Occasionally on the campaign trail, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley gets the rare chance to talk about something other than politics - such as in a restaurant during a recent Sunday swing through the Eastern Shore.
"How's the band doing?" asked Jesse Bowden, the bartender in Salisbury's Chesapeake Steakhouse.
Ah, the band. O'Malley beamed. But his press aide cringed at the mention of the mayor's Celtic rock group, O'Malley's March.
Throughout the mayor's 15 years in elected office, his opponents have tried to portray him as all flash, no substance; as a man driven more by personal ambition than public service. And the band has given detractors a perfect symbol.
"The other guys hate the humanity, so they attack it," O'Malley explained to Bowden. "Whenever I pick up the guitar, they act like I fell back into a crack habit."
The 43-year-old Democratic candidate for governor has worked diligently to bury the ambitious and flashy persona - first, he says, by passing on a run for governor in 2002, then by retiring the band last year. And he has in large part outgrown the brazen, loose-lipped style of a young mayor - elected at age 36 in 1999 - who was prone to fiery public tirades.
Today O'Malley tries to project a far more subdued, cerebral presence in his bid to unseat Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. At events throughout the state, he follows the same effective script to great fanfare: make a joke, make a promise (or 10), quote a Kennedy. O'Malley and his supporters say the maturation is real - lessons from a growing family, the death of his father and the backlash from verbal missteps.
Critics charge that O'Malley has simply engineered a calculated image overhaul, pushed by his advisers to avoid unscripted outbursts. And signs of the younger, brasher O'Malley - including his delight at discussing the band over a Guinness stout - remain.
To win next month, O'Malley must, in part, convince Maryland voters that he is concerned more about what is best for them than what is best for himself.
"My detractors have a tendency to overestimate my ambition and greatly underestimate my conviction," O'Malley said. "They say I want to be president," he said. Then, he added sarcastically: "And my path there was to run as the white mayor of the most troubled black city in America. It was brilliant."
During his eight years on the City Council, he never hesitated to seek the spotlight - earning derision from some council colleagues for pushing headline-grabbing resolutions over substantive bills. As the city was mired in a decade of 300-plus homicides per year, he earned credibility by relentlessly attacking the policing efforts of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's administration, setting the stage for his 1999 mayoral campaign, in which he pledged to cut homicides to 175.
O'Malley overcame long odds to win on a message of "change and reform" and tougher policing. It helped that he had the backing of several black lawmakers, the first of whom was state Sen. Joan Carter Conway.
Some say he was just what the city's status quo needed. "He holds government accountable, and he doesn't tolerate any foolishness or mediocrity," said Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr., who clashes frequently with O'Malley.
The mayor instilled an urgency that helped revitalize city government. After the polite, aloof Schmoke, O'Malley took City Hall by storm, riding snow plows, cleaning graffiti, announcing plans to buy up 5,000 vacant homes, mocking State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy by using stick-figure sketches to show how the prosecutor's office he once sought should work.
"I believe he went into it with that ambition to change things for the better," said City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke. "It doesn't mean he's a perfect person."
Within three years, his independent style cost him allies.
The first was William Donald Schaefer. The state comptroller - who had previously served as both mayor and governor and has picked fights with his successors - asked to be O'Malley's liaison to the business community. The mayor said a miscommunication tanked the idea.
"I believe he thought that meant I was not to call members of the business community without checking with him first," O'Malley said.
Schaefer said in an interview that O'Malley simply refused. "He didn't want anyone but himself to be in charge," said Schaefer, who threw his Little Italy base behind O'Malley in 1999. "He dumps people after he uses them. He's always looking for the next job."
In January 2001, O'Malley unleashed a profanity-laced tirade against Jessamy, angering not only the city's top prosecutor but also some of her allies in Annapolis.
"She doesn't even have the goddamn guts to get off her ass and go in and try this case," O'Malley said at the time. "Maybe she should get the hell out and let somebody else in who's not afraid to do the goddamn job."
O'Malley was upset that Jessamy had dropped corruption charges against a police officer accused of planting drugs on a black suspect. Jessamy had said the case died after evidence disappeared from a police station.
"Being my father's son, I do get angry at abuse of power and the injustice of a police officer planting drugs on anyone," O'Malley said recently. "I let my tongue get ahead of my head, but not ahead of my heart. I've learned from that mistake."
He also had a falling-out with Conway, who said O'Malley was not focusing on neighborhoods. O'Malley supporters had said Conway was upset that he was ignoring her advice on City Hall hires.
Doing so would have run contrary to O'Malley's efforts to dismantle City Hall patronage.
Nevertheless, the mayor was willing to hire his brother Peter - his longtime campaign adviser - to build a citywide accountability system called CitiStat. Top Cabinet officials - headed by Deputy Mayor Michael Enright, his other top adviser and a friend since high school - have been able to closely monitor city agencies' activities and performance. With his relentless focus on numbers and results, O'Malley promises to apply that same system to state government.
O'Malley shook things up by bringing in two police commissioners from New York to implement zero-tolerance policing, efforts that led to crime reductions. Both of those New York commissioners are long gone - one left to head Ehrlich's state police before serving time in federal prison; the other was fired - and O'Malley has been criticized for frequent turnover at the top of the department.
He also brought in business groups to audit city government to find waste and streamline operations, a tactic he said he would employ as governor.
The efficiency efforts allowed for pay raises to police officers. But the tough budget decisions - closing fire stations, privatizing jobs, cutting union benefits, raising several taxes - soured relations with union officials for a time. Those same unions are now backing the mayor, who made up for cuts when budgets improved.
Confronting drug addiction - a funding priority for O'Malley with the state legislature - the mayor launched a stark "Believe" television campaign emphasizing personal responsibility for recovery.
Yet the campaign suffered a PR setback when six members of the Dawson family in East Baltimore died in a fire set in retaliation for their refusal to ignore drug dealing.
"Nothing shook me quite as much as the Dawson deaths," O'Malley said.
Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. said he ran into O'Malley at the Downtown Athletic Club, where they both exercise, shortly after the funerals and recalls the mayor's crying when discussing the deaths. "For me, that was the first time I ever saw him get emotional," Mitchell said.
The mayor's political work ethic is a family trait: His maternal and paternal grandfathers were Democratic operatives in Fort Wayne, Ind., and Pittsburgh, respectively. His own father, after moving to the Washington area for college and law school, was a Rockville attorney active in Montgomery County politics.
O'Malley, his two older sisters and three younger brothers were raised in a house with photos of John F. Kennedy on the wall and respect for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
He said his ideals in public office are built on the Catholic philosophies of social justice learned at Gonzaga College High School in Washington. At Gonzaga, he performed in theater and played football - learning grassroots campaigning by tagging along with his father, who died in January. And it was there that O'Malley developed an interest in his Irish heritage and his talents for showmanship by performing Celtic music in local pubs.
While pursuing a political science degree at Catholic University, O'Malley put his practical and musical skills to work as a volunteer for Gary Hart's 1984 presidential bid - entertaining fellow volunteers with his guitar and impressing senior staffers with his drive. To this day, Hart workers around the country remain loyal, hosting fundraisers.
In 1986, Barbara A. Mikulski named O'Malley - a second-year law student at the University of Maryland - as state field director in her successful Senate race.
The following year, he joined Hart's second presidential bid, which fizzled. But his relationship with Katie Curran, daughter of the newly elected attorney general, was developing. On a trip home that summer, however, O'Malley was charged with drunken driving. He contested it in court and was found not guilty.
In 1988, he finished law school, and Jessamy hired him for the city state's attorney's office. After two years, he decided it was time to leave and run for office - and do it in an ambitious way.
O'Malley took on a two-term incumbent senator, John Pica Jr., an ally of the Currans' Northeast Baltimore political machine.
With the help of his longtime inner circle from outside Baltimore - Enright and brothers Peter and Patrick - O'Malley found a wedge that resonated: Pica had been missing crucial votes.
Pica recalls never working harder to win. "I'd leave at midnight, and I'd drive by [O'Malley's Cold Spring Lane] house and look on that porch and there would be Martin, [Enright], Patrick and Peter ... licking and stuffing envelopes," he said.
Even O'Malley's wedding date to Katie Curran - two weeks before the Democratic primary - was branded by Pica as a political calculation. In the end, O'Malley lost by only 44 votes. But he had made his mark, and the next year won a City Council seat.
Two years later, O'Malley made an audacious push to succeed Baltimore City State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms, who left for state government. The favorite candidate was O'Malley's old boss, Jessamy, Simms' deputy of seven years.
O'Malley is fond of saying that he lost by 26 votes - the number of judges who unanimously appointed Jessamy.
Today, in the midst of his second term as mayor, O'Malley says he wants to be governor because Annapolis no longer works in partnership with local jurisdictions to help the middle class by ensuring safer streets, affordable college, quality public schools and adequate health care coverage.
O'Malley's supporters acknowledge that he's ambitious for higher office but say that he's also intensely committed to social justice.
"So what if someone wants to be president of the United States? I'm not saying that he does," said Katie Curran O'Malley, whom the mayor calls "my sword and my shield," but whose campaigning is hampered by her position as a judge. "He's frustrated seeing what [Ehrlich] does and what he knows is he could do better."
Said Enright: "Whenever people talk about his ambition I always say, `Does he work hard?'" The mayor points to his decision in 2002 not to challenge Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination as proof that he's willing to finish the work before trying to advance.
Over the past few years, O'Malley has heightened his national profile by becoming a leading critic of President Bush on homeland security funding to cities. But he has been reminded of the need to think before speaking, earning scorn by saying that he was more concerned about the actions of President Bush than al-Qaida.
In 2004, O'Malley was given two prime speaking roles on behalf of Sen. John Kerry's presidential campaign, one at the Democratic National Convention.
Now, in a national election year that portends a Democratic electoral rebound in Washington, the stakes couldn't be higher for O'Malley. For a Democrat seeking to unseat a Republican governor in a traditionally Democratic state, his political future is at stake.
Win, and the trajectory continues. Lose, and his political career would appear to be all but over.
O'Malley said early in the campaign he got a harsh call from one of his most reliable confidants, Thomas J. D'Alesandro III. The former mayor was unhappy with O'Malley's stump speech, calling it too "colorful" and "flowery."
"He said what's happened here is that our state government has been hijacked by narrow-minded people who think that if you're rich you must be right," O'Malley said. "Nobody is looking for a handout but nobody wants to get worked over by these guys with their big wallets, their big bankrolls, their big money."
D'Alesandro's speech morphed into O'Malley's most common refrain: "fighting for working families."
Never shying from comparisons that supporters make on the campaign trail between him and the Kennedys, he earnestly highlights how Baltimore residents helped him fight crime and addiction and began again to invest in the city. Often entering rooms to Bruce Springsteen's "Land of Hope and Dreams," he then tells Marylanders that by working together they can restore the bay and make health care and college affordable again.
Sometimes O'Malley - who often unleashes off-the-cuff poems - violates the D'Alesandro advice and favors lofty rhetoric, like "the unity of spirit and matter."
Such words appeared to resonate with the congregation at Bethel AME Church in Cambridge, whom O'Malley visited recently. He received enthusiastic applause by opening with a joke and then outlining his ambitious agenda.
"Remember in the words of Robert Kennedy, that responsibility is truly the greatest of freedom's privileges," he said from the front pew.
The pastor, Alan M. Gould, sermonized about how true public servants put the greater good ahead of their own glory.
O'Malley "knows that God has called him at this appointed time to serve Maryland and who knows where he can go from there," Gould said.
Even in church, he can't escape the tag of ambition.
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