Taking risks and keeping the faith in public life

November 05, 2006|By C. Fraser Smith

It is not enough to have faith; you must also have the courage to risk action on that faith, to risk failure upon that faith: the faith that one person can make a difference and that each of us must try.

- Mayor Martin O'Malley

This may be the essence of Martin Joseph O'Malley's campaign for governor.

The Democratic candidate has issue papers and television commercials and bus tours, of course.

But his argument for wresting control of government from Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is based on a far more ambitious view of what government should be. He boils it down to this: We're all in it together.

It's true, but it may be a risky assertion. Are we too jaded for such an assertion to survive?

Mr. O'Malley apparently doesn't think so. He's betting that people are still committed to their neighbors.

And he's not shy about invoking moral authority to make his case.

"Thomas Aquinas said that any seeker of a higher truth or of God must eventually and inevitably come back to the idea of community," he said in a speech.

The candidate told a church audience last weekend that he was in public life because of family, church and school. He had been drawn to politics by lessons learned from his late father, who said life is a moral argument with the world.

The lesson was amplified when he was a student at Gonzaga College High School in Washington. In a 2002 speech there, he said:

"I learned from Father Horace McKenna to search for Christ in the faces of others, including, and especially, the faces of the poor, the faces of the homeless men who lined up for a meal every morning alongside the foundations of" a church near Gonzaga.

He saw his calling then in what Democratic campaigns around the nation now call the needs of working families.

"I learned from Father Bradley to see and appreciate holiness in the quiet fortitude of hardworking people of very limited means: mothers, fathers, wives and husbands," he said.

Mr. O'Malley offered these thoughts in 2002 after deciding not to run for governor then. It was clear he would run later. This year, as every Marylander must know, turns out to be the year.

What has happened in the intervening time? Is he the same impetuously demanding young mayor who incurred the lasting anger of some when he impatiently and profanely urged the Baltimore state's attorney to get off her posterior and act?

He's paid a price for that outburst, but it's worth remembering why he was angry. He told his audience at Gonzaga: "Last year [2001], I handed a diploma to a star all-round athlete named Rio-Jarell Tatum, a gifted young man from a blue-collar Baltimore neighborhood. He graduated with honors from [high school]. He had a scholarship to Penn State, and was shot to death for 10 bucks."

There have been many fewer Rio-Jarrell Tatums on his watch - 40 or 50 fewer killings each year. But he has been criticized for running through too many police commissioners in search of one who can get a handle on the carnage.At the same time, Mr. O'Malley has found quality people to run his Law Department, his Planning Department and his Health Department - solid indicators of the way he would run the state.

He was told at the start that this campaign would be about maturity. So he's been disciplined, up to a point: He has had difficulty leaving behind O'Malley's March, the Irish band that gave him rock-star status. If he even entertains a question about the band, he told The Sun's Doug Donovan, his campaign aides cringe, as if he'd fallen back into a crack habit.

Predictably, some in his party fear he's overcorrected as a candidate. "I thought he would be like another Clinton," said one Democrat.

He has welcomed the former president's help in this campaign, but he's been developing his own persona. Some have objected to his oratorical flourishes - most of them focused on his plainspoken theme: We're all in it together.

He's betting the people of Maryland want a leader who appeals to their better angels.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears on Sundays. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.

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