The Magazine

Just Another Pretty Face

The charming mayor of charm city.

Aug 9, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 45 • By RACHEL DICARLO
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Boston

SEVERAL WOMEN sitting with the Maryland delegation actually giggle when Baltimore mayor Martin O'Malley takes the stage to deliver his pre-prime-time speech at the Fleet Center on Wednesday. As he takes his turn reciting the convention mantra about building a stronger America, O'Malley is visibly nervous. His hand shakes when he sips his water, and he gestures awkwardly. But his fans are undeterred. "Who do you think is better looking," one woman asks another, "him or John Edwards?"

Some two dozen members of the Maryland Democratic party have turned out in green and white O'Malley T-shirts to watch the mayor, and not all of them are female. "We're so proud of Martin," one man tells me.

There's no doubt O'Malley is appealing. His charm is likened to that of a Kennedy. He's fiery, young, and handsome, with strong, symmetrical features and thick brown hair. An Irish-Catholic with a pretty wife and a gaggle of cute kids, he's even the frontman for a Celtic rock band called O'Malley's March.

O'Malley was a supporter of Howard Dean until he belatedly endorsed John Kerry in February. He's been a leader among the mayors in calling for increased federal funds for homeland security, which "makes him the perfect speaker on Wednesday to represent John Kerry's vision of a stronger, more secure America," says Lina Garcia, press secretary for the convention.

Five years ago, O'Malley was a little noted Baltimore city councilman. Running for mayor in 1999, he talked heatedly about zero tolerance for crime, the need to clean up Baltimore's rotten public schools, and an end to its status as the most drug-addicted city in America and the nation's murder capital. He won, with 91 percent of the vote.

Since then, change has been slow. O'Malley cleaned up the city's bureaucracy by pushing through privatization and higher accountability. But white flight persists. The murder rate remains among the highest in the nation, and the police commissioner O'Malley brought down from New York to turn things around started a six-month prison sentence in July for misusing funds. His successor has been accused of domestic violence.

O'Malley has increased funding for drug treatment and education, but schools are in about the same lousy shape as before; their latest black eye is the disappearance of $58 million from education coffers. And that's only the beginning of the budget woes. O'Malley recently proposed $45 million in new taxes, including a cell phone tax, to help fill the city's starving treasury.

O'Malley can't be faulted for all of Baltimore's problems, but they are fair game in an election. What's more, he is now seen in some quarters as a loose cannon. In one famous episode, the mayor drove to a radio station to confront a talk show host and his guest after hearing them criticize him on the air. He invited them to come outside after the show, "and I'll kick your ass."

He's also angered two major political players who should be his allies. Trial lawyer Peter Angelos, one of the most powerful private citizens in the state because of the number and size of the checks he writes for Democratic causes, dismissed O'Malley in July as "nothing more than a small-time politician aspiring to high political office." Angelos, owner of the Baltimore Orioles, was set off by O'Malley's flippant admission that he wouldn't oppose the relocation of the Montreal Expos to nearby Washington, D.C.

O'Malley also irritated state comptroller William Donald Schaefer, a colorful curmudgeon and a popular former Baltimore mayor and governor of Maryland, when O'Malley said at a Kerry fundraiser that he was more worried about a second Bush term than he was about al Qaeda. The comment made national news and prompted Schaefer to accuse O'Malley of treason. Schaefer, 82, may be getting outlandish as he ages, but his influence in elections shouldn't be underestimated. Just ask Maryland governor Bob Ehrlich, a Schaefer ally and the state's first Republican governor in almost four decades.

O'Malley is the obvious choice to run against Ehrlich in 2006, and he hasn't quashed speculation that he'll make the race. He took one for the Democratic team last time around, when he made "the most difficult political decision of my life" and stepped aside for former lieutenant governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend to run in 2002.

"O'Malley's magnetic and articulate. He's also a lightning rod," says Maryland pollster Keith Haller. But the buzz about his prospects isn't limited to Maryland. The national media love him. Esquire called him the "best young mayor in America" in a lengthy cover story in 2002, and Senate minority leader Tom Daschle calls him "a rising star." For all that, Kerry doesn't owe O'Malley anything. For the time being, he's a Democrat to watch on the state, not the national, scene.

Rachel DiCarlo is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.