O'Malley's triumph years in the making

Primary victory: Result is no surprise for those who watched his political apprenticeship.

September 16, 1999

AT THE conclusion of his acceptance speech Tuesday evening, Democratic mayoral nominee Martin O'Malley extolled the virtues of that person who "makes his own event, not time or chance."

While luck surely has played a role in his political life, the 36-year-old candidate was remarkably ready when good fortune arrived.

He was accused of taking advantage of the fact that the African-American vote might be divided, allowing a white contender to win.

He asserted the right of anyone to run -- and neutralized the complaint by winning more votes than his two top opponents combined.

On the City Council, he chiseled an image of assertive, pugnacious advocacy, taking on the police in a search for truth about shootings in the city. Critics found his hectoring of the police commissioner disturbing, but politicians are always flirting with demagogy.

Confrontation, though, was only part of his appeal.

No one in the race had a better feel for Baltimore elections. Having run campaigns for his father-in-law, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., he knows Baltimore precinct by precinct. Political campaigns work when they are disciplined, as well as prepared to take advantage of unforeseen events.

He had formed a successful coalition with an African-American colleague, City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III. Because Mr. Bell's fitness for the office of mayor was questioned, Mr. O'Malley did not suffer when he broke with his old ally.

Mr. O'Malley insisted for years that a white politician could still be elected in majority black Baltimore. His faith was rewarded.

A musician and a lawyer, he is a practiced performer. His presence on television, in debates and interviews was crisp and focused. And he was agile. He seemed to sense his fighter's image had become a bit too sharp -- and he steered away from moments when he might have attacked his opponents. When they came after him, he appeared measured, in control and unfazed.

Political behavior at its best combines the public good with personal ambition. Voters are left to decide which has the upper hand.

In this case, Mr. O'Malley's primary victory is a clear signal of the voters' desire for a new era of energetic government service in a city that needs it desperately.

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