The Washington Post
March 10, 2000, Friday, Final Edition
SECTION: STYLE; Pg. C01
LENGTH: 3231 words
HEADLINE: Charm City’s Mr. Charming; Mayor O’Malley Cheers Baltimore On
BYLINE: Ann Gerhart, Washington Post Staff Writer
This time last year, Martin O’Malley would have been in the bar of a Saturday night, his sleeveless T-shirt showing off his biceps to fine advantage, taking a long pull on his Guinness before leading his Irish rock band through another set. He might have mentioned, with a wicked grin, that “a lot of Irish music sounds like someone threw a cat against the wall,” then roused the room with his ringing baritone.
But no more. The guy’s got a city to run now.
O’Malley, 37, has become the boyo mayor of Baltimore. He’s a man from the even-tempered suburbs of Bethesda and Rockville who found he loved the roiling ruckus of urban life. Caustic and playful, profane and furiously energetic, part rebel, part showboat, part dutiful Gonzaga graduate, O’Malley stormed into office after his surprise win in Baltimore’s crowded Democratic primary. In a city that grew numb after 12 years under the philosophical, remote Kurt Schmoke, the new mayor offers passion and blunt promises and has the multitudes hopeful again.
Plus, he can do a fast sardonic riff on political affairs that brings snorts of laughter. His Chris Rockian response to Gov. Parris Glendening’s proposal to put $300 million of tobacco settlement monies into smoking prevention: “Wasn’t much money for drug treatment, was there? But oh yeah, people are shoot-ing-each-oth-er-UP in my city over cigarettes. Man, it is rough out there. They should just legalize that [stuff].”
And the man could be anything, Democratic leaders whisper. Governor. Senator. Sure, that’s said about anybody who makes it to the top of Charm City, but Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy goes one better: “He’s the one guy I know who could be president of the United States.” O’Malley is tall, lean and handsome, smart and quick, a former city councilman, “eat-what-I-killed” lawyer and (of course) an altar boy.
He’s the product of one Irish American political family who married into another, dynastic one. He has a wife, Katie, a Baltimore County prosecutor, whom he used to brag on incessantly, calling her “the most beautiful woman in Maryland” until she made him stop. (His reform has been less than complete. Now, in an interview, he calls her “totally hot” and “a total babe.”) She’s the daughter of the state’s longtime attorney general, Joe Curran, career politician. Which makes her alternately understanding and wary of the demands of public service.
To ensure this bright political future, all the mayor has to do is make a success of Baltimore. Or, at least, make it look like he has.
No time is down time when running a city in crisis, so on this gray day, O’Malley is taking a rolling meeting in an Econoline van. Public safety is Issue No. 1 in the O’Malley administration, in a city with nearly a murder a day and 60,000 junkies and crackheads and failing schools and a faltering economy dependent on giddy spendthrift tourists. On the way to Annapolis and the governor’s State of the State address, O’Malley leans in close and fires up his criminal justice guy to shake things up in the state’s attorney’s office.
“Remember when we were prosecutors and we got beaten down by the system? We don’t have to think like that anymore!” he tells Peter Saar. “When they offer up that favorite hackneyed excuse, ‘Oh, we don’t have the resources,’ we need to say bull[bleep]!” O’Malley cries. And then, like any gifted politician with the peripheral vision always on the prowl, O’Malley fixates on a lonely trash truck, creeping along the highway shoulder. Two guys in jumpsuits walk along, spearing trash and tossing it in the back.
“All right!” the mayor interrupts himself, snapping his fingers. “Somebody’s listening! Somebody got the call!”
And later: “Trash drives me crazy now,” O’Malley explains. “I take it very personally.”
Running a city is governing at its most visceral and intimate. Nothing happens at a remove. Constituents don’t harangue from nine area codes away; instead, they grab your lapel with one fist and shake the other in your face. O’Malley got his first call on this day at 2 a.m., about a double homicide. He went back to bed. At 4 a.m., he got his second call, about a suspicious four-alarmer in a vacant building set for redevelopment. He didn’t get back to sleep after that one.
The job let go of him at 11:30 p.m., when his policeman driver delivered him to his back yard, where O’Malley picked his way around twin new pink bikes, their sparkly frames and handlebar streamers shining in the moonlight. The bikes belong to Grace, 8, and Tara, 7. When their daddy slipped through the back door, they and William, 2, had been long asleep.
All the days stretch forever, run together. O’Malley hires the city’s first deputy mayors and cajoles the council to pay them more than he gets. He names the first of 10 open-air drug markets he promises to shut down in his first six months. He climbs on trash trucks, drives snowplows, washes off graffiti. He finagles a million for gun control, gets $ 50 million from the state for lead paint abatement.
He gets earnest: “The Jesuits at Gonzaga had a very good way of making you feel that you were blessed, that if much had been given to you, much was expected, and they made you believe it, too.”
He gets mad: “It’s a sin how many little children in this city have lead poisoning,” he says furiously. “And can you believe that the health commissioner and the housing inspector weren’t even sharing information on this?”
He gets even: He responds with a handwritten note to a Baltimore Sun editorial that called him a playground bully. “Your editorial of today’s date was unkind, undocumented and untrue,” he wrote. “Furthermore, my mother says none of you can come over anymore, and I’m not to go near you at recess.”
Critics are hard to come by; there’s been some grumbling over the salaries paid to deputy mayors, and neighborhood outcry over the city’s decision to close down a handful of police department youth clubs and put the cops back on the beat. And O’Malley’s sharp tongue has provoked some officials. He’s been in a war of words with Martha Rasin, chief District Court judge, over his plan to clear Baltimore’s court backlog of criminal cases.
“I’d like to throw up,” the mayor said when judges told legislators that the court system has improved. The head judge, he said, is an “obstructionist.” In an angry letter, Rasin fired back that O’Malley is “tearing up the entire process every so often” because that tactic “has a certain public appeal.” She said she had asked to meet with the mayor. “What I have received instead is the kind of criticism I hope you never have to hear.” His response to that seemed aimed at someone with the mentality of an 8-year-old. It was accompanied by stick-figure illustrations.
“The mayor doesn’t handle frustration well,” said Del. Howard “Pete” Rawlings, the powerful Baltimore Democrat who chairs Maryland’s House Appropriations Committee. Rawlings suggests that O’Malley’s impatience results from a sincere need to be a politician who keeps his promises. “This is what tears at his soul. Being a mayor who attended a funeral of a policeman who was allegedly killed by a man who should have been locked up, and looking at his kids, who are the same age as his kids, had a tremendous impact on him.”
The mayor “certainly has the gift of gab,” says Pittsburgh’s Murphy, and O’Malley also uses it to cheerlead and cajole. Even before the general election, he got on the horn to CareFirst President William Jews to find out why the health insurer was moving to the suburbs, taking 400 jobs out of downtown Baltimore. “I’m very impressed with his drive and his tenacity to action,” says Jews. The new administration agreed to subsidize some parking and improve security. CareFirst stayed.
“It’s an enormous task, putting Humpty Dumpty back together again,” says Kweisi Mfume, the NAACP president and former longtime Baltimore congressman who declined to run for mayor. “It takes time and energy and a whole lot of help.”
“He’s got a lot to do in a little time,” says Sheila Dixon, City Council president, of O’Malley. “But he’s a great cheerleader, and I think he can show other cities that Baltimore is a city to be reckoned with.”
“I’m smitten,” says David Cohen, the lawyer who served eight years as the alter ego to former Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell, one of the most successful and ebullient of the mayor-cheerleaders. Cohen, who has been a consultant to the new Baltimore administration, says, “He certainly has the attitude. If you are too calculating and intellectual and rational, you would never run for the job.”
O’Malley assesses such praise this way: “I haven’t had time to make mistakes yet.” Then he adds dryly: “But people will come to appreciate my shortcomings.”
Martin O’Malley started young with the politics. At 2 or 3, he was doing cheers for Hubert Humphrey when his mother prompted him. In grade school, he would tramp through his East Bethesda neighborhood handing out brochures for former Montgomery County executive Jim Gleason, who was a friend of his father, Thomas, a lawyer who twice ran for state’s attorney in Montgomery County. The oldest boy in a family of six kids, Martin was the one who “always had to get out into the world and greet the one-eyed dog or Mrs. So-and-So who lived around the corner,” says his mother, Barbara O’Malley, who works for Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.). “Another child would be content to stay around the house, but Martin needed to see what was going on out there.”
At Gonzaga High School, O’Malley played defensive back and acted in plays, “because that’s where the girls were,” he says. His football coach blasted Irish rock music to pump the team up before games. His ears thus opened, O’Malley took up the penny whistle and guitar and joined a band, whose members sneaked the adolescent into bars to play. Over the years, through regular gigs at Flanagan’s in Bethesda and O’Shea’s in Baltimore, there have been several bands. The current one is O’Malley’s March. Its new CD is about to come out.
“Some people do bowling. I like to play,” O’Malley says. “Then I won’t bite my staff’s head off.” He has two gigs on the day after St. Patrick’s Day, and two dates in April with the Baltimore Symphony.
The mayor asks the policeman driving his car to pop the tape in the player, then to turn up O’Malley’s own “Song for Justice.” He sings along with himself: “. . . If the Berlin Wall can crumble down, and Mandela can walk free, then we hope in our lifetimes that Ireland will know peace.”
This reformer’s streak led him to politics. He was at Catholic University studying political science and English when President Reagan got to bugging him. “He had this limiting view of my generation, that all we were aspiring to be was to get the Rolex and the BMW.”
He volunteered for Gary Hart in 1984, rising to field director and youngest convention floor leader. He headed for the University of Maryland law school in Baltimore–“it was the cheapest one I could find”–and fell in love with the city. He won a council seat at 28, then lost a state Senate race against a popular incumbent by 42 votes.
He loves a tough campaign, loves to be behind. “He makes a great candidate,” says his close friend from Gonzaga days, Michael Enright, former legislative director for Rep. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and now O’Malley’s first deputy mayor. “He’s a quick study and a gifted speaker. You could schedule him morning till night and he wouldn’t wear down.”
But O’Malley was thinking about getting out of politics last spring. He thought he might run for council president, get behind Mfume’s candidacy, then go make some money for a change. When Mfume decided not to run, O’Malley waded in, “not without a lot of soul-searching.”
In a city with more blacks than whites, O’Malley won the Democratic primary with more than 50 percent of the vote, trouncing his two major opponents, both black. In the city’s poor wards, O’Malley campaigned hard on shutting down drug corners and cleaning up the streets. “I felt in my bones I had people behind me. While I knew being white was a handicap, on the other hand to not run just because of the color of my skin would have been to sell folks short. . . . Because no people want low expectations for their city government–no people–not black or white or green or blue. It is about achieving justice for everyone.”
Not that he’s above some good old-fashioned ward-heeler politics: When Baltimore’s narrow row-house streets struggled under 17 inches of snow, the mayor ordered nearly 40 employees to call up 18,000 senior citizens over two days and ask if they were all right, then sent police officers around to deliver bread and milk donated by local supermarkets. Where did you find the names? asked the reporter. “Voting rolls,” said press secretary Tony White. “Some people were irritated and wondered how come they didn’t get called just because they weren’t registered. Hey, you gotta play to win.”
There is a crack in the mayor’s shimmering political future: a possibly disinclined wife. When O’Malley told her last summer that he wanted to run for mayor, she hoisted their toddler son in the air and said grimly, “Get a good look now, because if you win, you won’t see him again for five years.”
“Oh, she’s vicious. She’s cruel,” O’Malley says now, but almost proudly. “She’s a mother lion protecting the cubs.”
Catherine Curran O’Malley, 37, also seems capable of protecting herself. She may be suffering now while her husband is away dawn through night–fiercely juggling her stressful jobs as prosecutor and temporarily single mother of three–but she will not be long-suffering. The woman speaks her mind. If there’s a sorority of political wives where you can learn how to recede and smile bravely and train your facial muscles to settle into blandness, Katie O’Malley hasn’t joined it yet. Instead, she is appealingly frank.
She’s not without passion for Baltimore. “It’s my city, and I love it. I went to school here, and law school,” she says. “He’s bringing all this energy to it right now, and it’s been hard for him to delegate,” and you can hear the “but” coming, getting ready to crash into the conversation, “and I want him to be successful,” and here it is:
“But it’s not easy. Now that the campaign is over, he has resumed his morning duties, some days, which is handling our little boy, and he’s a handful,” she says. “During the first few months [of the primary campaign] I really didn’t know how I was going to do it, and I told him, ‘You have to come home,’ and he did.”
The O’Malleys live simply, in a house that is too small, without cable, without a cleaning lady, with a Mercury Sable with 115,000 miles on it. “We are a very boring family,” she says. “We aren’t home enough to watch a lot of television. The girls play soccer and basketball. They like to play Clue or Yahtzee.” After school, they go off with Katie’s mother, instead of to day care. She talks to her sisters every day.
After 10 years as a state prosecutor in Baltimore County, Katie O’Malley was promoted to head the white-collar crime unit. Next, she wants to be a judge. Earlier this month, the city’s Judicial Nominating Committee passed her name on to the governor for a seat on the District Court bench, the city’s busiest. Katie O’Malley got the recommendation on her own merits, said the commission’s chairman, noting that opposing counsel and judges gave her high marks.
But as long as she is first lady of Baltimore, Katie O’Malley’s career path will be circuitous. “You can’t escape the criticism, one way or the other. My dad has been the attorney general all these years, and I have never called him up and asked for help,” she says. “I have never asked Martin to come to court and hold my hand.
“I keep running into these men in their fifties and sixties, and they say, ‘You are going to continue to work?’ Well, I always have worked. I certainly wouldn’t want my daughters to see that I just followed my husband.”
Instead of attending many official functions, “I am here to do the homework at night,” she says firmly. And if the mayor needs time at day’s end to chew over his decisions, it won’t be with his wife. “We don’t go over papers together and we don’t talk about policy. I am very proud of him,” she says, “and he can do a great job without my help.”
Katie O’Malley found it “demeaning” to see herself in print as “the pretty wife,” but her husband can’t seem to help himself from crowing over her. “I am the luckiest guy,” says O’Malley, and his slate-blue eyes glint.
“Well, I’m glad he feels that way,” says his wife, by telephone a few days later. “It helps offset the rumors.”
Rumors? What rumors?
“That he’s running around on me. That he’s been running around on me for years,” she says.
Who says this? “Oh, I don’t know,” says the mayor’s wife. “Opponents, I guess, from when he was a councilman.”
Pause. The reporter offers that the mayor seems like he wouldn’t have the time. “That’s exactly what Martin always says,” says the mayor’s wife, who is also a crack prosecutor who would never say something in open court if she didn’t want it out there.
The demanding totality of this heady and desperate business of running a city may temper the mayor’s ambitions as well. A few years ago, he eagerly admitted that he would like to run for governor or senator someday. Now, he considers the question and rocks back in his mahogany office, jacket off, white shirt-sleeves pushed way up.
“I want to do a very good job at this,” O’Malley says. “I’m going to make decisions as if I’m not running for reelection. There’s more to life than public office. There’s having enough nights to watch my kids grow up and all.”
Toward the end of the long day that started with the double homicide, the mayor takes a seat on the stage before the taping of Mfume’s weekly public affairs show, “The Bottom Line.” The last time he was here at WBAL, O’Malley sat with 26 other candidates in the mayoral primary. “It was like the Hollywood Squares from hell,” he says. Now, he’s alone, waiting, elbows on knees, pants hiked a little at the knees.
He says he can feel the people of Baltimore growing itchy, hear them grumbling for results. “The milk’s starting to get a little old on the counter,” O’Malley says. “They want action now.” In a few minutes, the cameras will click on, and the mayor will hear from a man who lives on a block where three people were killed that week, from a girl who wants to know his plan for education, from a neighborhood activist bent on getting more jobs in a poor part of town. Big, sweeping problems, the kind that can lead to despair.
In the front row of the studio audience sits Tony White. The mayor badgered him until he quit his job as a reporter at the Afro-American and became his press secretary. “Jesus bleeping Christ!” White explodes. “What?” mouths O’Malley. White gives an answer that is both highly honorific and exceedingly vulgar in the space of a phrase. “Mr. Mayor, sir, you’re wearing two bleeping different colored socks on your bleeping feet.”
The mayor looks down, at one foot in navy, and one foot in black. Oh, this job. The details’ll kill you.
“Bleep!” mouths the mayor. Then he shrugs, rolls his eyes and grins.