Meagan Mitchell and two other twentysomething teachers waited patiently in Ocean City yesterday for Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley to make his way through a crowd of well-wishers, eager to get their picture snapped with the Democratic gubernatorial hopeful.
The three friends later revealed that they had seen O'Malley play in his Irish rock band around Baltimore. They liked what they heard then, and they liked what they heard as the mayor addressed a meeting of the largest statewide teachers' union.
"He's just like a normal guy," gushed Mitchell, who teaches fourth grade in Baltimore County. But she lamented: "He's becoming too popular. I'm not liking that I had to wait 15 minutes to get a picture with him."
Not everyone O'Malley encountered on the campaign trail in recent days was as fawning. But as he moved through Prince George's County and the Eastern Shore, O'Malley seemed to score as many points with his persona as he did with his policy proposals.
Not that there weren't policy proposals. O'Malley's address to the Maryland State Teachers Association focused on improving teacher pensions -- Maryland's are the worst in the nation, he said -- and other measures intended to help retain and recruit educators.
"I pledge to work with you in this legislative session to get it done now," O'Malley said of the pension situation, saying he understood why teachers migrate to Pennsylvania, which he said offers the nation's second-best teacher pensions.
O'Malley called for higher pay, better mentoring and a review of loan repayment programs. And he took a shot at an education commission chaired by Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R) that included no representatives from the teachers' lobby. O'Malley also noted that the commission's report was issued before some members had a chance to look at it.
"It reminded me of a bad movie that goes directly to theaters without letting critics see it," he said to laughter.
Some at the conference said O'Malley's speech contained fewer specifics than that of his Democratic rival, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who addressed the group Friday. But those interviewed afterward seemed evenly split in their opinions about the candidates.
Dale Kerns, an elementary school counselor from Cecil County, said she had been part of a much smaller group in her county that heard directly from both candidates. O'Malley seemed to better understand their needs, she said.
"But I also thought the mayor made great personal connections in the room," Kerns said. "I really like that in my leaders. That has to go hand in hand."
Later, O'Malley picked up the endorsements of a dozen local and county officials from the lower Eastern Shore, a region that traditionally has not played a decisive role in Democratic primaries and that seemed grateful for the attention.
"We're making a statement that we've come out backing the mayor of Baltimore, Martin O'Malley, to be the next governor," Somerset County Commissioner Michael K. McCready said before the event, in the back room of a restaurant and lounge in Princess Anne. "He's shown more interest in the lower three counties than anyone in a long time."
As he started talking, O'Malley was interrupted when he noted he had been raised in Montgomery County.
"Where's that?" shouted one of the three dozen people in attendance.
"It's over on the other side of the bridge," O'Malley offered without pause.
The rest of the discussion turned more serious, with a focus on what the state could do to expand broadband Internet access on the shore and what it could do to help farmers.
While Duncan spent the past two days traveling in an RV, O'Malley traveled in his usual Ford Expedition with his "Believe" bumper stickers.
Friday's travels brought him to Bowie Town Center, an expansive open-air shopping center, where he ran into 14-year-old Katie Gainer, talking on a cell phone.
"Can you say hi to my friend Gina?" she asked the mayor, who took the phone without hesitation.
"Gina, this is Martin O'Malley," he said. "I need your help."