O'Malley chooses to reject pastoral counsel on politics

April 07, 2002|By Michael Olesker

IN THE morning, Martin O'Malley picked up his favorite newspaper and had himself a really fine laugh. The story said these Baltimore ministers wanted him to stay at City Hall instead of going for governor. Then the mayor gave the newspaper to his wife, Katie O'Malley, who was getting the kids ready for school. She had herself a fine laugh, too, somewhere between the breakfast cereal and the brushing of the children's teeth.

"That's so kind of them," the mayor of Baltimore said later in the day. He was speaking of the ministers, and his tone was intended to be sarcastic. Later, his words would need no translation at all.

As the General Assembly session concludes this week, everybody believes O'Malley will soon make his big decision: focus on his current job, or run for governor. In the warm spirit of the moment, members of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance declared Thursday that he should stay where he is.

But it was not exactly a political embrace, or a gesture of confidence, or a signal that they believe O'Malley is the bright future of the city. In fact, the ministers declared the city in worse shape today than when O'Malley took the job, and more crime-oppressed than before.

Thus, the question for this weird, oddball ministerial gesture: If you have such dismal feelings about the guy, why would you want him to stick around? And why make such a statement now - unless somebody put you up to it?

In Annapolis, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend prepares for a run against Rep. Robert Ehrlich - if she gets by O'Malley in a Democratic primary. She wants no part of such a primary. Thus, many observers, seeing the ministers ask O'Malley not to run for governor, assume that Townsend's hands are pulling strings. The ministers have not (yet) endorsed her, though most of them support her.

(For the record, a Townsend spokesman said Friday she had "absolutely nothing" to do with the ministers' remarks.)

"Let me tell you about ministers," O'Malley was saying now, late Thursday afternoon, when he'd had a chance to think about the day's events. "We've had eight juveniles murdered this year, and only three this time a year ago. Some of the churches are working with us on this one, and some are more interested in politics.

"I'm on my way now to meet with a group of ministers in Baltimore Rising. We're gonna talk about what we can all do to fight drug abuse. These are ministers who want to help the community - and don't feel they're called to stand in front of television cameras in election years."

So there's the mayor's response to the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance - a group that did not support him two years ago, and probably would not support him in another race for mayor, but which felt the need to make some kind of statement last week.

But this leaves us, as the General Assembly winds up business and campaigns get serious, with everyone wondering about O'Malley. Every time he is asked his plans, he says he has not made up his mind. Here is his problem: When he makes his case for governor of Maryland, he offers it on behalf of the city of Baltimore. It's a passionate argument, and a compelling one - but, politically, it goes nowhere.

It's the argument about doing more good for Baltimore as governor than as mayor. As mayor, he has no money. As governor, where there's usually lots of money, he could steer funds to the city. But the argument breaks down in a few places: Annapolis is going through tough times. Where's the money for Baltimore if the state's broke?

And this: How does O'Malley campaign on such a pitch? It's one thing to woo Baltimore-area voters by saying, "Vote for me, and I'll send money to Baltimore." But how does he defend such a stance in the vote-heavy D.C. suburbs? Montgomery County already hates having so many of its tax dollars sent to Baltimore, and Prince George's County has plenty of its own problems.

Asked about this last week, O'Malley said this:

"Uh ... "

This was followed by a pause that felt longer than Nixon's 18-minute gap. It was a pause long enough to remember eight years ago, when Parris Glendening introduced himself to Baltimore voters and said he understood that this city was the heart of the state and must be saved - but simultaneously told audiences in Montgomery and Prince George's counties that Baltimore's time was over and that the D.C. suburbs' era of political clout had now arrived.

This is known as duplicity. It is hard to imagine O'Malley trying such naked double talk. When he came back from his long pause, he said this:

"Any good campaign tries to set up ... you know, it's not just filling a job, it's making people see we're all in this together, and understand the impact that Baltimore has on the entire state, and that people of good will need to think about kids growing up with a future."

That's a nice thought. It's about ideals, and not just votes. It's about passion, and not just politics. It is also, however, a very tough sell.

And, having said all this, the mayor signed off by declaring he still hadn't made up his mind about running, and still wanted to hear somebody in Annapolis - Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, for openers - declare publicly, and quite specifically, all the ways she might help the city if O'Malley decides to stay at City Hall. With or without political advice from the ministers.

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