Mayor Martin O'Malley, wife Catherine

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and his wife, Catherine, today walk outside City Hall, where the couple denounced rumors of infidelity spread by an aide to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (Sun photo by Christopher T. Assaf / February 9, 2005)

For months now "it" has hovered in the shadows of Baltimore politics, emerging occasionally on partisan radio shows or in questioning calls from constituents, a frustratingly persistent annoyance for supporters of Mayor Martin O'Malley and his staff.

Until yesterday morning, when the mayor, standing in front of City Hall before rows of reporters and some of those staff, finally denounced "it," the longstanding rumors that he had been unfaithful to his wife.

It was a relief for many in City Hall, who say they spent the better part of the last 18 months defending the mayor as the rumors sporadically surfaced.

"I'm glad at least it came to a head," said Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., adding that in political circles, "you'd have to have been lying under a rock" not to have heard the stories. "The rumors were a big elephant in the room."

In Annapolis, too, the story dominated much of the attention yesterday of lawmakers and gadflies, with reaction predictably breaking down along party lines.

According to O'Malley's staff, the decision to hold the 10 a.m. news conference only gelled at about 9 a.m.

The news had broken that a campaign operative of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. resigned his state job yesterday after admitting he had posted the rumors about O'Malley's marriage on a conservative Web site.

So at the last minute, the mayor scrapped his regularly scheduled weekly press briefing, deciding he and his wife would instead confront the issue in a full-scale news conference - though one in which he'd speak but take no questions.

The morning's news and what the mayor would do about it consumed many City Hall staffers as they filed into work yesterday morning. The building buzz hit full tilt at 9:03 when everyone got an e-mail urging them to avoid using City Hall's main entrance around 10 a.m. The mayor would be giving a news conference.

Some city staffers were reportedly jumping up and down, excited that O'Malley was finally going to defend himself and his family.

Councilman Robert W. Curran, who is Katie O'Malley's uncle, watched as the mayor stepped outside, hand-in-hand with his wife, and then briefly but firmly denounced the "falsehoods, lies and untruths" being spread about them.

Curran then spent a good part of the day giving media interviews and fielding expressions of support from colleagues as he prepared for a late afternoon legislative hearing.

"The folks that talked to me are glad that the air has been cleared," Curran said. "They knew in their heart all along that this was something done out of disrespect to Martin and the Curran family and the O'Malley family."

In his remarks, the mayor said that he's "glad to be done with this" and hoping to get back to city business.

His staff and colleagues seemed to agree.

A spokeswoman for O'Malley, Raquel Guillory, said that though it's sometimes been hard over the past 18 months, she and the staff haven't let the rumors become too distracting.

"We've been working as these rumors were flying, continue to work today and will the day after that and the day after that," she said.

Councilman Bernard "Jack" Young said that he'll finally have a solid answer when people ask him about the rumors.

"Constituents are always asking about it and saying we're covering up for the mayor," Young said, adding that he thinks things will be "better now that it's out there."

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, like many Democrats, scolded Republicans for using such "dirty tricks," particularly in the lead up to the governor's race, which O'Malley is all but certain to join.

In Annapolis, too, the rumors consumed water cooler chatter.

House Majority Leader Kumar Barve, like most Democrats, suspects more administration officials are involved.

"Most Democrats find it difficult to believe that a person who's worked with the governor so closely and for so long a period of time, that this person's activities were not known by the governor," the Montgomery County Democrat said.

Like most Republicans, Sen. John Hafer, from Western Maryland, insisted the governor did the right thing in dealing with Steffen.

"Ehrlich got rid of him as soon as he found out about it and that was appropriate," Hafer said.

Sun staff writer Eric Siegel contributed to this article.