Portrait of a political natural

Phenom: Martin O'Malley has a rare gift for politics and unlimited possibilities, but he must slay some dragons for his city.

July 23, 2000|By Gerard Shields

During a recent Baltimore visit to profile Mayor Martin O'Malley, veteran NBC News correspondent Bob Faw asked a question many city residents are starting to ponder.

"What's WRONG with this guy?" Faw said. "I called around and I couldn't find anyone with anything bad to say about him."

Baltimore Fire Officers Association President Stephen G. Fugate put it this way: "Right now, this administration is walking on water."

O'Malley's popularity has surprised the mayor himself. He recently received a request from CBS News' "The Early Show" host Bryant Gumbel for an interview during the Democratic National Convention.

"I've been in office seven months," O'Malley said. "And they're touting me as some future party leader."

O'Malley may be selling himself short in an effort to tone down expectations. But anyone who has spent 10 minutes with the guy can't help but get caught up in the cyclone of promise fueled by his refreshing blend of charisma, energy, optimism, resilience, wit, self-deprecation, humor and mastery of the English language.

A reporter covering the NAACP speech delivered by Vice President Al Gore two weeks ago noted that although the Democratic presidential nominee said all the right things, his timing was trademark Gore: stiff, forced and awkward.

During a subsequent news conference, O'Malley spoke for 10 minutes, following the second highest elected official in the nation. "The mayor blew him away," the reporter said.

Faw agrees that O'Malley seems to be a natural, a rare politician who has been able to absorb the lessons of American politics over the past 30 years and package them into a product that voters and city residents have been yearning for: brutal honesty, confronting challenges, preaching a sense of urgency, afflicting the comfortable and pledging to comfort the afflicted.

But as Faw, who has covered American politicians for 32 years, noted, the mayor is very much still on his proverbial "political honeymoon."

"I'm sure if those homicide numbers don't come down by the end of the year," Faw said, "[the media] will start holding him accountable."

O'Malley has yet to slay the two monsters that regularly devour politicians: bureaucracy and power.

Whether jumping on the back of a garbage truck or sweeping 10 drug corners clean in six months as he promised, O'Malley has built credibility with the citizenry as a man of his word. But the real test will be how O'Malley handles the iceberg of city government when it doesn't move on command.

Residents can recall the hype that followed the election of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke in 1987. People magazine did a spread on Schmoke declaring him one of the nation's new brand of dynamic political leaders. Anyone who met Schmoke during his final years, however, found a man walking as if he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. And he did.

As O'Malley is quickly learning, every finger poked in the dike to stop one city problem is followed by a springing leak on the other end. Whether it be barrels of poisonous chemicals stored in a warehouse or fishermen angered over their bridge being posted with "no fishing" signs, O'Malley will get the blame from a selfish citizenry that is still more interested in "What about me?" than in the good of the whole.

After eight years in the City Council, the young mayor is schooled enough in city politics to know that he will be judged on results. After fighting the Schmoke administration as a rebel operating with two assistants out of a tiny council office in City Hall's southern wing, O'Malley is now surrounded by dozens of aides with a floor of their own.

His ratty car with the sticking accelerator has been grounded and he is now wheeled around the city in a sleek Ford Expedition by a dozen police bodyguards who work in shifts around the clock. In poor city neighborhoods, he is able to drop in like the Wizard of Oz and then be whisked away.

Yet O'Malley has made it a point not to forget from where he came. During stops in such troubled spots as the so-called "Zombieland" in East Baltimore, the mayor throws his daily schedule out of kilter to stick around, hug and chat with the senior citizens who made him mayor and the poor kids seeking autographs, or step aside to speak with a down-and-out guy looking for a job.

He is still humbly troubled when the poor step forward just to touch him, as if a piece of his success, charm and charisma will somehow heal their woes. And because he obviously seeks higher office, O'Malley seems unlikely to be tripped by petty scandal.

Yet his challenge as city leader is to transfer that spirit to 16,500 city workers -- including six-figure salary Cabinet leaders -- constantly needing to remind them that being a public employee is not a job of privilege but of service.

Residents seem to be relishing the positive attention that O'Malley is bringing back to Baltimore. But as one Schmoke administration veteran recently observed, no matter how much hype surrounds O'Malley, he must produce if the predictions of future greatness are to come to fruition.

"Political theater only goes so far," he said.

Gerard Shields is a City Hall reporter for The Sun.

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