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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

After the story's public airing last week, O'Malley and his wife addressed it, but just once. They appeared hand-in-hand at a news conference in front of City Hall, where they disputed the rumor and spoke briefly about the emotional toll it had taken on them and their children.

Since then, O'Malley has declined to comment on the matter, saying only that he has turned his attention back to "the people's business." Some say that his silence will help shift the focus to what he calls the Republican smear campaign behind the story.

"It's like a pre-emptive strike," Crenson said. "What it does is, it forces the governor to disavow this whole thing. But he has to sort of clean up the mess before he can do that. He has to have his own investigation. That's going to keep it alive."

When news of the Internet postings about the mayor were set to break last week, Ehrlich developed a strategy of his own. The night before the story hit the papers, the governor's office announced that Steffen had been dismissed. Since then, Ehrlich has stated that he knew nothing about Steffen's actions, promised to investigate the matter, and refused to heed calls, from the mayor as well as a conservative talk show host, that he apologize.

Ehrlich maintains there is no need to say he's sorry for something he had no hand in -- which Crenson sees as a smart strategy -- though Friday he pledged to say something privately to O'Malley the next time they meet.

"If there's the slightest indication that he was behind this and knew what was going on, it could be devastating for him," Crenson said. "Part of his appeal is his image as a nice guy, a good ol' boy, somebody you like to be around. And to be tainted by something like this would damage that image in a very significant way."

Mike Morrill, a communications strategist who has worked for many Democrats, said people on either end of this sort of rumor have to be careful about how they respond.

"Whenever you're in this situation, there's always questions about two sets of behavior -- the behavior of those who are the victims of the rumors and the behavior of those who are spreading them," Morrill said.

"I think the O'Malley team has been exemplary in how they have behaved and handled these rumors, and that's why they are no longer discussing them," he added. "On the other hand, those who are spreading them are despicable and have been found out."

As communications director for then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Morrill dealt with rumors of an extramarital affair. In Glendening's case, the rumors proved true. The governor had a relationship with a staff member, promoted her to a position paying more than $100,000, divorced his wife and married the mistress, his deputy chief of staff.

Although that scandal grabbed its share of headlines, some political observers say there's been much more interest in the O'Malley rumors.

If there is more appetite for O'Malley tales than Glendening gossip, that could be because the former governor -- a term-limited, gray-haired former college professor who concedes that some find him boring -- lacks the mayor's pizazz and potential. The young, telegenic, iron-pumping mayor leads a Celtic rock band and hopes to have a long political future. At least for some, his personal appeal is such that condos being built a block from City Hall are advertised with the slogan: "Live next to the mayor."

"This is a guy with star quality," said Antonia Keane, a Loyola College sociologist. "He is a guy who plays in an Irish band and in a muscle shirt. You can't imagine Glendening in a muscle shirt."

Sex appeal isn't the only thing that has fed a People magazine-style fascination with O'Malley's personal life.

The `Wire' factor

The popular HBO series The Wire has featured a young, ambitious, crime-fighting Baltimore City councilman who -- despite protestations to the contrary from executive producer David Simon -- is widely believed to be patterned on O'Malley, a former councilman who rose to mayor on the crime issue.

The resemblance between the fictional Councilman Thomas Carcetti and O'Malley has helped fuel the rumor, political observers say, because the HBO character cheats on his wife.

"It's politics mimicking art," said Donald F. Norris, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Add to that the sordid tale of Edward T. Norris, O'Malley's one-time friend and police commissioner who wound up in federal prison for using department money, in part to entertain a string of women in New York City. The scandal led to speculation that O'Malley and his top cop had double-dated. News organizations looked at the men's travel records but never came up with anything.

Not that the O'Malley administration, which often praises the virtues of "open and transparent government," has always made that kind of inquiry easy. In May, The Sun requested copies of the mayor's city-sponsored travel under the state's Public Information Act. The city did not respond until late January, about seven months beyond the 30 days provided by law.

As the rumor graduated last week from whispered gossip to screaming headlines, so many television crews swarmed around City Hall that the news conference with O'Malley and his wife had to be moved outside. Gathered there were many of the same reporters who had spent so much time and energy chasing fruitless leads on his alleged affair.

O'Malley and his wife, sticking to their say-little strategy, gave their brief statements and ignored reporters' shouted questions as they retreated, hand-in-hand, to City Hall.

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