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A Politician Molded by Irish Rebels, Jesuit Ideals

By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 1, 2006

In the synagogue meeting hall, the candidate's rhetoric has taken flight. "If there is a motto to the O'Malley-Brown campaign," says the Baltimore mayor, the poet-pol who would be governor, "then it is found in the eyes and faces of the people we seek to serve."

The congregants of B'nai Israel in Rockville came to the Sunday morning forum with earnest questions on the issues, and Martin O'Malley, the great hope of Maryland's Democratic Party, gave them answers, on roads and schools, crime and health care.

Now, in closing, as often happens, he's into oratory.

"While concepts of healing the world -- tikkun olam , tzedakah , justice -- are clearly Judeo concepts, they are also human concepts," says O'Malley, a singer-songwriter of Irish folk music. "They are guardians of the freedom of the human spirit and the proof of what our human frailty can achieve."

In his bid to unseat Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), O'Malley, 43, is called a lot of things. Whichever descriptions apply to the former Baltimore City Council member and now second-term mayor -- a tough go-getter or an impolitic showboat; hyperambitious or selflessly committed to the public good -- this much is clear:

He sure can talk.

Critics call it eloquence masquerading as substance. But grand expression has always been part of O'Malley's ethnic tradition, inspiring faith and purpose in the Irish through ages of adversity. With time dwindling before Election Day, and O'Malley leading in independent polls, the question is, can he talk his way to Annapolis?

'A Man for Others'

"You must be sick of me by now," O'Malley says later in the day, climbing into a Ford Expedition in Howard County after working the crowd at a charity lunch.

It's long after the synagogue forum. He has knocked on doors, sat in meetings, done radio and television interviews and fired up a women's rally. Now he slides his lean, 6-foot-1 frame onto the rear seat and tilts his head back against the leather, eyes shut for a moment.

"I know I'm sick of me," he says, grinning, as the SUV pulls out, carrying him back to Montgomery County. There's more door-knocking on the schedule, more of the retail politicking that friends say O'Malley is instinctively drawn to.

When he was a foot soldier in Gary Hart's 1984 presidential campaign, O'Malley says, he thought his career in politics would be behind the scenes as "a thoroughbred organizer," given his genes.

His grandfathers were New Deal Democrats: one, a ward boss in Pittsburgh; the other, chairman of an Indiana congressional district. Growing up in Bethesda and Rockville, the third of six siblings, O'Malley says he learned an ethos of political involvement from his parents, who first met at Democratic National Committee headquarters in 1954.

"You just don't sit there in passive silence when you can contribute some ideal," says his mother, Barbara O'Malley, a longtime Capitol Hill receptionist for Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.). Her husband, Tom O'Malley, who died in January, was a trial lawyer, "a modern-day Atticus Finch and a great man," Martin O'Malley says.

In his campaign, he cites the Jesuit ideal of being "a man for others," instilled in him at Gonzaga College High School, a few blocks north of the Capitol. While there, he also experienced an ethnic awakening that helped shape the public figure he is today.

Picturing a Better Tomorrow

His football coach, Danny Costello, a proud Irish American, enjoyed listening to Celtic folk songs in his office, especially the subgenre known as rebel music.

The lyrics recall centuries of oppression in Ireland, honoring the heroes who warred against England and championing the struggle for a unified republic, for an end to British rule in the province of Northern Ireland. Rebel bands such as the Wolfe Tones, Costello's favorite, poeticized the militancy of the Irish Republican Army.

For O'Malley, in the fall of 1979, here was Celtic music that stirred him. In his coach's office, the Wolfe Tones sang for human rights; of patriots bleeding in the streets under royal rifles; of "The Men Behind the Wire" in the Maze, the notorious British prison near Belfast.

"There's probably not a book in the Rockville library on Irish history that I didn't sign out in high school," he says. Searching for the stories behind the lyrics, he found a history filled with defiant chieftains and rebel poets, a millennium of Irish perseverance rich with misty and majestic verses.

For his senior yearbook quote in 1981, he turned to Patrick Pearse, a poet and republican rebel shot by a British firing squad after the Easter Rising in 1916.

"Wise men, riddle me this: what if the dream come true?"

It's from "The Fool," a poem about faith, about "attempting impossible things, deeming them alone worth the toil."

"It says to me that . . . in order to make a better tomorrow, you have to be able to dream and picture it in your head," O'Malley explains.

Running for mayor in 1999, with his city's homicide toll regularly topping 300 a year, O'Malley vowed to cut the annual body count to 175 or less. But he hasn't come close. Totals have been hovering above 250, and Ehrlich, in the campaign, has hammered him on it.

It's not a broken promise, O'Malley says. He calls it "a goal dreamed but not realized." He says what counts are faith and persistence.

"To say that Baltimore could become the safest city in America -- if I am sincere in holding that ambition in my heart," he says, "and people rally around that ambition, and over 20 or 30 years it became true, then it wasn't all that foolish to begin with, was it?"

He wants to be governor, he says, because Maryland needs a leader who can inspire hope and encourage dreams. In Annapolis, he would stand for "the politics that says we are all in this together, that our tomorrows can be better than our todays."

Ehrlich has scoffed at the mayor's rhetorical flights. "I don't know what all that means, I gotta tell you," he said in a recent TV debate, after O'Malley waxed about "the politics of hope and the politics of dreams."

It was the Irish in him.

With help from Costello, now Gonzaga's vice president for development, O'Malley learned to play tin whistle and guitar in school. With two of Costello's friends, they formed a Celtic band, Shannon Tide, and hit the Irish pub circuit.

This was long before O'Malley became a Baltimore celebrity in the 1990s, a City Council member and the muscle-shirted frontman of the Celtic band O'Malley's March. The group formed in 1987 and went on indefinite hiatus when the governor's race heated up.

O'Malley says, "You can't very well tell the Wicomico Democrats you can't make their annual dinner because you have a gig at the Avalon with the band."

A Talent for Connecting

After working for a year at Gary Hart's Capitol Hill campaign headquarters, O'Malley, a Catholic University student, went into the field and gained a reputation as a superb organizer in the 1984 presidential race. He says he was drawn to Hart because the Colorado senator was more forward-thinking than the other contenders.

"He was talking about new things that all of us accept as true now," O'Malley says, meaning the advent of a global economy and the importance of technology.

Hitting the ground in Iowa in late 1983, a month before the caucuses, "was really Martin's release into freedom," says Doug Wilson, Hart's deputy campaign manager. He says O'Malley's talent for "connecting with people" came alive.

Hart laughs, recalling: "Every kitchen and living room I walked into, they were talking about Martin. The ladies particularly were praising this young fellow -- what a wonderful young man he was, how much they loved having him in their homes. He was playing his penny whistle for them, playing his guitar, singing."

With Hart competitive in the race until the end, O'Malley took on bigger jobs in other states and wound up a 21-year-old floor leader at the convention in July.

"We're talking about somebody who understands how to combine data with a real sense of how people tend to behave," Wilson says, adding that O'Malley "understands at a very grass-roots level . . . how people are going to vote or what it is that appeals to them."

O'Malley was set to work for his man again in 1988. Hart, the party's early front-runner, formally launched his campaign in April 1987, while O'Malley was in law school in Baltimore.

Attending the University of Maryland there, O'Malley says, he fell in love with the city. He helped get Mikulski elected to the Senate in 1986 as her statewide field director and was looking forward to a career as a backstage political pro. He thought he could help put Hart in the White House.

Then: "It was almost like the death of a close friend," O'Malley recalls. The story of Hart's dalliance with model Donna Rice broke two weeks after he entered the race. Hart quit, then returned seven months later. But his campaign was hopelessly damaged.

"Oh, gosh, I had a lot of different reactions," O'Malley recalls. "A lot of anger. Disbelief. Disappointment. All those things at once, I suppose."

Rumors of infidelity dogged Hart before the scandal. As mayor, O'Malley has faced similar whispers and has publicly denounced them as "despicable lies." He says he has always been faithful to his wife.

Married since 1990, he and Katie O'Malley, a state judge (and a daughter of Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.) have four children, the oldest, 15.

"I was with Hart when he got back into the race," O'Malley says, sounding wistful. "I have a great deal of admiration for his courage, his insights, his patriotism and his intellect. And I always will, human frailties notwithstanding."

Drawing Blood

In his two City Council terms in the 1990s, O'Malley's Web site says, he was "known for his outspokenness and fierce devotion." That's one way of describing him.

Council member Nicholas D'Adamo Jr. (D) says O'Malley was "a pit bull" at meetings, relentlessly assailing Baltimore's police commissioner and other department heads about performance, spending, record-keeping. "When he got hold of someone's leg," says D'Adamo, an Ehrlich supporter, "he didn't let go until he drew blood."

Foes back then called him an arrogant grandstander, a young pol on the make. "Brash," said the press. A maverick. A rebel.

O'Malley shakes his head now. "People always overestimate my ambition and underestimate my conviction," he says.

A stint as a legislative fellow in Mikulski's office in the late 1980s inspired him to run for public office, he says. After a few years as a prosecutor and a narrow loss in a state Senate race, he won a seat on the council in 1991.

He concedes he had trouble holding his tongue in those years. When a renowned British army band scheduled a Baltimore performance, O'Malley decried it as "appalling and galling" to Irish Americans. When he was angry at Democratic council member Robert W. Curran (his wife's Uncle Bob) for not siding with him on votes, he sent Curran a scathing letter.

It might have been written by candlelight with a quill pen: "You have several times begged for pardon and communication only to return to the brothel of unprincipled and corrupt men."

Baltimore's big concern was high crime: drugs and murder. O'Malley pushed for zero-tolerance policing, involving strict enforcement of laws against loitering, public drinking and other nuisance offenses. The goal was to curb serious crime by improving the quality of life in the city. Inevitably, the brunt of the crackdown would fall on poor neighborhoods.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke (D) and his police commissioner opposed the approach, which has been used in other cities. Not until O'Malley became mayor was he able to put the idea to work. Now it's a campaign issue for Ehrlich, who accuses O'Malley of sanctioning "mass arrests" of innocent black men.

With his family growing, O'Malley says, he almost quit elective politics in 1999, to make real money practicing law. Instead, he jumped into the mayor's race -- a long-shot, white candidate in a mostly African American city -- and shocked the establishment by winning big.

His two main opponents in the Democratic primary were African American: City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III and former council member Carl Stokes. O'Malley was accused of cynical opportunism, of hoping for a split black vote that would allow him to grab the nomination. But it didn't work out that way.

"I don't think Martin ever thought he was going to be just the candidate of the white vote," Wilson says. He adds: O'Malley "could sense that the city had reached a tipping point on crime, that that's what mattered to people, black and white."

Making public safety the centerpiece of his campaign, he got 53 percent of the primary vote, while Bell and Stokes came away with 45 percent combined.

In an overwhelmingly Democratic city, O'Malley easily won the general election. After winning reelection two years ago with 88 percent of the vote, he was immediately anointed a contender in the 2006 governor's race.

And here he is, six days out, hoping his ascent continues.

He made plenty of waves in his first term as mayor, shook up the bureaucracy, shot off his mouth, started a couple of feuds, angered a bunch of people. He calls it "a fearlessness about declaring goals that some might think are overly ambitious, and actually demanding that people who work for us figure out how to achieve them."

His second term has been quieter. "The mutinies were put down," he says. "We're far from perfect, but we're making progress."

Faith and persistence, O'Malley says. Consider Hugh O'Neill, the leader he admires most in Irish history, a 16th-century chieftain who fought a stubborn war of resistance against the English hundreds of years before the Republic of Ireland was at last born.

O'Malley wrote a paean to him and sang it with the band. Now, cruising along Interstate 95 in the SUV, the campaign day not yet over, he is reminded of the lyrics.

"But to those who would say such struggle was folly . . . one man backed his dreams up with action."

He smiles.

"Great stuff, huh?"

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