O'Malley's march against time

Gray hair? Lean Cuisine? Male menopause? 'The Best Young Mayor in America' confronts the arrival of middle age.

January 18, 2003|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

He's thinking about getting a tattoo, but cutting back on gigs with his rock band.

He's as buff as ever, but eating more Lean Cuisine.

He's juggling an impossible job and a big brood of kids, but wondering how long he can keep all those balls up in the air.

Mayor Martin O'Malley turns 40 today, reaching that milestone where even a man who exudes youthful energy, drive and swagger can begin to feel the creep of age and the weight of ever-growing responsibility.

O'Malley says he hasn't given his birthday much thought. He'll mark it by having cake with his kids and opening a few presents (ties and socks, he predicts).

"I don't feel 40," he says. "I feel more like 20. My wife says I act more like 12."

Says Katie O'Malley, who turned 40 in August: "He's too busy to have a mid-life crisis."

But as O'Malley's age odometer rolls over, it raises questions: Can he still play the political wunderkind at middle age? And if he can, should he?

O'Malley turns the big four-O at a time of transition for his administration, with two-thirds of his five-year term behind him and a primary election looming as early as this September. (The city has asked the General Assembly to change the date to March 2004, to make it closer to the general election that November.) Even if he isn't racked by mid-life angst about how much he has or hasn't accomplished, voters will demand an accounting.

He still enjoys a youthful image, leading an Irish rock band and raising four little children, the youngest born in October. (The mayor has been known to answer reporters' telephone calls mid-diaper change.) And he has toyed with getting a Celtic-symbol tattoo while vacationing at Ocean City the past three summers, though his kids keep talking him out of it.

He rolls out ambitious and optimistic programs for his troubled city and speaks in a blunt, sometimes profane way that can come off like impetuous youth. He keeps 12-hour workdays and always seems to be doing two things at once - e-mailing staff on his Blackberry messaging device, for instance, while fielding questions on a radio call-in show.

Physically, O'Malley seems to be holding up well, save for more gray hair. Credit good genes, near-daily workouts and a healthy diet that makes allowances for Guinness. He knocks back a banana and a foul-looking Myoplex protein drink at weekly Board of Estimates meetings.

"I don't know if he's using cosmetics or how much iron he's pumping, but he comes from a good-looking strain," jokes his father, attorney Thomas O'Malley of Rockville.

At 40, testosterone levels start to drop in at least 20 percent of men, leading to loss of muscle mass, bone density, height, energy and libido. But Dr. Adrian S. Dobs, an expert in andropause, the male version of menopause, is willing to testify to the mayor's prognosis. Dobs, who works at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, met O'Malley recently at a benefit and says she is certain he is not yet a candidate for testosterone replacement therapy: "From our brief conversation and my visual inspection, I would say he looks pretty good."

Asset or liability

Whether that youthful image is a political asset or liability is open to question.

O'Malley became one of the youngest mayors in Baltimore history in December 1999, when he took office one month shy of his 37th birthday. He says his age worried some voters.

"I think in that first election I was so young that gave a lot of people pause," he says. "I don't think that will be a factor any more with the additional wrinkles and gray hair."

William Galston, a professor in the University of Maryland's School of Public Affairs, believes O'Malley's youth helped him win votes in 1999. Galston thinks the mayor can't rely on that next time around - and not because he's graying.

"My sense is the electorate had concluded the city had sort of ground to a halt, and they wanted someone with a fresh approach and a vigorous approach and someone who could communicate that these problems were not intractable," Galston says. "That's not a claim you can keep making election after election because the terms change. The standards of judgment change as you move from being a fresh face to an experienced leader."

At an age when many take stock of how much, or how little, they've accomplished, O'Malley knows he is still one of the youngest big-city mayors in the country. (Among the nation's 20 largest cities, only two have younger chief executives: Kwame M. Kilpatrick of Detroit is 32; Ed Garza of San Antonio turns 34 this month.) He also enjoys the kind of national press that any politician would kill for.

Esquire magazine recently put him on its cover as "The Best Young Mayor in America." The gushing article called him "dashing" and could have just as easily been titled "The Sexiest Mayor Alive."

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