At the O'Malley household, a modest two-story brick home in northeast Baltimore, the reigning symbol of lagging repairs is the deck out back. It creaks and wobbles, and the warped wood has turned a deep and splintery gray. In a family of lawyers, it has all the hallmarks of a tort in the making. So, Katie asked about getting a new one.
"After the election," Martin replied. Wonder what it will look like in 20 years.
Childhood offered harsher lessons, too, and some still come in handy. What's so unnerving about a bunch of hecklers at your husband's news conference compared with a nasty bunch of white supremacist demonstrators picketing your front lawn because your dad voted for equal housing legislation? How tough can it be getting over an election loss once you've stood next to your dad while he conceded defeat in a congressional primary?
But the Curran family's greatest trial, and the event that still galvanizes its intense loyalty, was the death of Katie's brother William at the age of 16 months. Katie was 7 then. Her sister Alice was 8, Mary was 9. And one day Katie went up to William's room and found him limp, not breathing. The family rushed him to the hospital, but it was too late to help. The cause of death is now known as Reye's syndrome, a condition in children that can follow a viral infection, sometimes triggered by taking aspirin.
Dad came home to break the awful news.
"Telling the girls," Joe Curran says, "was probably the most difficult thing I've ever had to do."
"It left a hole in our hearts," says Mary Curran.
"I remember everything," recalls Katie, now 37. "It was awful. I think that experience, of losing a sibling who everyone obviously loved so very much, really brought the family close together. ... A lot of it has to do with the realization that at any time it can all be over, for any of us."
When Katie and Martin's son was born two years ago, there was no doubt that his name would be William. Mary's son, who's also 2, got the Irish version of the name. He's Liam.
In the public eye
The closeness of the Curran home produced in Katie a personality that works well under stress, and in close quarters. She is straightforward without being blunt, with a wit that is sharp but not wounding. Her warmth seems genuine, not forced.
They are qualities that serve a courtroom lawyer well before a jury, in a profession that seemed like a natural even as her sisters gravitated elsewhere. Alice went into accounting. Mary became an actress, then a photographer.
But none has ever strayed far from politics -- at least not during election seasons -- and it was during her father's first run for attorney general in 1986 that she first caught the eye of a young man working in the U.S. Senate campaign of Barbara Mikulski. His name was Martin O'Malley, and he spotted her at a Democratic Party rally.
"I remember asking Mikulski, 'Who's that?' And she said, 'That's Curran's secret weapon, one of his beautiful daughters.' "
Some two years after that, Martin arranged a meeting through a mutual friend. A year and a half later, they married. It was an easy match -- two slender and attractive people with an abundance of energy, both raised in crowded Catholic households in the suburbs of Maryland, and both 1981 graduates of parochial prep schools. Each was a veteran campaigner from way back, and each came from a household where John F. Kennedy had been a hero.
It didn't take Martin long to launch his own campaigns, first a narrow loss to state Sen. John Pica Jr. in 1990, then a winning campaign for a city council seat the following year. By then, the hurly-burly had begun in earnest. Through those first two campaigns Katie was finishing law school, clerking for the state's attorney's office, studying for the bar exam and, oh yeah, having a first child and then carrying a second.
"It couldn't have gotten crazier," she says. "So I think we're groomed. We're totally groomed for craziness."
Then as now, family pitched in. She and Max went through law school together and studied for the bar together. Once she passed, criminal prosecution seemed like a good fit, and she became an assistant state's attorney in the office where she had been clerking. Her boss has been impressed.
"You can give her anything," O'Connor says. "She looks for work."
So, while the new mayor, a one-time defense attorney, talks about a "zero tolerance" policy on crime, his wife is already a veteran of the trenches, after years of meeting the enemy head-on.
A career in law
Sometimes it's a grind, plodding through a morning's crowded docket of thefts and assaults, going up against small-time lowlifes with fresh haircuts, wearing their ties too tight. She deals briskly with case after case, slowed down by defendants who show up without attorneys, or attorneys who show up without their defendants.
About 40 times over the past nine years she has handled jury cases. Then she can slow down a little, put her strengths to work.