Talking the Talk

Mayoral candidate Martin J. O'Malley needs to raise money, lots of it. He needs to meet people, lots of them. He needs to explain his 'blueprint for the city.' But most of all, he needs to remain gaffe-free

August 26, 1999|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

Martin J. O'Malley, who has dubbed his mayoral campaign the "corner campaign," probably wasn't envisioning a corner like this when he declared his candidacy two months ago.

It is 7: 30 a.m., and he is standing where two walls of floor-to-ceiling windows meet in a Canton Cove condominium. The backdrop looks more like some Hollywood version of Baltimore than the real thing. The sweeping view of the harbor is nothing less than jaw-dropping, but gawking is not the purpose of this breakfast.

The purpose is money. The two dozen or so people here have it; O'Malley wants some. Campaign finance reports will be released soon, and O'Malley figures he's halfway toward the minimum amount he needs to run an effective campaign.

But before he can make his pitch for the green, he has to address the other colors in the mayoral race. The morning began with local radio reports, every 30 minutes, playing a sound bite in which a local minister accused O'Malley of being a racist, for using the two words Ross Perot made famous: "You people."

Never mind that the complaint took 48 hours to gel, or that O'Malley swears he was referring to the multi-racial organization, BUILD. His wife, Katie, cried in front of their three children when she heard the epithet the night before. It's on the radio, it's going to follow him all day.

"People are going to parse my every word, examine every comma," he tells these potential supporters, all white. It's a line he will repeat, with some variations, throughout the day. He will say it to political allies who check in by telephone. He will say it to potential contributors and journalists. "People are going to parse my every word. They are going to call me a racist and a redneck."

O'Malley has chosen another "r" word for himself -- reformer. What does he mean by that? The questions at this breakfast are surprisingly tough-minded. These people want to try before they buy.

"Would you close North Avenue?" one woman asks, and she is not being facetious about her despair over the school administration's headquarters. O'Malley points out the mayor no longer controls the city's schools. His children go to Catholic schools, as he and his wife did. Interestingly, no one ever presses beyond this explanation. How would Mayor O'Malley proceed, for example, if a Norplant proposal came before the City Council again? Such questions are never asked.

Another woman suggests O'Malley's response to the city's budget crisis is "simplistic" and "naive." How can the city afford tax breaks for big developers, with a predicted shortfall of $153 million? O'Malley counters that tourism is Baltimore's growth industry, and the hotels receiving tax breaks will still make significant contributions to the city's coffers.

Finally, the checkbooks come out. Nancy Harrigan, who helped organize this breakfast, moves through the room with a carafe of coffee, topping off the Wedgwood china cups: "People are hungry to hear this. They're so afraid of choosing wrong. I don't think this is an election where we can make mistakes."

10 a.m., 11 E. Lexington, the call room

It certainly is not an election where O'Malley can afford to make mistakes. Every day from now until the Sept. 14 Democratic primary has to be gaffe-free. His showing in the latest poll, which puts him in a statistical tie with his former ally, City Council President Lawrence Bell III, was good news, almost too good. Suddenly, people are asking: Could Baltimore, overwhelmingly African-American, elect a white mayor?

The question was asked four years ago, when City Council President Mary Pat Clarke ran against Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. The answer, despite polls showing a tight contest, was a resounding "No." Baltimore has veins of feeling no poll can tap, as O'Malley admits.

"It's a strange little vortex I find myself in," he says, heading back to his "call room," in a suite of rooms that aspire to rattiness. He'll get on the phones, try to roust a few dollars before his next event, a press conference. "The issue of race is unavoidable, but it's not insurmountable."

In 1995, O'Malley theorizes, the symbolism was more potent: If voters turned Schmoke out of office, it meant the first-ever elected black mayor of Baltimore had failed. This race has no incumbents, just 17 Democratic candidates. Four hold public office, three are considered competitive -- O'Malley, Bell and former City Councilman Carl Stokes.

"Carl and Lawrence will try to do everything they can to make this a repeat of '95, but I don't think they can. In eight years on the City Council, I never found that many things boiled down to race. It was more generational than racial."

At 36, O'Malley is a baby boomer, just barely. Born and reared in Montgomery County, he came to Baltimore in 1985 "for the cheapest law school in the state of Maryland," he says of the University of Maryland with a grin. He says a lot of things with this wide, frat boy grin.

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