On his rival's turf, Baltimore's mayor promotes his ties to vote-rich Montgomery County

O'Malley cultivates his roots in bid for governor's office


ROCKVILLE - Montgomery County, Md., is hardly Hope, Ark. It does not provide a convenient political back story of childhood struggle and triumph over adversity.

But if his new stump speech is any indication, Mayor Martin O'Malley will nimbly use his boyhood roots in the state's most affluent jurisdiction to promote the values of faith and family he says he acquired growing up here.

"The lessons I learned during those days of my life are important lessons," said O'Malley, a candidate for governor, during a recent speech at the City Dock in Annapolis.

There's a vital reason for the mayor to share this biographical information, despite a broader perception that Montgomery County is different - wealthier and more liberal - from the rest of the state. The mayor needs to make inroads in the vote-rich county where he appears to be lesser known than Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, his expected Democratic primary rival.

Montgomery County has the second-highest number of registered Democrats in the state, according to the state Board of Elections. Neighboring Prince George's County has the highest; Baltimore County and Baltimore City rank a respective third and fourth.

One of six children, O'Malley spent his first two decades as a Montgomery County resident. His parents owned a home in Bethesda until O'Malley was in second grade. They then moved to Rockville, where they have lived to this day on a cul-de-sac of brick houses now worth a half-million dollars, with basketball hoops and American flags out front. On a recent afternoon, just a couple of the cars parked nearby, including one in his parents' driveway, boasted O'Malley campaign bumper stickers.

O'Malley's mother, Barbara Suelzer O'Malley, is a staff assistant to U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland. His father, Thomas M. O'Malley, is a lawyer who served as assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia from 1957 to 1962. He ran unsuccessfully for state's attorney in 1998 as a Republican and in 1994 as a Democrat.

Duncan also grew up in Montgomery County and is well-known here. He served on the Rockville City Council and as the city's mayor before winning the county executive job more than a decade ago.

But Montgomery County residents say they are watching with interest as the gubernatorial campaign heats up and that they want to learn more about the other native son, the one who now calls Baltimore home.

Over burgers with his wife at the Silver Diner on Rockville Pike, Sandy Haley of Takoma Park said he thinks O'Malley, 42, has enormous potential. Haley has been reading about O'Malley in the newspapers and praised him for how he has handled rumors about his marriage.

"O'Malley has a lot of charisma," Haley, 63, said. "I'm sorry, but I think that's important."

Haley said he has had the opportunity to watch Duncan up close for many years. In his view, Duncan hasn't done enough to curb development in Montgomery County, and he thinks that will hurt him with local voters. Duncan isn't "in the same league" as O'Malley, he said.

Kathy Driscoll, a retired elementary school teacher who lives a few houses from O'Malley's parents, noted that O'Malley will have to reacquaint himself with his childhood community.

"It's been a long time, but he's left a good impression from his younger years," Driscoll said.

On Sleaford Road in Bethesda, the people who live on either side of O'Malley's first childhood home knew little of the man who wants to be their next governor - though they'd heard he'd once lived next door.

"I think some of us know that he's running," said Henry Hoppler, a retired federal worker. "I certainly know much more about Duncan. That's not necessarily such a good thing."

Hoppler, too, lamented growth in his community, pointing to the large residential additions sprouting up around his neighborhood. He even scolded Duncan for allowing Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School students to park on his street, which runs past the school.

Hoppler said he's open to learning more about what Duncan and O'Malley would do if elected. "I want to hear what they say about the issues," he said.

With the primary 11 months away, it is too early to clearly gauge how much support the mayor has in his former backyard. But by at least one measure - money - Duncan, 49, has an advantage in Rockville, the city O'Malley points to as his hometown.

According to the most recent data filed with the state Board of Elections, O'Malley has raised $9,335 from Rockville residents since the start of the current election cycle in January 2003, compared with Duncan's $223,820.

Rockville Mayor Larry Giammo, a registered independent who hasn't declared his support for O'Malley but offers that he is impressed with him, said there are many in Montgomery County "who are inclined to consider someone other than Duncan."

"Given the climate in Montgomery County, the concerns and issues about growth, I actually think O'Malley has an opportunity to beat Duncan in Montgomery County," he said.

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