association announced his victory in a news release about two hours before the actual vote, and Gov. Beverly Perdue of North Carolina referred to him as the chairman even earlier.
Perdue will take O'Malley's place as vice chair of the organization. Her selection could signal that O'Malley plans to run the group for two years, because she is likely to be occupied by a difficult election in 2012.
"It sounds like Martin O'Malley probably gets to keep the chair if he wants," said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the Cook Political Report.
O'Malley passed up an opportunity to lead the group last year to focus on his rematch with Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich. His 14.5-percentage point victory last month, which doubled the margin of his 2006 win, was described by association director Nathan Daschle as the "crown jewel" of the 2010 gubernatorial elections.
O'Malley "accomplished what seemed impossible," said Daschle, the son of former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle.
Unlike many Democrats, O'Malley embraced the Obama administration's policies during his re-election campaign. He defended the federal stimulus program Wednesday, saying that "there was no way we could have weathered the last years" without federal help.
O'Malley shared the stage with about a dozen current and future Democratic governors, most of whom expressed deep worry about forthcoming budget cuts.
Though most shied away from partisan attacks, exceptions included incoming Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who said he wanted to take the country back "where it belongs" by electing more Democrats. Incoming Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin won applause by saying that "the only thing less desirable" than a Republican running for office is a Democrat who runs for office using a Republican platform.
Still, most of the governors did not sound like traditional Democrats. Instead they talked of looming budget cuts and remaking government.
Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber sees his state's fiscal difficulties as a chance to reset expectations for government programs, including education and health care.
"Those changes are not possible when the money is coming over the transom," Kitzhaber said.
Later Wednesday, the governors and governors-elect met with White House Chief of Staff Pete Rouse, who pledged closer communication.