Band lets O’Malley loosen up


Gov. Martin O’Malley plays with his band at Fort McHenry. (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST)

The band’s frontman, bathed in green and blue lights, was in the middle of a rollicking set, belting out one Irish-flavored anthem after another, an acoustic guitar slung around his neck. As an instrumental number hit its crescendo, he leapt two feet into the air.

The governor of Maryland landed with a wide grin. Martin O’Malley, decked out in all black, was back in his element.

Whatever else one makes of the most recent reemergence of the governor’s Celtic rock band, O’Malley’s March, it underscores a change in attitude about a strand of O’Malley’s life more intertwined with his political rise than most anyone realizes.

The gig last weekend was the latest sign that O’Malley (D) is seeking to recapture a little of the freewheeling spirit that marked his tenure as mayor of Baltimore, a persona he reluctantly recast as his first bid for governor was taking shape six years ago.

Instead of seeing his music as a liability, many around him have come to view it as a healthy, humanizing outlet for O’Malley, who, if anything, has grown a little stiff since moving to Annapolis in 2007.

Often mentioned as a possible candidate for national office in 2016, O’Malley is in the middle of his stint as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, a post that has given him and, on occasion, his music an audience beyond Maryland.

As other politicians have emerged on the national scene, more than a few have seen their passions outside politics become an important part of their public image.

Former Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee was frequently seen with a bass guitar. Current GOP candidate Jon Huntsman Jr. has become known for his love of motorcycles. And President Obama is known to relish the rough-and-tumble of the basketball court even when it lands him a fat lip and a few stitches.

Now, as O’Malley, 48, tries to shape his legacy in the State House and fashion a political future, some of those closest to him have come to think he went too far in trying to sideline the music that so animates him.

“My wife came around in the end,” O’Malley said in an interview. “She said you’ve got to get out and show people you enjoy life.”

That certainly wasn’t the prevailing view a few years ago. In the run-up to his 2006 campaign for governor, O’Malley announced that his band’s 2005 St. Patrick’s Day season would be its last. His advisers, he said, were concerned that his side career detracted from his “gravitas.” Playing late hours in Baltimore bars might be fine for a city councilman or a brash young mayor, but, at age 41, it didn’t seem exactly, well, gubernatorial.

Not ready to quit

Such concerns didn’t seem to weigh on the governor last weekend, as he and his bandmates appeared before what could have been a pretty tough crowd: fellow politicians.

The band, which had receded more than once but never quite retired, was booked as part of the Saturday night entertainment for a weekend-long meeting in Baltimore of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. More than 800 elected officials, staffers and corporate sponsors gathered in a tent the size of a football field on the grounds of Fort McHenry.

O’Malley, comfortably reelected last year to a second term, sweated through an hour-long mix of songs he wrote years ago and covers of other artists, including the better-known Irish band the Saw Doctors.

The governor bantered with the audience, dedicating a song to the “strong women” mayors in the crowd. He shed his acoustic guitar at one point to play the bodhran, an Irish drum, and at another point, the cowbell.

O’Malley clearly wasn’t ready to quit when he got word that he needed to wrap things up. The rest of the night’s planned entertainment for the visiting mayors — a historical reenactment and fireworks — was waiting.

“Can’t we play one more?” O’Malley playfully begged from the stage. “C’mon.”

The governor got his way, giving a pepped-up Celtic treatment to Green Day’s 1997 hit “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).”

‘His natural best’

It was a far looser O’Malley than the one usually on display in Annapolis — and a persona that some politicians think he never should have tried to shed.

“Those who told him it wasn’t good politics, I think that was a mistake,” said Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), the long-serving Maryland Senate president. “The governor has a lot of strengths, but he has a hard time relating to Joe Six Pack. Music is a great way to relate to people, particularly blue-collar Democrats. When he’s singing his music, he’s at his natural best.”

For all of his success as a politician and performer, O’Malley is more of an introvert than many realize and has always been more comfortable downing Guinesses with a few close friends than working the cocktail circuit. For years, the band served as a way to draw him out of that comfort zone and expose him to more people in Baltimore and beyond.

Given O’Malley’s duties as governor and his chairmanship of the Democratic Governors Association, no one is forecasting a return to the days when O’Malley’s March played regular gigs.

But he and his guitar have been popping up more in public lately, including at a fundraiser this month in Rockville and a diplomatic reception earlier this year in the District.

“I’d like to find a way to play more, frankly,” he said. “I enjoy it, and I’ve missed it.”

O’Malley, who once called his music “a left-brain activity that’s helped to make me a whole person,” said he encounters less “staff resistance” to playing music these days. But it remains a “scheduling headache,” he said.

Taking criticism

As O’Malley geared up for his run for governor in 2005, a letter posted on the band’s Web site was interpreted as a good-bye.

“At this point in my life, every ounce of my aging creative energies are going to have to be focused on continuing our city’s remarkable progress and being laser focused on getting our state moving in the right direction again,” O’Malley wrote. “I’d love to keep playing, but a vocation is a ‘yes’ that requires a thousand ‘no’s.’ ”

At the time, O’Malley was taking flak from his anticipated Democratic primary opponent, then-Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan. Duncan’s campaign would continue to mock O’Malley as “the boy in the band,” distributing fliers showing the mayor performing in sleeveless T-shirts (which have not returned) while crime remained a big problem in Baltimore.

The line of attack has not vanished. Larry Hogan, a leading Republican who conducted an exploratory bid for governor last year and is considering running in 2014, said O’Malley’s musical outings still strike the wrong chord.

“I don’t begrudge him having a hobby, but it doesn’t sit well with people who think the state is off track,” Hogan said.

In truth, the band never quite went away.

After O’Malley defeated then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) in 2006, the new governor reunited with his band to play a set at his inaugural ball, opening with Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’.”

Since then, the band has gotten back together for fundraisers, Irish festivals and the occasional show in Annapolis or Baltimore.

In 2009, O’Malley’s March released its fifth CD, which took nearly two years to produce, largely because of O’Malley’s schedule. While it was being recorded, O’Malley told a reporter that its working title was “Banished to the Basement,” a reflection of how “political realities” had affected the band.

Jared Denhard, who plays trombone, harp and other instruments in O’Malley’s March, suggested that pulling back was harder for O’Malley — whose original songs touch upon Irish history and social justice — than people might expect. “For better or for worse, if you’re a singer-songwriter, it’s a manifestation of who you are,” Denhard said.

What comes next?

Among those who have encouraged O’Malley to keep playing are his wife, Catherine Curran O’Malley, and her father, J. Joseph Curran Jr., Maryland’s former attorney general, who says music has been important in shaping O’Malley’s life.

“Most people appreciate seeing another side of a politician,” said Curran (D). “In Martin’s case, it’s playing music that makes him happy.”

Katie O’Malley said the band provides “a way for Martin to release a lot of stress,” although these days, his schedule means her husband picks up a guitar at home in the mansion far more often than in a pub.

“During a snowstorm,” she playfully adds, “it can get kind of annoying.”

O’Malley’s music played a key role in the couple’s courtship. In 1986, they crossed paths regularly on the campaign trail in Maryland. She was accompanying her father to events as he ran for attorney general. He was working as field director for Barbara A. Mikulski (D) as she ran for the U.S. Senate.

By all accounts, O’Malley’s efforts to woo his future wife fell flat. They didn’t start dating until three years later, after a mutual friend took Katie Curran to see O’Malley play music at a Baltimore pub.

The regular gigs at that pub, then known as McGinn’s, were also crucial to the launch of O’Malley’s political career.

When O’Malley narrowly lost a race for the state Senate in 1990, the core group of campaign volunteers were people he knew through music. He was elected to the Baltimore City Council the next year with the help of many of the same people.

Among them was Sean R. Malone, who was working his way through law school as a bartender at McGinn’s. Malone, who later managed O’Malley’s 1995 reelection campaign for City Council, said that O’Malley’s political rise was remarkable, given that he grew up in Montgomery County and didn’t move to Baltimore until law school.

“He built a political base from playing Irish music,” said Malone, who held several posts in O’Malley’s mayoral and gubernatorial administrations before becoming a lobbyist.

The band has also helped O’Malley build newer political relationships. When he first met Vice President Biden several years ago, they exchanged stories about mutual friends from the music scene in Wilmington, Del., an area in Biden’s home state where O’Malley’s March had played.

It remains unclear what comes next for O’Malley, who is term-limited as governor.

Whatever his plans, the band’s place in his future seems less at risk. Watching him at Fort McHenry last weekend, no one who was asked saw much more than a guy having fun.

“He seems very genuine,” said Margaret Green, whose husband was part of the delegation accompanying the mayor of Portland, Ore. “He looks happy, like he’s enjoying what he does.”

*but keeps day job

John Wagner has covered Maryland government and politics for The Post since 2004.
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