Super Bowl spotlight a gift for city and mayor

January 25, 2001|By Michael Olesker

INTO AMERICA'S consciousness now comes Martin O'Malley, signaling the brand new dawning of the city of Baltimore. Is America listening? How can America not?

In this Super Bowl week, the mayor of Baltimore is everywhere: On the TV networks, he's more ubiquitous than beer commercials. On the radio, he's being heard in roughly 400 different markets. In the Tampa newspapers, where the Ravens play football on Sunday, a large insert will feature not only O'Malley but Baltimore and its implicit message.

"Comeback City," Sandy Hillman was saying yesterday. "Everyone wants to talk to him, and the message is: Comeback City."

Hillman is CEO of the advertising-public relations firm Trahan, Burden and Charles, one of five Baltimore companies helping O'Malley, gratis, with all of his media appearances this week.

"It'll be very difficult for any corporate executives in Tampa this weekend to see that newspaper insert, or his face on television, and miss the point," Hillman said. "Baltimore is back. And this mayor is such a natural, so attractive, that he's perfect to lead the cheers. I mean, Rudy Giuliani and William Donald Schaefer weren't exactly Robert Redford, so you don't have to be a movie star to get attention. But O'Malley even has looks going for him."

As it is 30 years since Baltimore has found itself in the Super Bowl, some of us may have forgotten its true business: not a piddly football game, but the crossroads of the nation's corporate high-rollers, the people who make decisions about investing money and scan the horizon for new business ventures.

O'Malley understands. Early this football season, when the Ravens extended invitations to sit with majority-owner Art Modell, the mayor politely declined. He had other things on his mind. Some believe his football consciousness was raised, though, not by the Ravens but by this year's Army-Navy game.

He saw the economic impact, and the faces of people he had never seen before, and felt the waves of energy. But for O'Malley, Army-Navy wasn't about football, and it wasn't even about the surrounding parties. It was about showcasing his town. The Super Bowl Ravens are thus a gift from heaven.

"He looks at the Ravens and sees a group to capture the spirit of the city," says Baltimore consultant Nancy Roberts, whose firm, NRCS, has assisted the mayor this week. "It's all about taking a second look. I think he sees the Ravens as a [comeback] metaphor, and a place to make the city's mark."

With so much high-profile exposure, though, the talk about O'Malley is now transcending football and, on occasion, transcending Baltimore. Some believe he's thinking about Annapolis. There's even political gossip of a ticket: O'Malley to run for governor a year from now, Montgomery County's Doug Duncan as lieutenant governor, and Prince George's County's Wayne Curry as attorney general.

The current attorney general, Joe Curran, is, of course, O'Malley's father-in-law. The story is that O'Malley would suggest it's time for Curran to enjoy life with his grandchildren.

Is such talk substantive? Some point to an O'Malley fund-raiser in March, on St. Patrick's Day, at the Convention Center. Tickets are to go for $100, so cheap that a big crowd could show up - and thus offer an implicit sign that this is a man whose time has arrived.

But O'Malley walks a fine political line here. He doesn't want to alienate supporters who delight in his heartening start as mayor and might see him as disloyal if he bolted after just two years on the job. And, more immediately, he doesn't want to alienate anyone in Annapolis this winter.

When the last Super Bowl party has ended, and the last TV microphone is removed from O'Malley's face, he has to return to a city hungry for economic help from Annapolis, and a State House where not everyone is the city's friend, and not everybody would want to help O'Malley's city if it might simultaneously make him a better contender for governor.

"Oh, gosh, I hope he's not thinking about running for governor," said Hillman. "Not yet, anyway. Not when he's obviously having so much fun. It's a lot more fun being mayor than being governor."

Hillman knows this. She's been close friends with William Donald Schaefer since he was a shy and withdrawn fellow thinking about running for mayor. Before he went to Annapolis to eat his heart out, Schaefer brought a defeated city back to life. O'Malley might do it again. But it will take more than a couple of years.

What he's selling this week is his city. He's got the country at his disposal. Down the road, after the country's had a chance to consider the reconstructing of Baltimore, this mayor might go anywhere he desires. That's how smart and attractive he is. But, first, his reputation has to be built on a foundation of real achievement.

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