Rep. John K. Delaney

Rep. John K. Delaney (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun / December 11, 2012)

Rep. John Delaney, the Potomac Democrat who has emerged as a leading critic of Maryland's troubled health exchange, is fueling speculation that he is interested in running for governor — a move observers said could shake up the state's premier political contest this year.

A former banking executive who rose from political obscurity to gain an improbable win for Congress in 2012, Delaney has done little to quell the buzz generated by his repeated criticism of Gov. Martin O'Malley or the revelation that his name appeared alongside other gubernatorial candidates in a recent poll.

It's not clear whether Delaney is seriously considering a run for governor — which would be an uphill effort this late in the contest, despite his personal wealth — or whether he's raising his profile for some future race. For him to be taken seriously, experts said, there would need to be evidence of voter dissatisfaction with the current field of candidates.

Delaney, a first-term lawmaker, declined to rule out a run for governor when questioned by The Baltimore Sun. In a statement he said that "lots of people have approached me" about the race.

He said he is focused on his job in Congress but added that he hoped the governor's race would feature "thoughtful approaches to the challenges and opportunities" the state faces.

"Middle-class families can't afford business as usual," he said.

Delaney is the only Democratic official in Maryland pressing the state to abandon its glitch-prone exchange created under the Affordable Care Act in favor of the federal website used by 36 other states. He first raised the idea when asked about the exchange by The Sun during an impromptu interview between votes on Capitol Hill.

But as enrollment data suggest the state has made only marginal progress toward its goal of enrolling 150,000 in private insurance by the end of March, Delaney has pressed the point in increasingly harsh terms. The back-and-forth has created a rare public rift among state Democrats.

In a letter his office made public Tuesday, Delaney wrote that "every state … that borders Maryland appears to be outperforming us."

The criticism has been directed at the state's health department. But politically the brunt of it falls on Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, a leading candidate for governor who was the state's point man on the health law's implementation.

Delaney also raised eyebrows in August by becoming Maryland's first elected official to push to raise the state's minimum wage.

Delaney, 50, would be an unquestionable long shot for governor this year — even though his wealth would give him a considerable fundraising edge. He is not likely to be well known outside his Western Maryland district, which remains more Republican than the state at large.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a fellow Democrat, said he hopes Delaney "rethinks his position" and chooses to stay in Congress.

"He wasn't supported by the Democratic establishment when he was running for Congress, so I guess he feels like he has no ties or obligations to other members of the Democratic Party," Miller said. Miller, O'Malley and other Democrats in Annapolis supported Delaney's primary opponent in 2012, Rob Garagiola.

As to whether Delaney could win, Miller said the recent poll should "tell him what he needs to know."

Delaney has neither confirmed nor denied that he commissioned the poll, first reported by The Washington Post. The poll asked about the exchange as well as Delaney as a potential candidate.

Democrats already running for their party's nomination to succeed O'Malley include Brown, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and Del. Heather Mizeur of Montgomery County.

In a statement, Gansler's gubernatorial campaign praised the attorney general's record in Maryland and said that it isn't surprising someone would consider joining the field against Brown, "the hand-picked, establishment candidate. People want a choice, not a coronation."

Brown issued a statement calling Delaney "a very effective member of Congress" and said he appreciates "his commitment to public service and all of the hard work he does for the people of Maryland's 6th District."

State officials have decided against using the federal exchange during the current enrollment period that ends in March. State officials wrote Delaney on Tuesday that "the risks of a transition … outweigh the potential benefits."

Donald F. Norris, chairman of the public policy department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said Delaney is likely attempting to elevate his profile for a statewide run some time in the future. "Because it's this late, it would suggest to me that he won't do it," Norris said. "Were he to do it — and throw his considerable wealth into it — I think that automatically makes him a formidable candidate."

Delaney spent $2.3 million of his own money on the 2012 campaign, during which he beat 20-year Republican incumbent Roscoe G. Bartlett.

Candidates in the June 24 primary must formally disclose their intention by Feb. 25.

"First there was talk that Dutch might run. Now Delaney," said Diana Waterman, chairwoman of the Maryland Republican Party, referring to Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Baltimore County. "I think it shows that there are still Democrats out there that are not satisfied with the announced candidates and are still looking for someone else to run."

Ruppersberger said Wednesday that he will not run for governor this year, after flirting for months with the idea of joining the field. In a statement, Ruppersberger said he will instead "continue to push for change in Washington."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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