A heaven-sent opportunity to uncover O'Malley's secret

April 21, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

THE ONE PRIEST sat next to me at breakfast, and the other hovered nearby. Here is a story sent by the angels themselves, I thought. The one priest's name was Joe Bonadio, and the other William Burke. The church was St. Francis of Assisi, 3615 Harford Road, and if this does not work, then the mayor of Baltimore might stretch out his secrecy to the middle of summer.

St. Francis of Assisi is the spiritual home of Martin O'Malley, who holds fund-raisers left and right but will not precisely tell us why. Many believe he will run for governor. O'Malley does not say. Many believe he wishes to coax promises out of the other Democratic contender, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. O'Malley will not say.

Not in public, anyway.

So here I am, on a fine Sunday morning at the St. Francis breakfast, where the nice ladies of the church have invited me. Father Bonadio is standing nearby, Father Burke sits himself down - and it is as though heaven itself has delivered them to me.

"I was wondering," I say to the good fathers. I speak in the whispery, conspiratorial tones of a man who deals in secrets communicating with others who deal in the same shadowy currency. "I was wondering," I say again, proceeding delicately, "about the mayor's political plans. Has he, perhaps, said anything to you ... ah, in confession ... that you might be able to pass on to me?"

Because, you know: Who would I tell?

I have asked O'Malley himself perhaps 600 times: Are you running for governor, or staying in the job to which you were elected? Always, the answer is the same: He doesn't know yet. It's the answer he gives everyone - even though the other night he held a gala over at the football stadium, tickets costing $250 or $1,000 each, that raised about $1 million.

A lot rides on his decision - not only his political future, but also the city's potential. O'Malley argues that, as governor, he could take care of the city in ways a mayor could not. He also argues that, from Townsend (and from Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.), he doesn't hear enough about helping the needy and doesn't sense dynamic leadership.

Others, including Del. Howard P. Rawlings, who put his political capital on the line two years ago to help put O'Malley into City Hall, warn that the mayor could be perceived as a spoiler - could, in fact, hurt Townsend even if she wins the Democratic primary by doing some of Ehrlich's advance attacking.

Townsend, meanwhile, picked up backing from Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan on the very day of O'Malley's fund-raiser. And, according to Duncan, O'Malley asked him not to do it - not yet, anyway. Does that sound like a man who's intending not to run?

But when O'Malley talks particulars, he sounds delighted with the work he has already got. "I really like the job," he said just the other day. He was talking about the rebirth of the shopping strip at Belvedere Square and the new Phillips Seafood headquarters at Locust Point and the grand plans for the long-decayed neighborhood around Johns Hopkins Hospital.

These are things that make a difference. A city that seems, in retrospect, to have slept through the breathless American economic dynamism of the 1990s, Baltimore seems finally to be playing catch-up. Business people smack their lips over possibilities. Institutions accustomed to playing it safe look to roll the dice a little. Young people from suburbia are moving into old, rehabbed rowhouse neighborhoods.

O'Malley has helped create that climate. Everybody knows he has big plans for himself - but he could ride a city renaissance to national attention more easily than presiding over a state that's already healthy.

But the mayor says, for the record, that he has not made up his mind. And so there came a time, the other morning at St. Francis of Assisi, when it behooved me to seek the wisdom and counsel of the two priests and the long-shot at unveiling perhaps one tiny mayoral secret of the confessional booth.

"Yeah," says Father Bonadio, laughing aloud. "As if."

"Yeah," says Father Burke, chuckling just as heartily. "As if."

A few days later, I bump into O'Malley. "When do you think you'll make up your mind?" I ask.

"What's the rush?" he asks. He has until July to file.

Then I mention the big spiritual news of the day.

"You know," I say, "I spoke to the fathers at St. Francis the other day."

Now O'Malley's eyes light up. While I was downstairs at breakfast there, he was upstairs at late morning Mass.

"I asked if you'd said anything about your political plans in confession," I say. "But they were staunch. They wouldn't give me a hint. Isn't that nice?"

"It would be," says O'Malley, looking a little sheepish. "Except I can't remember the last time I went to confession."

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