O'Malley marches toward future

Musical mayor jams at fund-raiser while fans ponder next step

March 12, 2001|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's mayor jauntily strummed his green guitar and belted out one Irish folk tune after another at Hammerjacks yesterday. Clad in suit and tie, he smiled as he and his mates in O'Malley's March grooved for an hour at his first fund-raiser since taking office 15 months ago.

On the club's wooden dance floor, many of the 2,700 or so people who paid $35 for the pleasure rocked on their heels or sang along or clapped as if they were at any rock concert.

As they did, many speculated on what Martin O'Malley's next tune would be, politically speaking. Would he serve out his first five-year term as mayor? Or would he take advantage of stratospheric poll ratings and a spate of good fortune to run for governor next year?

A smattering of interviews with O'Malley supporters revealed a range of opinions, but most thought a bid for the governor's seat next year was unlikely or unthinkable. He's too valuable to the city right now, they agreed.

"I think the city of Baltimore would look at him as a traitor," said Max Elsman, a social services worker who volunteered for O'Malley in 1999.

O'Malley, 38, was mum on the subject, addressing the throng only between riffs and then mostly saying things like, "You having a good time?" But after the gig he made no attempt to kill the buzz that's rising like the wail of bagpipes.

"I'm making this city safe, and I'm picking up trash," he said in a brief interview as he accepted accolades and shook hands with his fans. "I'm focusing on being the best mayor I can be."

His campaign's fund-raising consultant, Colleen Martin-Lauer, put it this way: "We're raising money for whatever race he decides to run."

Yesterday's event at the club on Guilford Avenue grossed about $95,000, thanks to a capacity crowd.

A second, more expensive fund-raiser is scheduled for April 25 at PSINet Stadium. That is expected to bring out the movers and shakers and bring in several hundred thousand dollars.

The fund-raiser was part pre-St. Patrick's Day party, part bar-band jam and part celebration of O'Malley's largely successful first year in office.

It was billed as an event for the average citizen, but O'Malley made sure to acknowledge prominent politicians like U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, and several county executives, including Anne Arundel's Janet S. Owens and Montgomery's Douglas M. Duncan, a possible gubernatorial candidate.

Veronica Kimmitt, a Realtor in Fells Point, said she has seen "a big change" since O'Malley's election, pointing to a homicide rate that dipped below 300 last year for the first time in a decade.

"People really believe in the city now," she said. "They just want to come back. He's made it even better." Big problems may remain, she said, "but there's hope."

Elsman, who knew O'Malley the musician before he knew him as a politician, said the mayor's man-of-the-people charisma has done wonders for the city and its image.

"God knows it helps," he said. "It doesn't generate $20 million [the size of the city's budget deficit] or make crime go away, but it's an enormous asset."

Even moves that caused O'Malley trouble were cast yesterday as proof that he is not the typical politician.

One example was his tirade after State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy dropped a police corruption case.

"That's a real person," said John Sciscione, who bought a ticket though he lives in Perry Hall. "Everyone else would be worried about the consequences and this and that. He doesn't."

Talib Horne, who works for East Harbor Village Center, a nonprofit group trying to revitalize East Baltimore, said, "I hope he stays to finish what he started. I think he's a damn good mayor."

Horne said life in East Baltimore is improving "slowly but surely -- it's like a pride thing coming back." Still, he said he would understand if O'Malley wanted to run for governor "while the iron's hot."

O'Malley, who said he eschewed his trademark sleeveless, black T-shirt because an editorial cartoon made fun of it, said he is focused on the present, which he called "Baltimore's time." "We're not going to squander it," he told the audience. "We're going to work our hardest to get this city turned around."

Even his lyrics seemed to echo his message of optimism. "There are no more tears," he sang at one point, "there's no sorrow."

About 3 o'clock, the mayor put down his guitar, ordered a Guinness and prepared to head off to the band's second gig of the day. As he strode away, on came the next act, Bobby & the Believers.

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