Irish eyes (and wallets) are smiling on O'Malley


First, there's the name - O'Malley. Then there's the Celtic rock band, the affinity for Guinness beer and the rants about British aggression against Baltimore and Ireland.

Mayor Martin O'Malley has long worn his ethnic pride on his sleeve (when he wears sleeves) and, unlike the other candidates for governor of Maryland, O'Malley has turned his paternal heritage into an integral part of his public persona.

Now, as he runs for governor in a year when competition for in-state contributions will be tight, O'Malley is tapping out-of-state Irish ties for money. And the strategy is paying off, as Irish-Americans from Boston to Washington are donating tens of thousands of dollars to his campaign.

"We're interested in him for his Irishness," said Stella O'Leary, chairwoman of Irish American Democrats, a Washington political action committee that has given O'Malley $3,070 since 1999 and plans to give him $5,000 more this year.

O'Leary joined about 60 others to raise nearly $60,000 for O'Malley at a Dec. 15 fundraiser at the Georgetown home of Elizabeth Frawley Bagley, President Bill Clinton's ambassador to Portugal.

O'Malley's standing with Irish-American political players like Bagley stems mainly from Clinton's inclusion, when president, of the mayor in a delegation to Northern Ireland in December 2000.

Bagley met O'Malley on that trip and recalls that he displayed an impressive grasp of Northern Ireland. The mayor gleaned much of his expertise writing position papers on the issue as a 20-year-old campaign aide in 1988 for then-Sen. Gary Hart's presidential campaign.

Bagley said O'Malley also displayed his knowledge of Irish music by entertaining the delegation with his guitar and Gaelic songs, a talent he tapped at the December fundraiser.

"I think there is a large network of Irish-Americans," Bagley said. She said O'Malley's wife, Katie Curran O'Malley, and his four children only add to his appeal among Irish Catholics.

Matthew Crenson, chairman of the political science department at the Johns Hopkins University, said it is not surprising that Irish-Americans from outside Maryland are donating money.

"Their families struggled to climb up the ladder to become middle-class, and now they're reaching back to recover a sense of ethnic identity that their parents were trying to get away from," Crenson said. "O'Malley's a perfect object on which to project their ethnic longings."

He said it is unusual for politicians to promote their ethnicity, because the electorate is so diverse. But, he added, "if you're appealing to donors, it's not a bad strategy - especially if your ethnic group happens to be fairly prosperous."

O'Malley's great-grandfather emigrated from the Galway area of Ireland and eventually settled in Pittsburgh. His mother "is more German than Irish," O'Malley said. "Scotch-German-Irish."

The mayor, whose dominant campaign color is green, said Irish support from outside Maryland is purely about politics.

"There's a desire to see the Democratic Party win back governors' offices," he said.

In New York, attorneys at the law firm of O'Dwyer & Bernstein have started a group called New York Irish for Martin O'Malley. Democratic presidential candidates stop by the firm to ask for New York Irish support. In 1994, Clinton granted a travel visa to Gerry Adams, the controversial leader of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army. Adams' first stop: O'Dwyer & Bernstein's office, said partner Cody McCone.

"We're partisan and we're passionate," he said.

McCone said he was friends with O'Malley's brother, Patrick, who was a candidate for New York City Council in 2001. McCone said the mayor invited him and others from the firm to a party at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston.

McCone organized a lunch in December with O'Malley at a Times Square restaurant, Rosie O'Grady's, owned by Manhattan restaurateur Austin Delaney.

A small group of union officials and tavern owners from the New York area peppered O'Malley with questions on a wide range of issues at the meeting, McCone said. The group is now planning a fundraiser for O'Malley.

Nearly all of the out-of-state Irish-American donors gave the same reason for backing O'Malley: They believe he has national potential if he can defeat Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (Irish-Scotch/Irish) and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (German) for governor.

"He has the potential to go much further," said Ann Marie Delaney, Austin Delaney's daughter and wine director for his restaurants, who met O'Malley in December. "Next in line after governor is the White House. We'd all love an Irish-American in that position."

Speculation about O'Malley's prospects were partially spurred by an article in Irish America Magazine in 2003 naming O'Malley to its list of the top 100 Irish-Americans. The article said O'Malley "is seen by many as a future Democratic presidential candidate."

O'Malley first met the magazine's publisher, Niall O'Dowd, on that 2000 trip to Northern Ireland. They recently had lunch together in New York, and O'Dowd is planning a fundraiser for the mayor.

"He's very knowledgeable of Irish history and of Irish-American issues - illegal immigration and Northern Ireland," O'Dowd said.

The mayor's support of a unified Ireland and criticism of Britain's Irish policies has gained him supporters like O'Dowd. But his positions have also attracted criticism.

In 1991, the year he was elected to Baltimore's City Council, O'Malley performed songs at the 75th birthday party in Washington for former Sen. Eugene J. McCarthy. His Irish nationalist songs offended at least one guest.

"The Irish ambassador's wife objected to his music because it was too militantly Irish," O'Leary, of Irish American Democrats, said.

O'Malley says he only remembers the ambassador dancing. "It's hard to do Irish music without doing those songs," he said.

Since becoming mayor, O'Malley has publicly tempered what he has called "tongue-in-cheek" anti-British rhetoric. He has hosted British government officials in City Hall and visited London to exchange ideas on governing.

But O'Malley's disdain for past British policies still creeps into his speeches. On St. Patrick's Day, O'Malley was the featured speaker at the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick in Scranton, Pa., a 100-year- old men-only group whose speakers have included Sinn Fein's Adams and Robert F. Kennedy.

"They [Irish ancestors] came here, even before the potato died and famine was turned into a genocidal weapon, long before the Troubles" in Northern Ireland, O'Malley said. "Look at your hands. If tonight they are smooth and clean, it is because theirs were rough and dirty and worn."

O'Malley earned a standing ovation from an audience of 1,200 that included Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Bob Casey. Many were impressed that O'Malley sang part of the Irish national anthem in Gaelic. "He was a big hit," said Scranton Mayor Christopher A. Doherty.

And before the dinner, Scranton attorney Patrick J. Brier, one of O'Malley's former high school teachers, hosted a fundraiser with Friendly Sons members that raised $30,000.

After the speech, still in his tuxedo, O'Malley sang one song at a local tavern.

Five days after the Friendly Sons speech, O'Malley was in Boston at a fundraiser co-hosted by Thomas P. O'Neill III, son of the late speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

O'Neill said he met O'Malley at a party his family hosted during Boston's 2004 Democratic convention.

O'Neill, who runs a public affairs consulting firm, said O'Malley asked if he would co-host a fundraiser. The March 22 event at O'Neill's downtown Boston office raised $25,000.

O'Neill said the event was not simply about O'Malley's heritage, but, he added, "Does the Irish thing [matter]? Of course it does."

Will it matter to Maryland voters? Only the election will tell.

According to census figures, Maryland residents who claim Irish ancestry make up 12 percent of the state's population. Only those of German descent (read: Ehrlich) number more, at 16 percent.

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