TWO WEEKS AGO, when everyone in politics still held their breath over Martin O'Malley's future, the mayor of Baltimore scribbled a note to Del. Pete Rawlings, the man who gave cross-racial legitimacy to O'Malley's City Hall campaign in the summer of 1999.
The note was a list of must-do tasks for the next governor of Maryland. O'Malley knew the drill. Rawlings, backing Kathleen Kennedy Townsend for governor, would serve as ambassador between camps and show the list to her. Townsend interpreted the note as a clear signal: O'Malley would not run. But there were things he expected from her.
Yesterday, the mayor made it official. He will not run for governor. Today, Townsend will make it implicitly official that she received his list, and would honor it if elected. O'Malley wants serious state money for city police, for the continuing narcotics fight, for the rebirth of downtown's west side, for development of the biotech industry, for the city's schools. Townsend immediately told Rawlings she's on board for all of them.
As it happens, today is the 34th anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy's death. Normally, Townsend marks the date of her father's passing by isolating herself and thinking about his legacy. Today, she will mark it by talking about the future. In remarks scheduled to be delivered to the nonprofit Citizens Planning and Housing Association this evening, she intends to affirm her commitment to the city -- and to the things she and O'Malley agree the metro area needs.
In his remarks yesterday, the mayor did not precisely toss bouquets her way.
He mentioned a "vacuum of leadership in the state Democratic Party." He said, "My party is adrift." He said, "The risk of losing this particular race was really not something that intimidated me."
Then, in the closest phrase he uttered resembling an endorsement, he delivered it backhand: "I will be supporting the Democratic Party's nominee in the fall. Whether that nominee supports the people of Baltimore ... is a decision they will have to make."
This is an echo of a constant O'Malley theme. In all the months of mulling a run for governor, he's made it clear that he trusts no one in Annapolis to do the right thing by Baltimore -- not even the woman whose family history, and emotional makeup, would seem to tie her to the same fights as O'Malley.
His mistrust is partly a reflection of the city's continuing problems, and partly an overall Democratic Party drift from the left to the political center since the onset of the Clinton years. O'Malley sees this as an abandonment of the poor.
Combine that with state political power shifting increasingly from Baltimore to the Washington suburbs, and you have a mayor who backed off a gubernatorial run only with the greatest reluctance. He wanted this fight. He believes he could walk past both Townsend and Republican Robert Ehrlich. He likes being mayor -- but it kills him to walk away from a shot at Annapolis.
He is, as his father-in-law, Attorney General Joe Curran, remarked yesterday, "the brightest light in politics in the state of Maryland -- in either party." And he has career plans far beyond the potholes of Baltimore.
What O'Malley decided, though, was the right thing. He decided that the city's struggle is more important than his own. He decided that too many people invested too much hope in him to walk away now. He decided that, at 39, there is still plenty of time to think about a national career, and too much left undone in his current job.
"He told me he finally made the decision at 1:30 this morning," City Council President Sheila Dixon said yesterday. "He said he hasn't finished what he started, and it would have been irresponsible to leave when he hasn't seen what he wants to see.
"I think he's right," said Dixon, who would have become mayor had O'Malley been elected governor. "And I'm not disappointed that he's staying. There's more I need to learn to grow. And there's more he needs to learn."
(Dixon will also realize a slight profit out of O'Malley's decision. She said she'd bet three people $50 each that the mayor wouldn't run. "And I intend to collect," she said.)
"I know what the mayor went through," said NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, who attended yesterday's gathering. Three summers ago, Mfume agonized over his own run for mayor. "You have these internal debates in the middle of the night. It's very seductive. There's a romanticism to politics, and I know he feels it."
O'Malley expressed some of it yesterday. He talked about moving "beyond the divisions of race, and class, and place." He talked about city residents "believing in each other again."
He sounded like a man who understood the importance of cities, and the American mix, and understood, also, that he had done the right thing for this city -- and maybe for himself, too.