The other Mrs. O'Malley

Mother: Barbara O'Malley raised six children on a diet rich in Democratic politics.

May 14, 2000|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

Barbara O'Malley is learning what it means to be the mayor's mom the hard way. A year ago no one was asking her age for publication. ("Can I ask you your age?" "You can, but don't.") No one wanted the scoop on whether Martin was a naughty little boy. (She says no, but the mayor admits that on rare occasions "I felt the back of her hand on my butt.")

If a reporter comes to her Rockville home a year from now, Mrs. O'Malley will probably be dressed in slacks or whatever she wears on her day off from working as a receptionist in Senator Barbara Mikulski's office. But today, while she's still fairly new to the business of being First Mom of Baltimore, she's wearing a nice blue suit. The pale blue shell underneath turns her eyes pale blue, every silvery hair is in place and her soft face is made up just a little.

She looks like Mom, like exactly the Irish mom you want your mayor to have, a stay-at-home mother who taught him and his siblings to try their hardest and always tell the truth.

"I'm glad you came," she says. "It gave me a chance to relive the past, simple though it may be."

But, of course, no one's past is simple, least of all Barbara O'Malley's. You'd have to leave out the part about how she talked her folks into letting her get her pilot's license in high school, before she could drive.

You'd have to do what a lot of people do, and assume the mayor's mother is Irish because of the name, and because of the kelly green velvet couch in the living room, the Irish music she played for her six kids, the Irish stew family recipe she gives to a local magazine.

Actually both her parents were German, and there's some Dutch in the mix.

"They think they're all Irish," she says of her brood, "But I tell them they got their tenacity and stoicism from their German [heritage], and frugality and cleanliness from the Dutch."

Politics in the family

Just as you've heard, Barbara O'Malley, wife of lawyer Tom O'Malley, was a stay-at-home mom for two girls, Bridget and Eileen, and then four boys, Martin, Patrick and the twins, Peter and Paul. They lived in a three-bedroom house in Bethesda, and then moved to a bigger one in Rockville when the younger kids arrived.

"I was a housewife," she says. "I thought that was what you did."

But she was also a Democrat from an early age -- a dyed-in-the-wool, loyal-to-the-death Democrat. "I can't imagine being a Republican," she says now.

Her political heroes were Adlai Stevenson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman. (Her father once won $10 from Vice President Truman in a poker game.) She worked in a local congressional campaign before she was old enough to vote.

She may have been a stay-at-home mother, but she wrote on the future mayor's second birthday cake: "Martin for President 2004."

"I was lucky, she was always encouraging," says Martin O'Malley. "In our family, politics was considered something good to do, not some con game as so many people do. How does the saying go? Expectations become behavior."

His mother was the one who talked him into running for student council president in the seventh grade, with slogans like "Rally, Rally Around O'Malley" and "Dial O for O'Malley."

And she even put up with the fact -- now here's a loving mother -- that Martin worked for a Republican in his first foray into politics. At age 7, he and his brother Patrick handed out brochures in support of James Gleason, a friend of their father's who was running for Montgomery County executive.

But take a tour of the O'Malleys' Rockville home and you understand why the Democratic party was in no danger of losing Martin to the opposition for long. Barbara O'Malley has hung the walls with antique campaign ribbons, her extensive collection of campaign buttons, and any number of political photographs. There are photos of John Kennedy, of herself and Adlai Stevenson, of her father standing near FDR and, more recently, of herself shaking hands with Al Gore at Senator Mikulski's office.

"I grew up with it," she says. "Politics was just something you talked about around the house."

Her father, Joseph Suelzer, was a local politician in Indiana during the New Deal. "He was very successful in a short span of time," says Tom O'Malley, her husband. "His death [just after she graduated from high school] was a big loss to her. She brought the kids up pursuing her father's ideals."

But she didn't work much on Martin O'Malley's mayoral campaign. "I felt a little funny being the mother of the candidate," she explains.

So did she give him any advice? "No, not really. Just if you're going to run for it, you better know what you're doing."

Testing her wings

Barbara Suelzer was born an undetermined number of years ago in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She went to grade school at St. Patrick's and then attended Central Catholic High School in Fort Wayne.

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