Managing a rumor quietly, then openly

Even in a city with a rumor control center dedicated to stomping out tall tales, the story clouding Mayor Martin O'Malley's political future would not disappear.

Rumor had it that the mayor, a married father of four who plans to run for governor next year, had cheated on his wife.


Every news organization in town had tried to nail the story, scouring courts for divorce filings or paternity suits, seeking records of the mayor's travel and security detail. They all came up empty-handed.

Yet the story -- fueled by the mayor's rock-band hobby and philandering police commissioner pal, by an HBO television series and the Internet postings of a Republican political operative -- lived on. And on. And on.


Churning for the past 18 months on the Web, in Maryland political circles and around office coolers, the rumor threatened the prospects of what the national Democratic Party considers one of its rising stars.

But when the story finally burst onto front pages and TV newscasts Wednesday, it was in a context that many political observers saw as a coup for the mayor: A longtime congressional aide and campaign operative of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. admitted to spreading the story on a conservative Web site.

The way the rumor finally became public was either the result of O'Malley's good luck or crafty political gamesmanship, depending on whom you talk to.

In the eyes of his supporters, the mayor -- dogged for so long by what he called "despicable lies" -- had shifted gears from managing a potential crisis to managing an opportunity.

After months of strategizing and struggling and worrying about how to combat a rumor, the story was out. The mayor and his wife made a dramatic statement, then fell back to their strategy of silence.

Republicans insist that the mayor's crisis may be over but that the taint of scandal will linger.

"I was amazed he would come out in such a high-profile way," said Deborah Martinez, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Republican Party and fierce O'Malley critic who, like Ehrlich and other members of the GOP, say the party had no role in spreading the rumor.

She repeated charges -- disputed by O'Malley aides -- that the mayor's camp leaked the Ehrlich aide's Web postings to the news media to create sympathy for the mayor and defuse the rumor.


"I think it showed a deliberate strategy on their part in crisis communications," she said, pointing out that O'Malley had recently announced his intention to run for governor next year. "He's pretty much saying he's going to run. They're trying to, as soon as possible, as far away as possible from 2006, get this elephant out of the room."

Martinez predicted that such a strategy would backfire.

"A year and a half from now, people are only going to remember 'sex scandal and O'Malley,'" she said. "And it wasn't the Republican Party that put him there."

Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for O'Malley, called Martinez's contention that the mayor or his staff played a role exposing the Internet postings "baloney." The mayor's aides say the story came to light only because a Washington Post reporter linked rumors posted on to Joseph F. Steffen Jr., the Ehrlich aide who was forced to resign over the matter.

Change of fortunes

O'Malley's strategy for dealing with the rumor has not changed as much as his fortunes. Except for the brief appearance he made Wednesday alongside his wife, Katie Curran O'Malley, to denounce the rumors, he and his staff have mostly kept mum -- just as they did for the previous year and a half.


The O'Malley camp initially kept quiet in an effort to put a damper on the story, just as the municipal rumor control center -- a hot line established in 1968 amid the rioting that followed the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. -- puts the kibosh on false rumors that threaten the city's "peace and safety."

(City officials said they weren't sure if anyone had ever called the hot line about the O'Malley rumor.)

The public silence of O'Malley and his staff over the past year and a half hardly means that they sat back and let the rumors swirl. They adopted a strategy of spotlighting the mayor's wife and children, political observers say.

Around Father's Day, his communications office pitched a story to local news media featuring the mayor as family man. One television station bit. In December, when O'Malley was sworn in for a second term, his inaugural celebration was a "family-friendly" event at the Maryland Science Center.

"They [the mayor and his wife] were showing up together at everything, holding hands," said Matthew Crenson, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University. "It was kind of damage control. The rumors were that they split up, that she and the kids had moved in with her father or he moved out. By showing up publicly together, they were showing tangibly it wasn't true without denying the rumors. Because if you deny it, you're just giving it greater publicity."

After the story's public airing last week, O'Malley and his wife addressed it, but just once. They appeared hand-in-hand at a news conference in front of City Hall, where they disputed the rumor and spoke briefly about the emotional toll it had taken on them and their children.


Since then, O'Malley has declined to comment on the matter, saying only that he has turned his attention back to "the people's business." Some say that his silence will help shift the focus to what he calls the Republican smear campaign behind the story.

"It's like a pre-emptive strike," Crenson said. "What it does is, it forces the governor to disavow this whole thing. But he has to sort of clean up the mess before he can do that. He has to have his own investigation. That's going to keep it alive."

When news of the Internet postings about the mayor were set to break last week, Ehrlich developed a strategy of his own. The night before the story hit the papers, the governor's office announced that Steffen had been dismissed. Since then, Ehrlich has stated that he knew nothing about Steffen's actions, promised to investigate the matter, and refused to heed calls, from the mayor as well as a conservative talk show host, that he apologize.

Ehrlich maintains there is no need to say he's sorry for something he had no hand in -- which Crenson sees as a smart strategy -- though Friday he pledged to say something privately to O'Malley the next time they meet.

"If there's the slightest indication that he was behind this and knew what was going on, it could be devastating for him," Crenson said. "Part of his appeal is his image as a nice guy, a good ol' boy, somebody you like to be around. And to be tainted by something like this would damage that image in a very significant way."

Mike Morrill, a communications strategist who has worked for many Democrats, said people on either end of this sort of rumor have to be careful about how they respond.


"Whenever you're in this situation, there's always questions about two sets of behavior -- the behavior of those who are the victims of the rumors and the behavior of those who are spreading them," Morrill said.

"I think the O'Malley team has been exemplary in how they have behaved and handled these rumors, and that's why they are no longer discussing them," he added. "On the other hand, those who are spreading them are despicable and have been found out."

As communications director for then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Morrill dealt with rumors of an extramarital affair. In Glendening's case, the rumors proved true. The governor had a relationship with a staff member, promoted her to a position paying more than $100,000, divorced his wife and married the mistress, his deputy chief of staff.

Although that scandal grabbed its share of headlines, some political observers say there's been much more interest in the O'Malley rumors.

If there is more appetite for O'Malley tales than Glendening gossip, that could be because the former governor -- a term-limited, gray-haired former college professor who concedes that some find him boring -- lacks the mayor's pizazz and potential. The young, telegenic, iron-pumping mayor leads a Celtic rock band and hopes to have a long political future. At least for some, his personal appeal is such that condos being built a block from City Hall are advertised with the slogan: "Live next to the mayor."

"This is a guy with star quality," said Antonia Keane, a Loyola College sociologist. "He is a guy who plays in an Irish band and in a muscle shirt. You can't imagine Glendening in a muscle shirt."


Sex appeal isn't the only thing that has fed a People magazine-style fascination with O'Malley's personal life.

The 'Wire' factor

The popular HBO series The Wire has featured a young, ambitious, crime-fighting Baltimore City councilman who -- despite protestations to the contrary from executive producer David Simon -- is widely believed to be patterned on O'Malley, a former councilman who rose to mayor on the crime issue.

The resemblance between the fictional Councilman Thomas Carcetti and O'Malley has helped fuel the rumor, political observers say, because the HBO character cheats on his wife.

"It's politics mimicking art," said Donald F. Norris, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Add to that the sordid tale of Edward T. Norris, O'Malley's one-time friend and police commissioner who wound up in federal prison for using department money, in part to entertain a string of women in New York City. The scandal led to speculation that O'Malley and his top cop had double-dated. News organizations looked at the men's travel records but never came up with anything.


Not that the O'Malley administration, which often praises the virtues of "open and transparent government," has always made that kind of inquiry easy. In May, The Sun requested copies of the mayor's city-sponsored travel under the state's Public Information Act. The city did not respond until late January, about seven months beyond the 30 days provided by law.

As the rumor graduated last week from whispered gossip to screaming headlines, so many television crews swarmed around City Hall that the news conference with O'Malley and his wife had to be moved outside. Gathered there were many of the same reporters who had spent so much time and energy chasing fruitless leads on his alleged affair.

O'Malley and his wife, sticking to their say-little strategy, gave their brief statements and ignored reporters' shouted questions as they retreated, hand-in-hand, to City Hall.