Managing a rumor quietly, then openly

Mayor: O'Malley steps up to face a question he had been dancing around.

February 13, 2005|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Even in a city with a rumor control center dedicated to stomping out tall tales, the story clouding Mayor Martin O'Malley's political future would not disappear.

Rumor had it that the mayor, a married father of four who plans to run for governor next year, had cheated on his wife.

Every news organization in town had tried to nail the story, scouring courts for divorce filings or paternity suits, seeking records of the mayor's travel and security detail. They all came up empty-handed.

Yet the story -- fueled by the mayor's rock-band hobby and philandering police commissioner pal, by an HBO television series and the Internet postings of a Republican political operative -- lived on. And on. And on.

Churning for the past 18 months on the Web, in Maryland political circles and around office coolers, the rumor threatened the prospects of what the national Democratic Party considers one of its rising stars.

But when the story finally burst onto front pages and TV newscasts Wednesday, it was in a context that many political observers saw as a coup for the mayor: A longtime congressional aide and campaign operative of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. admitted to spreading the story on a conservative Web site.

The way the rumor finally became public was either the result of O'Malley's good luck or crafty political gamesmanship, depending on whom you talk to.

In the eyes of his supporters, the mayor -- dogged for so long by what he called "despicable lies" -- had shifted gears from managing a potential crisis to managing an opportunity.

After months of strategizing and struggling and worrying about how to combat a rumor, the story was out. The mayor and his wife made a dramatic statement, then fell back to their strategy of silence.

Republicans insist that the mayor's crisis may be over but that the taint of scandal will linger.

"I was amazed he would come out in such a high-profile way," said Deborah Martinez, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Republican Party and fierce O'Malley critic who, like Ehrlich and other members of the GOP, say the party had no role in spreading the rumor.

She repeated charges -- disputed by O'Malley aides -- that the mayor's camp leaked the Ehrlich aide's Web postings to the news media to create sympathy for the mayor and defuse the rumor.

"I think it showed a deliberate strategy on their part in crisis communications," she said, pointing out that O'Malley had recently announced his intention to run for governor next year. "He's pretty much saying he's going to run. They're trying to, as soon as possible, as far away as possible from 2006, get this elephant out of the room."

Martinez predicted that such a strategy would backfire.

"A year and a half from now, people are only going to remember `sex scandal and O'Malley,'" she said. "And it wasn't the Republican Party that put him there."

Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for O'Malley, called Martinez's contention that the mayor or his staff played a role exposing the Internet postings "baloney." The mayor's aides say the story came to light only because a Washington Post reporter linked rumors posted on www.FreeRepublic.com to Joseph F. Steffen Jr., the Ehrlich aide who was forced to resign over the matter.

Change of fortunes

O'Malley's strategy for dealing with the rumor has not changed as much as his fortunes. Except for the brief appearance he made Wednesday alongside his wife, Katie Curran O'Malley, to denounce the rumors, he and his staff have mostly kept mum -- just as they did for the previous year and a half.

The O'Malley camp initially kept quiet in an effort to put a damper on the story, just as the municipal rumor control center -- a hot line established in 1968 amid the rioting that followed the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. -- puts the kibosh on false rumors that threaten the city's "peace and safety."

(City officials said they weren't sure if anyone had ever called the hot line about the O'Malley rumor.)

The public silence of O'Malley and his staff over the past year and a half hardly means that they sat back and let the rumors swirl. They adopted a strategy of spotlighting the mayor's wife and children, political observers say.

Around Father's Day, his communications office pitched a story to local news media featuring the mayor as family man. One television station bit. In December, when O'Malley was sworn in for a second term, his inaugural celebration was a "family-friendly" event at the Maryland Science Center.

"They [the mayor and his wife] were showing up together at everything, holding hands," said Matthew Crenson, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University. "It was kind of damage control. The rumors were that they split up, that she and the kids had moved in with her father or he moved out. By showing up publicly together, they were showing tangibly it wasn't true without denying the rumors. Because if you deny it, you're just giving it greater publicity."

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