He went west to the heartland in 1983 with a guitar and a penny whistle, a political troubadour who was 20 but looked more like 15. And when he arrived, they gave him a phone, a map and a list of names, and said, "Go win part of Iowa for our presidential campaign."
So he dialed numbers and knocked on doors, visiting farmers and store clerks and men in suits. He talked to them, sang to them and generally charmed their socks off, and pretty soon reports began filtering back to the boss about this young guy from Maryland, Martin O'Malley.
"We heard that they just loved him out there," said Gary Hart, who was making his first run at the presidency. "Particularly the housewives. They all wanted to feed him and take care of him. He was like an orphan. And when I got out there, I discovered that sometimes they'd had to feed him because we'd run out of money."
In gratitude, Hart bought O'Malley his first legal beer on his 21st birthday -- a Guinness, of course. By then it was January 1984, and the campaign soldiered on for five months before Hart finished second to Walter F. Mondale for the Democratic nomination.
But its impact on O'Malley endured, and when he returned home to Rockville that July, younger brother Patrick saw the change right away. Martin had grown up.Political veterans, always on the lookout for up-and-comers, saw something, too.
"The Hart campaign was kind of a crucible for a lot of people who have since gone into public service," said deputy campaign manager Doug Wilson, 49.
"They came because they believed in something, and Martin was elite among them. This kid galvanized people. You could see the fire in his eyes."
If O'Malley, 36, is elected mayor of Baltimore next month, his administration will be indelibly marked by the lessons and friendships he gained from the Hart campaign.
Not only was it his political rite of passage, but it was where the major threads of his upbringing came together -- the energy, the loyalty and the relish for the spotlight; the ability to scan a precinct map and sniff out every last vote; and the belief, going back for generations in his Democratic family, that politics was not only noble but useful, a tool built more for shaping policies than for winning elections.
`The right way'
"Our parents always taught us that if it's done the right way, you can really do great things for the people and for the country," said O'Malley's brother Patrick, 32, an attorney at a Wall Street law firm.
Not all of O'Malley's skills win universal approval. The performer in him can come across as a grandstander. His quick wit can be intemperate. A confident stance on issues strikes opponents as cocksure.
And in an age in which a charismatic president's duplicity has cast a shadow of cynicism on the electorate, even being a charmer is a mixed blessing, inspiring some, repelling others.
"The whole [primary] campaign, he was under a complete microscope because they were trying to find some awful thing, and there just really wasn't anything," said Katie O'Malley, his wife. "Whether you agree with him or disagree with him on issues, he is what he is."
O'Malley's philosophy wasn't crafted from polling or market research. Just ask his mom and dad, Thomas and Barbara O'Malley. Or his five brothers and sisters. The lines he uses in interviews tend to be like the ones he grew up hearing around the dinner table, in a home where old campaign buttons, convention ribbons and photos of Democratic presidents have an honored place on the wall.
His mother's father was party chairman for Indiana's 4th Congressional District, in Fort Wayne, where he once sat on the dais with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. His father's father was a ward boss in Pittsburgh. His parents met in 1954 when his father, a lawyer, was volunteering at the Democratic National Committee in Washington, where his mother was national secretary for the Young Democrats.
Two sisters were born before Martin arrived, and three brothers followed. It wasn't long before each was asked to hand out leaflets door-to-door in someone's election campaign. Martin remembers heading out at age 7 with his father to work for family friend James Gleason, a Republican who became Montgomery County executive. In later years, brother Patrick came along.
Bringing in votes
"That was the fall activity," O'Malley said. "You'd go out every night, and we'd come in and color in [on a map] the areas we had done. Then my dad was sure to take us to the polling place when the results came in. He always made a big point of telling us, `See those votes coming in? You were involved in that.' "
It stuck with them. While younger brother Peter, 29, was flying over Gaithersburg last year with his mother and his brother Patrick, he looked at the outlines of the streets and parks below and picked out some of the neighborhoods he had worked, naming them by ward and precinct.
Whenever Martin has run for office, the brothers and at least a few old buddies from the Hart campaign have invariably pitched in, working long days, then crashing overnight in threadbare apartments, doing it the old way, street by street.
"They're still coloring in their maps, years later," Katie O'Malley said.
You could say that it was O'Malley's mom who got him started in the business.
"He was in seventh grade, and I said, `Martin, why don't you run for student council president?' " his mother recalled.
"What do I do?" the boy asked.
You get a few friends, make a few signs and figure out a project to help your school, she answered. Martin came up with a recycling drive. He won. Then, the recycling drive raised money for the school. A political crusader was born.
A few years later, O'Malley awakened to his Irish heritage, something that had never been a big deal around the house, except for the occasional tunes by traditional groups such as the Clancy Brothers.
Then he heard music by the Wolfe Tones playing one day in the locker room at Gonzaga High School in Washington. It was edgier, more rebellious, but still Irish to the core. He bought a tin whistle, taught himself to play and joined a pub band called the Shannon Tide.
Later, he started his own group, O'Malley's March. He started reading about the potato famine. And when it was time to choose a quote for the senior yearbook, he picked one from an Irish rebel leader, whose words seem prophetic for a man on the verge of becoming mayor: "Wise men, riddle me this: What if the dream come true?"
Then, life got boring for a while. O'Malley enrolled at Catholic University, commuting from home. His best buddies, Michael Enright and Michael Drayne, went to college in the South. O'Malley became restive. So did Drayne. At Gonzaga, they had played football and acted in theatrical productions together. Now they were ready for real-life dramatics.
Alternative to Reaganism
Weary of the policies of President Ronald Reagan, they were looking for a Democrat with a chance of beating him. They settled on Gary Hart.
The Coloradan offered the politics of O'Malley's parents, but with a twist of pragmatism and new thinking. Don't just cut the defense budget; rather, study modern tactics, then update equipment and training. Neo-liberalism, it was called, a way of looking at issues that could lead a Democrat to someday support "zero tolerance" policing.
Drayne left school, and with the first primary more than 14 months away, he and O'Malley went to a small rowhouse on Capitol Hill to volunteer. It was December 1982, and their friend Enright, home for the holidays, decided to give it a shot, too.
"I lasted maybe a week and said, `This is for the birds,' " recalled Enright, now legislative director for Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin. "But the grunt work didn't bother them, and they stuck with it for six years."
Struggling to pay the rent, the campaign soon moved to a more down-scale office above a movie theater. The soundtrack was audible while they licked envelopes. Volunteers came and went, and O'Malley and Drayne rose through the ranks as their 20th birthdays passed.
O'Malley "was on the scheduling desk, so we talked [by phone] every day," said Susan Casey, who was 34 then and working for Hart out west. When she met him later, she couldn't believe her eyes. "It was just this young kid. He'd sounded like this grown-up person from Washington who knew what he was doing and knew how to lead."
In late 1983, with money again running out, the campaign sent almost everyone into the field. The glamorous assignments were in New Hampshire, where Hart was popular.
O'Malley and Drayne volunteered for the Russian front, volunteering for Iowa, where Hart was a virtual unknown. The Iowa caucuses were two months away.
O'Malley operated out of Davenport. His mission was brutally simple: to mobilize as many supporters for Hart as he could. He got on the phone, cold-calling, and at the end of some long days, at small fund-raisers or gatherings of volunteers, he got out his guitar.
"You'd have a smattering of a crowd, kind of tired," said Doug Wilson.
"Then, if you can imagine this young man in jeans and a T-shirt singing in this clear strong voice. It was like pouring hot soup down cold people."
"That was a real turning point for him," Drayne said of Iowa. "You wake up in the morning, and all of a sudden you're an adult. You've got responsibilities and things to do, and there's nobody there to tell you how to do it."
Mondale won easily in Iowa, but Hart was the surprising runner-up, and by the time the convention rolled around in July in San Francisco, Hart had enough delegates to make some noise. It was an exhilarating week for O'Malley.
His family watched from the living room TV back in Rockville, seeing him in the red hat and windbreaker of a floor leader.
O'Malley kept working for Hart in the years leading up to 1988. Then came allegations that Hart was having an extramarital affair. It was a fatal blow in pre-Clinton America. Hart dropped out, got back in and never made a dent, but O'Malley stuck it out to the end, and in doing so realized something about his own ambitions.
"I remember just having this feeling, a sense of mission, that I was going to run," he said. "Hart turned me on to the fact that one person can make a difference."
In the meantime, he had discovered two new passions.
The first was Baltimore. He had moved there for law school at the University of Maryland, living on Mount Vernon Place.
After the white-bread suburbs of Rockville, this was something richer, with its raffish charms and ethnic warrens, its gut-level problems. He became field director for Barbara A. Mikulski's U.S. Senate race. He again got out a stack of maps and began to learn the city a block at a time.
At a campaign stop, he saw a young woman named Katie Curran. She, too, had grown up with politics. He tried speaking to her when he could, but she paid him little attention. She was too busy helping her father, J. Joseph Curran Jr., win his first race for Maryland attorney general.
But he remembered the face, and a little more then two years later -- after law school, after Hart's burnout and after he'd taken a job with the state's attorney's office at the Wabash Avenue District Court -- he saw her name atop a stack of a colleague's phone messages.
She was looking for something to do that weekend.
"Take her to McGinn's tonight," O'Malley urged, referring to the Irish pub and restaurant on North Charles Street. So he showed up there, too. They made a date.
A year and a half later, they were married.
Running for the first time
By then, O'Malley was making his first attempt to win public office, taking on incumbent state Sen. John A. Pica Jr. in the city's 43rd Legislative District. O'Malley's new in-laws weren't much help. Katie's Uncle Mike, then-City Councilman Martin E. Curran, endorsed Pica.
But O'Malley had his brothers, who drove in to help. So did Drayne, who by then was a banker in the Washington suburbs. So did Tom Murphy, an old buddy from Hart days who had lost a race for mayor of Pittsburgh the year before but would win in his next try, in 1993. Out came the maps. No one gave O'Malley a chance, least of all his wife, who said the same thing she would say when he entered the mayor's race this year: "Are you crazy?"
Pica woke up the morning after Election Day to find himself trailing, but the absentee ballots saved him by 44 votes. The newcomer had become a force. So, a year later he ran again, for a vacant City Council seat in Uncle Mike's 3rd District.
A friend's reservations
By then, O'Malley's first child, Grace, was on the way. (She's now 8.) His second, Tara, was born the year after that. William came along in late 1997.
Katie, meanwhile, was a clerk for Baltimore County prosecutors by day, attending law school by night.
On came more maps, and on came the O'Malley brothers.
Drayne returned, too, but not without reservations: "I worried a little bit that he had just looked around and needed to run and took the first thing that he thought he could win.
"And I asked him about it. He talked about the district, and the seat, and what was happening in the city, about how much he liked Baltimore, and that he thought it was a race worth running."
O'Malley didn't just win. He led the ticket, even beating Uncle Mike.
Sniper on the council
In his two terms on the council, O'Malley has tended to be a sniper, waiting for big targets to lumber by before pulling the trigger, then crowing over the kill. Just ask his favorite targets, Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III and former Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier.
But allies also ended up in his line of fire, such as Robert W. Curran, another of Katie's uncles, who replaced Uncle Mike, who died this year, on the council in 1995. When Robert Curran refused to go along with O'Malley's opposition to Henson, O'Malley sensed betrayal.
Noting that Curran had taken some free tickets from the administration of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, O'Malley wrote acidly, "You have several times begged for pardon and communication only to return to the brothel of unprincipled and corrupt men -- promising your constituents and supporters one thing, only to roll over time and time again for baseball tickets, crab feast tickets and the trappings of acceptance into the ranks of the so-called powerful."
Uncle Bob was taken aback, so Katie told him, "Don't worry, he writes letters like that to me all the time. He'll get over it."
As mayor, O'Malley would more often be the guy in the flak jacket. Even if he's willing to return fire, he'll have to be more judicious with his aim and ammunition. He got a taste of that when Frazier announced last month he was leaving the Police Department to take a federal job in which he'll have a hand in controlling the flow of federal money to Baltimore.
Sensing a need for more circumspection, O'Malley asked state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman for advice on what to say in response.
"I told him, `I think you should say it's a good fit for the community and I wish him well,' " Hoffman said.
But what came out was a parting shot in Latin: "Sic semper tyrannis." Thus always to tyrants.
"That's a sign of youth and inexperience," said Hoffman, an avid supporter. "He'll learn from it."
On the other hand, O'Malley visited a room full of Frazier's closest supporters a week after he won the primary. They were board directors of the Police Athletic League, fearful that O'Malley would disband their community programs. He might change the program, he told them, but he reassured them that he thinks it is worthy.
To some in the room, he came across as a trifle smug. Yet, there was also a grudging respect that he had come at all and had listened. "He was basically a Daniel marching into the lion's den, and I thought that was rather courageous of him," said board member Dan Dent.
It's the sort of thing he'll have to do more of, said his old Hart colleague Murphy.
But he'll also have to learn how to say no, while not worrying about how many people he makes angry.
"I told him the easy part will be winning," said Murphy, who has talked for hours with O'Malley recently about the demands of running City Hall.
"As a councilman, the goal is to get as many people as you can to love you. But your effectiveness as a mayor will be measured by how many people don't like you. It's one of only two jobs in America that people take personally. The other is the president.
"I think initially Martin is going to have trouble delegating, because he's such a hands-on kind of guy, and I think initially he will approach the job with a legislative personality more than an executive personality, although I think he will grow into it."
Counsel from Schaefer
O'Malley has also sought advice from former Mayor William Donald Schaefer.
"I get apprehensive sometimes at the enormity of the job. Then when I spend time with him, I walk away thinking, `This is all very do-able,' " O'Malley said. "It's one thing to be a councilman and know that there are all these things to do. But when you're suddenly on the brink of being responsible for making it all go, you start asking yourself the sort of questions you never had to ask as a councilman."
He's already learning what the demands of the mayor's office will mean for his family.
"We woke up the next morning after the election," he said, "and all of a sudden there's a police car parked in front of our house at 6 a.m. And Katie said to me, across the bed over our sleeping little boy between us, `Didn't you like our life before?' "
His children sense a difference. When Tara asked her father on a recent Sunday to take her to Port Discovery downtown, she was puzzled about why her newly empowered dad would have to say no. "But you're the mayor," she complained.
"Not yet, Tara. Not yet."
One probable casualty of the job will be his music career. O'Malley's March, having recorded one compact disc, had planned to cut another. The campaign delayed that. Now it might never happen, and not just because there won't be enough time.
The image of a young mayor playing guitar might attract the curiosity of, say, "Good Morning America," but it might also offer ammunition to enemies who would like to cast him as another Bill Clinton, the charmer with the saxophone, supporters and friends say.
He would be the guy playing music in a bar when he ought to be at home, the guy with the groupies gazing up at him from the edge of the stage.
But he'll definitely give one more performance. That will come Nov. 5, three days after the mayoral election, at a 15-year reunion of Gary Hart's 1984 presidential campaign.
It will be a showcase of Hart's political offspring: a governor, some mayors, some legislators. Singer Carole King will perform.
But the opening act will be someone Hart calls "my new hero." He is the young-looking fellow with a guitar and a penny whistle, some guy named O'Malley.