O'Malley's Music Brings Exposure -- And Gibes

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 29, 2006

The people waving broadly to Martin O'Malley across Ellicott City's Main Street knew him as more than Baltimore's mayor and a Democratic candidate for governor.

Katie Turyna had seen the mayor's seven-piece Celtic rock band, O'Malley's March, play in Catonsville. And a few years back, John Beck shot two rolls of film at one of the group's concerts and forwarded duplicates to the mayor.

"He actually used one of them on his next CD," said Beck, 67, as O'Malley continued a recent stroll down the historic Howard County street, shaking hands and posing for pictures.

In this year's race for governor, O'Malley's nearly two decades fronting the band have been used primarily to bash him -- with his Democratic rival, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan seeking to turn the mayor's musical side career into a symbol of a vainglorious politician devoid of substance.

Duncan's fliers and news releases have mocked O'Malley. One showed the mayor in a black sleeveless shirt and derisively referred to him as "the boy in the band."

At a candidates forum this month, Duncan made a point of telling the audience that he and his running mate "are not rock stars. We're people who are very serious about getting the job done."

But a more nuanced look at O'Malley's musical pursuits suggests that his band played an important role in developing a political persona twice embraced as mayor by Baltimore voters. It has also helped position O'Malley for a statewide run.

O'Malley the musician has been free in recent years to travel the state and broaden his exposure in a way that would have been seen as overtly political -- and off-putting to some -- had he done so only as a candidate angling for higher office.

Besides playing weekend gigs in and around Baltimore, O'Malley's March has appeared regularly before beer-drinking crowds in such places as Ocean City, Easton, Chestertown and Annapolis.

Whether O'Malley's vocals and guitar will work against his gravitas remains to be seen. But recent encounters on the campaign trail suggest that such a viewpoint is hardly universal.

"I appreciate him being multi-talented," Turyna, 35, said after greeting O'Malley in Ellicott City. "He's not just up there in his office. He can come down and relate to people."

Although Clancy Brothers records were played in O'Malley's home while he was growing up, it wasn't until high school that he fully tuned in to his Irish heritage. Inspired by a football coach, he learned to play several Celtic instruments and was soon in his first band.

O'Malley's March was launched in 1987 and would release four compact discs before the mayor announced in March of last year that the band had played its final St. Patrick's Day season. O'Malley, who practiced law before becoming mayor, said that he never considered the band more than "a hobby" and that he still picks up a guitar for relaxation from time to time.

Band members have reunited on a couple of occasions since their announced hiatus, most recently this month at a low-dollar fundraiser for his campaign, held at a Baltimore County marina. After mingling for about an hour, O'Malley, wearing a long-sleeve dress shirt and slacks, joined his band mates on stage.

With his emerald green guitar slung behind his back, O'Malley served up a fiery campaign speech, concluding with an assertion that Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. "took over a strong state. He's weakened us, and he's dividing us."

From there, the band launched into a cover of "Green and Red of Mayo," a song by a better-known Irish band, the Saw Doctors.

The seven-song set also included "South Baltimore Lullaby," a darker, O'Malley-penned song that was inspired, he said, by the funeral of a Baltimore police officer slain while on duty. The lyrics are an imagined conversation between the officer and his son.

Other O'Malley songs draw heavily on Irish history and quests for justice -- themes his supporters say underscore a maturity contrary to Duncan's attacks. There's also the fact that two of the band members are in their fifties, and another two, including O'Malley, have crossed 40.

"Martin would never get so much flak if he were playing golf," said Annette Jones-Wilson, the band's manager and wife of its drummer.

O'Malley's music and political career are separate strands of his life that became intertwined over the years.

When O'Malley narrowly lost a race for state Senate in 1990, the core group of campaign volunteers were people he knew through music -- fellow musicians, fans, bar employees and the like. He was elected to the Baltimore City Council a year later with the help of many of the same people.

To this day, one of his closest political advisers is Sean R. Malone, with whom O'Malley struck up a friendship a dozen years ago at McGinn's, a Baltimore pub on Charles Street where O'Malley's March played regularly.

Malone was bartending there to work his way through law school. He would later manage O'Malley's 1995 reelection campaign for City Council, enlisting the band to play at fundraisers. Today Malone serves as O'Malley's labor commissioner, a title that belies a far broader portfolio.

When O'Malley wrestled with the idea of running for governor in 2002, the band's uilleann pipe player, who was dying of a brain tumor, was as influential as anyone in persuading O'Malley to stay on as mayor, he said.

At a news conference announcing his decision, O'Malley relayed that "my good friend Paul Levin, who knew me like a book, told me before his death last week: 'Your problem, Martin, is you're drawn to the toughest fight. But serving Baltimore now is the tougher of the two fights you weigh.' "

The boost the band gave O'Malley in certain parts of the state was evident in the fall when Duncan traveled to Chesapeake City. The valet at the inn where a small group of Duncan supporters gathered had never heard of the county executive. Asked what the valet knew about the mayor, he pointed to a nearby outdoor stage where O'Malley's March had played during a summer concert series.

Being a fan of the band, of course, does not always translate into political support.

Barbie Willis, an Anne Arundel County resident who teaches classical ballet, decided to make a trip to Chestertown with her husband and another couple to hear O'Malley's March last May.

O'Malley had recently announced the band's curtailed schedule, and Willis, 67, said she wanted to check out the buzz while she could. She was not disappointed. "We just thought he was fabulous, and his personality was magnetic. We all totally fell in love with him," she said.

But Willis said she is supporting Duncan for governor: O'Malley, in her judgment, has not accomplished enough in Baltimore.

Some O'Malley supporters joke that falling short this year might be the best hope for reuniting the band members. "If he loses the election, we'd probably make him re-audition," said Jared Denhard, the band's trombone player.

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