Known for beating the odds, O'Malley marches on

The two-term Baltimore mayor, who was raised in Rockville, hopes his journey in politics ends with a victory as governor next year

September 29, 2005|By DOUG DONOVAN | DOUG DONOVAN,SUN REPORTER

On the day that he formally embarked on his quest to become governor, Martin O'Malley retraced his life in Maryland: He started in Rockville and ended up in Baltimore. He now hopes that voters next year will send him one town farther along Maryland's political landscape - to Annapolis.

The man from Rockville who became a two-term Baltimore mayor started in politics two decades ago as an upstart staffer on a presidential campaign. Today, O'Malley has become a statewide powerbroker and an urban leader for the national Democratic Party, a reputation he hopes to build upon by defeating his likely Democratic opponent, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, and his Republican rival, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

The story of Martin Joseph O'Malley's emergence as a leading Democratic contender for governor would never have come to pass six years ago if the two-term City Councilman had chosen his private legal practice over a campaign for mayor. But he did run - despite the odds against a white man besting two black candidates in a predominantly African-American city.

The 1999 victory turned heads across the state and thrust him into the periphery of the nation's political consciousness. Esquire magazine put him on its cover in 2002 and called him the nation's best young mayor. His administration's efforts since and his overwhelming re-election last year have kept him in the limelight, and Time magazine honored him this year.

"Ultimately I ran for mayor because I feared not trying more than I feared losing," said O'Malley, 42, a married father of four.

It is that commitment to fearlessly pursuing the public good that set him apart as a young man, according to his friends.

O'Malley was born in 1963 and graduated from a private Jesuit academy, Gonzaga High School, and Catholic University, both in Washington. In 1983, at age 20, O'Malley got an early jump on political public service by volunteering for the Gary Hart presidential campaign.

He impressed Hart and his campaign officials, earning duties well beyond his years. "He was great at making friends because he's authentic," said Debbie Shore, a fellow Hart campaigner.

In 1985, O'Malley started attending the University of Maryland School of Law and doing solo performances of his Irish rock music. He quickly adopted Baltimore, growing more attached to the city while helping Barbara A. Mikulski's U.S. Senate race in 1986. He also met his future wife, Katie Curran, who was working to get her father, J. Joseph Curran, elected as state attorney general.

A year later, he rejoined Hart's team for another presidential campaign, graduated from law school and founded his Celtic rock band, O'Malley's March. For two years, he worked as a city prosecutor and became convinced that he needed to run for office. "You'd have to be pretty numb to this world not to be that close to a lot of pain and not feel a responsibility to do something about it," he said.

His first campaign, in 1990 for state Senate, failed by a narrow margin. The next year, he easily won a seat on the Baltimore City Council from Northeast Baltimore, the Curran family base.

O'Malley made his reputation on the council by pushing for stronger police tactics to eliminate open-air drug markets. His 1999 mayoral campaign promised such results.

He picked up momentum as damaging revelations emerged about his competitors, gaining a further boost with endorsements from several prominent black state legislators. With the image of a crime fighter, O'Malley handily defeated council President Lawrence A. Bell III and councilman Carl Stokes in the primary, tantamount to election in the Democratic city.

The last six years fighting an entrenched drug trade, a troubled school system, a shrinking tax base, high murder rates and vacant housing have provided O'Malley with a record he says he is proud to run on - especially a 40 percent reduction in violent crime.

In his announcement speech yesterday he conceded that Baltimore "still has work to do."

"I see the evidence that the city is headed in a much better direction," O'Malley said.

But the mayor's history has also provided his opposition with plenty of ammunition. O'Malley has not been able to achieve his goal of reducing homicides to 175 a year; his Police Department is on its fourth commissioner; and the school system, which teetered on bankruptcy barely 17 months ago, has had its special education department taken over by the state under a federal judge's order.

O'Malley flirted with a run for governor in 2002 but remained in Baltimore. His critics say he has been running ever since, losing focus on his job.

The mayor said he knows he must overcome assertions from opponents that his motives for higher office are egocentric.

"Because I'm young and have been blessed with some degree of success as a young man, people tend to overestimate my ambitions and underestimate my commitment to more important and timeless" notions of public service, social justice and progress, O'Malley said this week.

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