Advisers speaking, O'Malley listening

Governor, aides record political wins, some say, aiming for national scene

April 02, 2007|By Jennifer Skalka | Jennifer Skalka,SUN REPORTER

One is Gov. Martin O'Malley's closest high school buddy. Another was his bartender. A third was a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. And one of the most senior of the crew worked in state government for 14 years for O'Malley's father-in-law.

When it comes to O'Malley's inner circle, the governor keeps close those advisers who made his seven-year run as Baltimore mayor a success. The group is tight, loyal and disciplined, and has one obvious goal - to create a winning administration in Annapolis.

But many observers believe the unspoken agenda is to craft a public persona for O'Malley that could launch him onto the national scene. With moves to champion a bill to move up Maryland's presidential primary and a visible lobbying effort to repeal the state's death penalty law, O'Malley and his advisers have pushed an aggressive agenda just 2 1/2 months into his first term.

"I think that Martin is a person who can be decisive once he gets all of the facts and the information, but I believe he surrounds himself with people who tell him straight up what the facts are," said former Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., the governor's father-in-law.

O'Malley said he values the give-and-take of the group's weekly private sessions.

"It's really in the collective interaction and the dialogue that I think we excel as an administration," O'Malley said. "It's not because any one person has the right answer all the time."

O'Malley's advisers helped devise a city agenda that propelled him into higher office. They shaped the public image of a young, crime-fighting mayor working to spark the resurgence of a dying city. Now, at the state level, they are mirroring that work with a focus on public safety, health care and the environment.

The "One Maryland" mantra that echoed throughout the governor's January inaugural address is the updated version of his Baltimore "Believe" campaign, and, some say, a not-so-subtle play at the kind of message that could one day carry O'Malley to an even more visible platform: the U.S. Senate or the presidency.

"It's clear that he acted as mayor with an eye to larger fields of endeavor, and his behavior as governor so far, as carefully measured as it is, is calculated to win him further prominence as a serious candidate for higher office," said Matthew Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political science professor.

O'Malley's kitchen Cabinet convenes weekly - twice as often as his actual Cabinet. Their morning "legislative meetings" are held at the State House, though several in the group are known to gather some evenings informally at several Annapolis watering holes.

The governor's collection of closest advisers could be loosely divided into two camps - his white, Irish posse of mostly 30- and 40-year-olds, and three senior African-American women who helped guide his fiscal policies and legislative operation in Baltimore.

The former group includes: chief of staff Michael R. Enright, who attended Gonzaga College High School in Washington with O'Malley; deputy chief of staff Matthew D. Gallagher, a City Hall veteran who ran the CitiStat program; Stephen J. Kearney, the one-time archdiocese spokesman who serves as the governor's communications director; and Sean R. Malone, a deputy legislative officer whom O'Malley met when Malone was bartending at Baltimore's McGinn's, a frequent stop for O'Malley's March, the governor's band.

The latter set is headlined by deputy chief of staff Peggy J. Watson, a 30-year Baltimore City Hall veteran; appointments secretary Jeanne D. Hitchcock, a former deputy mayor for intergovernmental affairs; and budget secretary T. Eloise Foster, who served former Gov. Parris N. Glendening in the same role.

"I was like an old chick compared to them," said Watson, who was recruited out of retirement twice by O'Malley, first in 1999 and then again after the 2006 gubernatorial contest.

O'Malley said that Enright might be his top aide, but he implicitly trusts Watson's advice - even with the thorniest matters.

"I always would ask first, `What does Peggy think?'" he said of Watson, who helped O'Malley build the city's rainy day fund and ensured the city schools bailout was tenable.

It is not out of the ordinary for a new governor to bring in confidants with him. Gov. William Donald Schaefer took many members of his mayoral staff from Baltimore with him, and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who served in Congress for eight years, brought several top advisers with him from Capitol Hill.

O'Malley, however, has long had a reputation for keeping an exclusive inner circle.

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