Outspoken first lady fights for those 'on the outside'

Catherine Curran O'Malley grew up with a swirl of history at her doorstep. Daughter of a powerful Maryland senator, her dad's positions led white supremacists to picket her home. The neighborhood priest once denounced him from the pulpit.

Young Katie didn't always understand why her family — especially her father, J. Joseph Curran Jr. — was the target of vitriol.

"I knew there was this hatred out there," O'Malley, 49, said. "I knew whatever he was doing was the right thing."

Now in her sixth year as Maryland's first lady, Katie O'Malley credits her upbringing — watching her father grapple with some of the most difficult issues in the 1960s and 1970s — for her dedication to another cause stirring outrage from many, including the family's Catholic church: legalizing same-sex marriage.

"It is an equal-rights issue," O'Malley said, in her first extended interview on the topic. "These individuals in our community have the same rights that we all should have. It is nobody's business what their sexual orientation is."

Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, put his signature Thursday on a historic bill legalizing same-sex marriage after a hard-fought battle to get it through the legislature. Few believe the issue is settled. Maryland voters will likely have the chance to weigh in during a referendum in November. A robust campaign is expected.

Though the governor worked the halls of the State House to pass the bill this year, he has not always seemed passionate about the issue in his public remarks. Friends say Katie O'Malley's enthusiasm for the issue has been long-standing and unwavering.

First ladies don't tend to get involved in controversial issues like gay rights. Since Katie O'Malley is also a District Court judge, barred by the judicial code from participating in "partisan political activity," she has to pick her causes carefully.

But she says gay rights is about basic fairness — the very type of issue her father stood up for.

"I think Katie is her father's daughter," said Shannon E. Avery, a Baltimore District Court judge who worked for Curran after he became Maryland attorney general in 1987. "She has a gut instinct to do what is right. And what is fair."

Her advocacy hasn't always had the intended effects. She misstepped this year at a crucial point before House passage of the same-sex marriage bill. While speaking in January at a national gay-rights conference in Baltimore, she called delegates who last year withdrew their support from a similar bill "cowards."

Her remark came as her husband and his staff were trying to woo those very lawmakers.

The comment instantly became a rally cry for opponents, who mentioned it during House and Senate hearings, reproduced it on buttons, and printed it on placards that were waved outside the governor's mansion — the O'Malley family home — during a boisterous nighttime rally against the marriage bill.

"Standing on your principles isn't cowardice Mrs. O'Malley," wrote conservative Mark Newgent on the RedMaryland blog. "It's just another lame euphemism concocted to disparage those who disagree with you and your husband."

Both O'Malleys apologized for the remarks.

"It was a very emotional issue," Katie O'Malley said. "I'm sorry if anybody's feelings are hurt." She added: "I'm certainly not going to back away and say I don't support equal rights for all of our citizens."

She says she sees in same-sex marriage the idea of standing up for the dispossessed, the same theme that runs through the other less controversial initiatives she supports — campaigns against domestic violence, truancy and bullying.

The common thread, she says, is an attempt "to help people who, for whatever reason, are on the outside. To give them a voice."

Her older sister agrees. "She's always liked to champion causes for people who are the underdogs," said Mary Carole Curran.

But some legal experts warn that she's walking a fine line, as a judge, to be outspoken on such a divisive issue as gay marriage.

Byron L. Warnken, an attorney and a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, said that if O'Malley is willing to take the "political heat" for her views, she should be sensitive to calls that she recuse herself from cases where gay rights are central, such as one in which a transgender person is beaten.

"In an abundance of caution, on a controversial issue that is still current, you really probably shouldn't say anything publicly," Warnken said.

Growing up in Northeast Baltimore, the Curran girls saw their father handle a series of "hot-potato" issues, his term for the controversial topics on which he took a stand, from ending the Vietnam War to gun control.

Joe Curran angered the white supremacists from the National State Rights party with his belief that blacks should be able to live in any Baltimore neighborhood — and recalled a panicked call from his wife one Saturday when roughly 20 men gathered outside their home, blocking the sidewalk.

The men handed out literature complaining that Curran had forgotten "that he was elected by the white voters" and calling him a "lackey" for the NAACP, according to a 1966 article in The Baltimore Sun.

"The girls are upset," Curran recalls his wife, Barbara, saying.

"I dashed home," he said. By the time he arrived, the pickets were gone. He later learned that a neighbor was among the protesters.

Katie remembers being very young at the time and thinking that the men were going to storm into the house. "I devised a plan," she said. Eyeing a collection of glass milk bottles, she resolved to use them to smash anyone who tried to break in.

Curran later riled his Catholic church, which opposed an abortion bill he let out of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which he chaired. And at one point, his priest spoke against him from the pulpit when he voted to allow state funding for the procedure.

"I agonized over this," said Curran, who goes to mass three to four times a week. "I knew how it upset the priests."

In the end, Curran says he put faith aside for fairness: It didn't seem right to him that wealthy women had access to abortions but poor ones did not.

He believes his daughter learned from his disagreements with the church. "I'm sure that got Katie thinking about, when pressed, what is the right thing to do," he said.

Curran points to another influence in his daughter's life: her legal career, specifically her work as a prosecutor. It "got Katie concerned about when bad things happen to good people," he said.

Katie O'Malley attended the University of Baltimore's law school at night while working in the Baltimore County state's attorney's office. In her final year, she got pregnant and married. Even with all of that change, she passed the bar exam — on her first try — while caring for their 5-month-old daughter, Grace.

"It was a crazy time," she said.

Ten years later, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, appointed her to be a judge on the District Court.

She has fought to keep the position. Right after being appointed, the state Judicial Ethics Committee opined that she could not hear any cases in which city police officers were witnesses because her husband was mayor and police officers were assigned to protect her family. The restriction would have prevented her from presiding over virtually all of the cases in District Court.

The opinion was non-binding, and the panel later said Judge O'Malley could determine whether recusal was prudent on a case-by-case basis. She said that an attorney raised the issue only once.

Later, after Martin O'Malley was elected governor, she resisted pressure to step down by some who pointed out that her judgeship required city residency. She successfully argued that her "domicile" remained in Baltimore even though the family moved to Annapolis.

"Martin never expected that I would be giving up my job and what my passions are," O'Malley said. "We've had a really good marriage like that."

She admires other first ladies who, like herself, have careers outside of the support role that political spouses often play. "You can have your job, have your identity," O'Malley said. When she feels forced into a superficial role, she said, "I just push right back. So it is not that hard."

O'Malley has kept such a low profile as a political spouse that on a recent visit to the State House, she was stopped by Department of General Services officers who ordered her to go through a metal detector. She obliged.

Each morning, Judge O'Malley commutes from Annapolis to Baltimore — stopping to drop her two boys off at Catholic schools and often grabbing a cup of coffee with her parents and sister. (The two O'Malley girls are in college.)

Once a week the workday takes her to a Baltimore City school — this semester it is Margaret Brent Middle School — where she meets one-on-one with 17 youngsters for "truancy court." Her job is to find out why the children are skipping school and whether there are services that can help.

O'Malley was among the first to volunteer for the program in 2005 when the University of Baltimore's law school began asking judges to participate. The idea made sense to her because of her experience on the bench.

"I was seeing that most of the defendants who came before me, when I would ask them a little about themselves, most of them had not completed their high school education," O'Malley said.

Another cause is preventing domestic violence, an issue her father also championed as attorney general.

Her involvement began when, as a prosecutor, she came face to face with judges and defense attorneys she felt were indifferent to the issue. She sat on the board of the House of Ruth until she had to step down when she was appointed to the bench.

As first lady she pushed legislation on behalf of the House of Ruth to give judges the power to take away guns from domestic abusers early in the legal process. Advocates had previously tried and failed to get the bill passed. When the governor added it to his legislative package in 2009, it sailed though.

Anti-bullying is a more recent addition, and one related to gay rights. She wants schools to watch for students being taunted and take the behavior seriously.

Over the fall, she agreed to partner with Facebook and take an "anti-bullying pledge." She and Governor O'Malley jointly sent a letter to the other 49 governors asking them to follow suit. Six states have replied and showed interest, according to Katie O'Malley's office.

"The passion behind it is coming from the first lady," said Joel Kaplan, a vice president at Facebook and former aide to President George W. Bush. "It is really inspiring for us."

With gay rights, O'Malley's interest appears to be rooted in personal experiences: Her circle of close friends includes same-sex couples. Halee F. Weinstein, Maryland's first openly gay judge, says she believes their friendship has helped O'Malley understand the issue in concrete terms.

"She can see how inequities affect us in our life and how it affects our children," Weinstein said.

O'Malley, too, says her interest in the issue comes from day-to-day interactions with gay parents and their children. "I don't know how you go through life without meeting families that are same-sex couples who are raising children and doing an unbelievable job," she said. "I see lots of people who are heterosexual couples who don't do such a good job. Especially in the court system."

Her work on same-sex marriage has been less formal than other issues and not officially part of her portfolio. Last year, she had some private conversations about the same-sex-marriage bill with lawmakers who happened to be at the governor's mansion for other events, but she was not part of any coordinated lobby effort, said her spokeswoman, Takirra Winfield.

This year, her public advocacy was limited to the one speech on behalf of her husband's legislation at the 24th National Conference on LGBT Equality Jan. 26. She has declined to say what role if any she might play in the coming referendum battle.

Key supporters of the same-sex-marriage law, though, see her as a champion for the cause.

They applauded the governor at the State House Thursday after he signed the bill into law. Yet when they cheered, the crowd chanted "Ka-tie, Ka-tie, Ka-tie."

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this report article.

Catherine Curran O'Malley

Born: Aug. 18, 1962

Education: Notre Dame Preparatory High School, 1981; Towson University, 1985; University of Baltimore School of Law, 1991.

Career: Prosecutor, Baltimore County state's attorney's office, 1991- 2001; Baltimore District Court judge, 2001 to present.

Parents: J. Joseph and Barbara Curran

Siblings: Alice Curran Florin, Mary Carole Curran, Max Curran, William Curran (deceased)

Family: Married to Gov. Martin O'Malley. Children: Grace, 21; Tara, 19; William, 14; and Jack, 9.