Youngest councilman courts money, votes O'Malley's style has people talking


It was just another fund-raiser at a Knights of Columbus hall until a handsome, hazel-eyed folk singer took over the microphone.

Martin O'Malley's supporters soon were tapping their toes. Crooning traditional Irish ballads, the 30-year-old lawyer courted money and future votes in the disarming style that catapulted him from obscurity to become the youngest member of the Baltimore City Council.

The next night, he was at center stage again. This time, the 3rd District Democrat gave an impassioned speech about the need to raise the city police commissioner's salary to attract the best and brightest candidate nationwide.

His measure to increase the salary from $91,400 to $120,000 amounts to little more than a formal request because the council doesn't have the power to set salaries. A hearing on the bill is scheduled for tonight.

But it's the kind of politics that has people talking about Mr. O'Malley as an ambitious man whose career is on the rise.

"My guess is he's laying the foundation for a bigger run," says state Del. Henry R. Hergenroeder Jr., who represents the same Northeast Baltimore neighborhoods.

Second District Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge lauds his colleague as smart and progressive, a "straight shooter."

And Lawrence A. Bell, a 4th District councilman who often teams with Mr. O'Malley on public safety issues, says, "I think we have a lot in common. Aside from being the youngest members of the council, we have a lot of energy, and we want to see things done."

Mr. O'Malley's popularity, of course, is not universal. Some council members snipe that the earnest-looking lawyer is a "showboat," emphasizing flashy resolutions that grab headlines over substantive bills. One colleague has dubbed him the "King of Resolutions."

But even state Sen. John A. Pica Jr., who nearly lost his seat to Mr. O'Malley in 1990, has to acknowledge that his old rival is a good politician. Only 44 votes on absentee ballots kept Mr. O'Malley from succeeding in his first try for office.

Today, Senator Pica says, "We locked eyeballs. I respect him for his tough campaigning skills."

Mr. O'Malley's latest campaign is to restore confidence in Baltimore's crime-overwhelmed police force. He believes more police officers should be working on the streets and that the next commissioner should have a national reputation.

"We've got serious problems," says the former assistant state's attorney, who still keeps in touch with police officers he met while working as a prosecutor from 1988 to 1990.

He rattles off a long list -- downsizing, low morale and fresh allegations of corruption in the 2,900-member department.

Yet, he's equally opposed to raising taxes to hire more officers. When Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke suggested increasing Baltimore's "piggyback" income tax last year, Mr. O'Malley adamantly opposed it. Instead, he contended the department had a surplus of as much as $4 million.

The first week of January, Mr. O'Malley was at Councilman Bell's side in calling for Police Commissioner Edward V. Woods' resignation if the crime rate didn't drop in six months. In early August, with the homicide rate still soaring, Commissioner Woods unexpectedly announced that he would retire Nov. 1.

"Crime and taxes," Mr. O'Malley says over a steak sandwich at lunch. "Those are the two big issues in the city. I've found I can be more effective here than I ever imagined."

The nitpicking details of pothole politics is not the future he imagined as an impressionable college student.

His maternal grandfather was a congressional district chairman in Indiana and his paternal grandfather was a ward leader in Pittsburgh.

But Mr. O'Malley didn't run for class president at Gonzaga, the Jesuit high school he attended in Washington, D.C., or at Catholic University. It wasn't until the spring of 1984 that he discovered a taste for politics.

He was a sophomore, bored and restless with campus life, fed up with reading articles that described his generation as "a bunch of Rolex-wearing, Volvo-driving yuppies."

And so he went to work for Gary Hart. From the distance of 1993, long after Mr. Hart's presidential hopes were --ed when he was caught with model Donna Rice, there's a tinge of irony to Mr. O'Malley's choice. But the councilman is still unabashed about his campaigning for Mr. Hart.

"I'm the only one who has two of his pictures on my wall," Mr. O'Malley says with a grin.

Later, while getting his degree from the University of Maryland law school, he discovered that cases were similar to campaigns -- and he liked both. "It's intense, and you have to think on your feet," he says.

In the spring of 1990, he found himself doing a lot of thinking on his feet. He had just bought a house in Lauraville and was dating Katie Curran, the daughter of Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. One day he told her that he wanted to run for the state Senate.

"She said, 'You're crazy,' " he recalls. But he felt he could beat Senator Pica by attacking his voting record and knocking on enough doors in the racially mixed, working-class neighborhoods north of Memorial Stadium. He very nearly won.

The race was so close that he kept going the next year and captured the council seat that was vacated by Joseph T. "Jody" Landers III. He finished ahead of the two incumbents, Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham and Martin E. "Mike" Curran.

Two years later, political observers are speculating whether Mr. O'Malley is going to challenge Senator Pica again. The attorney general is now his father-in-law, he has two daughters, Grace, 2, and Tara, 1, and a record in the council.

Mr. O'Malley says he's still keen on the Senate seat, but "realistic" about running. State Del. Curtis S. Anderson has also been mentioned as a potential candidate and might win in a three-way race, Councilman Ambridge says.

Delegate Hergenroeder, who attended Mr. O'Malley's Sept. 26 fund-raiser, says Mr. O'Malley has "a lot going. He was in national politics, he got married into a political family," Mr. Hergenroeder says. "And he can sing."

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