O'Malley playbook: No Steelers option

Charmed: When asked about ties to Pittsburgh and his feelings on the Ravens' playoff game against the Steelers, O'Malley says he has only `one allegiance.'

January 19, 2002|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy has a dark tale to share about his old friend Martin O'Malley, a family secret that takes on near-scandalous proportions as the Baltimore Ravens prepare to butt heads with their sworn enemy, the Pittsburgh Steelers, in the NFL playoffs tomorrow.

It turns out, Murphy says, that the O'Malley family and the family that owns the Steelers, the Rooneys, go back together - a long way back.

"Art Rooney and Martin's grandfather were contemporaries in the same neighborhood," Murphy reports gleefully of O'Malley's Steeltown roots. "I wonder where Martin's allegiances really are. Isn't blood stronger than anything else?"

Indeed. Dig a little further, and a history of wrongdoing at the highest levels is exposed. Listen to O'Malley deny that he has any sympathy to the Steelers:

"Absolutely false. I have one allegiance, and that is to the greatest city in America," says the mayor, who was reared in Rockville. "There'll be no divided loyalty in my heart, though I have to confess my brothers and I used to get beat up in school for being the only kids with Steeler shirts on."

This tale only gets more interesting upon examining the close ties between O'Malley and Murphy, and between their two administrations.

The two mayors' friendship dates to 1984. O'Malley was a 21-year-old up-and-coming political operative in then-U.S. Sen. Gary Hart's presidential campaign, and Murphy, a 40-year-old Democratic state representative in Pennsylvania, was one of the state's few elected officials backing Hart.

O'Malley and Murphy grew closer during the 1988 Hart campaign.

The two men have been involved in each other's political careers ever since the Hart days. O'Malley was the self-described "out-of-town consultant" on Murphy's underdog bid for mayor in 1989.

Murphy lost, but finished a surprisingly strong second in that race. He and his wife returned the support a year later, in O'Malley's failed bid in Baltimore for a state Senate seat.

O'Malley narrowly lost that race, but Murphy was back again the next year when O'Malley ran successfully for City Council.

Eight years later, O'Malley said of Murphy, "He was one of the people close to me that I talked to before I jumped off the cliff and ran for mayor."

The two mayors have borrowed ideas and advice from each other and their staffs. CitiStat? Murphy has adopted O'Malley's government accountability tool, with his first Pittsburgh CitiStat meeting scheduled soon.

And remember when O'Malley ordered his staff to call thousands of senior citizens during a rough snowstorm two years ago, and had police officers deliver emergency groceries to some who were stuck at home? Murphy had given the same orders years earlier.

"There is, I'm going to bet, almost weekly discussions going on between our staff and Martin's staff," said Murphy, 57.

The mayors regularly talk by telephone - whether about a crisis or being mayor or, interestingly enough, just about their prospects.

"There's a lot of mayors who never go on to higher office," Murphy said, without revealing anything about the 2002 Maryland governor's race. "Over the years we've talked a lot about that. It's hard when you're mayor to keep everybody happy."

O'Malley makes a regular pilgrimage to Steeltown for what he dubs "the O'Malley Open," which is apparently a mediocre exhibition of golf talent by the O'Malley clan, whose membership numbers 200 or more in the Pittsburgh area, the mayor says.

For two summers running, his band, O'Malley's March, has joined him on these trips to play at an Irish bar in town. Murphy has taken in the show and reports: "He'd do well in Pittsburgh politics, too."

Which brings this tale back to O'Malley's Steeltown roots. The story dates to the early 20th century, reports the mayor's father, Thomas O'Malley.

"My grandmother had a grocery store and the Rooneys had a saloon in relatively the same neighborhood" on Pittsburgh's north side, the elder O'Malley said. Both families were from Galway, Ireland.

The future Pittsburgh Steelers owner, Art Rooney, befriended Thomas O'Malley's father, William, a minor league baseball player from Arizona who moved to Pittsburgh's Irish community before serving in World War I. With the rise of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, William O'Malley became a Democrat and moved up in party politics, becoming a ward boss. Meanwhile, Rooney built his wealth and played baseball on his own team, the Rooneys.

"My father did his taxes, actually," Thomas O'Malley said. "They were very close."

To this day, the elder O'Malley reports, "the whole family" roots for Rooney's Steelers: "We really have a strong identification with Pittsburgh."

But, he insists, for his son the Baltimore mayor, he'll pull for the Ravens this weekend. The O'Malleys are heading to Pittsburgh for the game, and the mayor expects to see the Rooney family and his friend, Tom Murphy.

"It's going to be intense. We have an intense competition," Martin O'Malley said. "Crabs or pierogies will be given up in this game."

Then (perhaps trying to distance himself from his Pittsburgh background?), O'Malley concludes: "I'm not sure I've ever seen a pierogi."

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