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Conventional Wisdom

Mayor Martin O’Malley Makes a Canny National Debut at the Democratic Convention

Joeff Davis

By Van Smith | Posted 8/4/2004

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared last week in Van Smith's DNC Dispatch.

Mayor Martin O’Malley, basking backstage in the afterglow of his July 28 speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, describes how, out of deference, he rued having to follow Jesse Jackson in the order of speakers. After all, he explains nostalgically, he was in the audience when Jackson spoke at the first convention O’Malley attended in 1984. But tonight’s event staff had been firm. “I said, ‘I have to speak after Jesse Jackson?’” O’Malley recalls. “And they said, ‘Yes, you do.’ And I said, ‘No long musical interlude or anything?’ And they said, ‘No, no long musical interlude.’”

O’Malley’s first deputy, Michael Enright, breaks in suddenly to say, “Mr. Mayor, come wave to the delegation,” pointing to the convention floor. Many in Maryland’s delegation are wearing green-on-white o’malley T-shirts, and nearly all of them have o’malley stickers pasted to their chests—as do scattered delegates from Connecticut, Alabama, Virginia, Missouri, Wisconsin, and probably several other states, thanks to the mayor’s fervent campaign organization. O’Malley steps forward and not only waves, but dances a few steps to James Brown’s “Living in America,” which was booming through the Fleet Center sound system.

Despite following Jackson, early in the evening’s order of events and therefore before a relatively sparse—though certainly not thin—crowd, O’Malley is elated. His speech had been about municipal homeland-security costs, and he’d delivered a few choice lines, drawing peals of applause from the ecstatic Maryland delegation. The one about how cities can’t raise the necessary funds to fight terrorism from property taxes and “fire-hall bingos” had a folksy ring to it. And the fact about Sept. 11—not 2001, but 1814, when Washington, D.C., was burning as Baltimore fended off the attacking British—was a handy way to make the point that “one city can’t do it alone” in the current war. But the content of his speech was almost beside the point. With it—no matter what vital issues of our day he may have been asked to address—O’Malley arrived. He and his speech were like a debutante coming out at the Bachelors’ Cotillion; it hardly matters what dress she wears, as long as it’s white, long, and goes well with pearls.

As U.S. Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-2nd) says later (after setting aside a pink martini drink at a mayors’ party hosted by O’Malley at the Place, a downtown Boston bar), “this puts Martin on a whole other level. They’re thinking presidential material, down the line”—repeating an oft-cited tout of the mayor’s status within national Democratic circles. “He’s a rock star.”

Rock stars are renowned for leaving a messy hotel room—an analogy for the Baltimore that former city councilman O’Malley may leave behind when he makes his next expected stab for higher office, presumably for Maryland governor in 2006. But Ruppersberger retorts that O’Malley is “Teflon,” that raising city taxes this year won’t hurt his chances in future elections, and that, despite a mixed record of results in his first term at the helm of Baltimore, the mayor’s “charisma” will carry him far. Besides, the one-time Baltimore County executive explains, “look what he was left to work with,” after 12 years of Mayor Kurt Schmoke, whose tenure is famous for overseeing a long, slow decline in Baltimore’s fortunes, leaving a bereft, uninspired city government.

Still, Ruppersberger agrees that O’Malley failed to take full advantage his prodigious political capital immediately after the 1999 mayoral election—which, in a three-way race, produced a true mandate from voters across the city—by taking tough, early steps to whip city government into shape. Ruppersberger did exactly that during his first year as county executive, in 1995; he took his lumps for it, politically, but three years later proceeded to win re-election in every county precinct because his administration had produced tangible results that were nearly universally recognized.

O’Malley gained office five years ago by repeating certain key mantras: That other cities have reversed their declines, so why not Baltimore? That homicides are a bellwether number for public safety and overall urban health, and their annual number in Baltimore would be nearly halved in a few short years by taking obvious, deliberate steps in policing. That the police can be given a large raise, despite a known lack of available revenue, because the resulting decline in crime will grow the city’s tax base again.

Baltimore’s revival, clear enough along the waterfront and the Charles Street corridor, has occurred exactly where an era of low interest rates would be expected to spur renewed investment, but has lagged in vast stretches of city neighborhoods that are still stuck in a rut—or gotten worse—since the Schmoke years. As for homicides as the key indicator, O’Malley has backed off, saying instead—as Schmoke used to before him—that other, more nuanced measures of crime are better indicators. And the U.S. Census still records a shrinking Baltimore City, despite O’Malley’s strenuous claims to the contrary. Either way, the police raise clearly has not resulted in an uptick in the residential tax base, since O’Malley was forced to raise energy and phone taxes this year in order to avoid cutting critical city services.

Rather than O’Malley’s results in Baltimore, though, Ruppersberger flatly states that the national Dems’ interest in O’Malley is “all about image and perception”—qualities that in O’Malley were augmented rapidly when he “raised a million bucks” for John Kerry at a Baltimore fund raiser earlier this year, he adds. After jumping on the short-lived Howard Dean bandwagon, O’Malley “did good for Kerry,” Ruppersberger says, so the party rewarded him with a few minutes at the convention dais to deliver a message for which he’d already made a national name for himself. “That’s how it works,” the congressman says candidly.

Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan—a likely primary opponent of O’Malley’s, should the two run for governor in 2006—sat with the Maryland delegation nearly the entire day, confirming City Councilman Keiffer Mitchell’s assessment that Duncan has been more “grass roots” and “low key” during the Democratic National Convention than O’Malley. The mayor’s family, friends, and merchandise-pushing staff acted as surrogates on the floor for the man himself, except during his brief presence among the delegates after his speech. But whose T-shirts and buttons are the delegates wearing? Not Duncan’s, despite his strong record of presiding over a thickly populated and politically influential county. They’re wearing O’Malley’s—the mayor of a shrinking, cash-strapped, violence-plagued city whose political legs atrophy further with each passing Census.

“This is a big day for me,” O’Malley says backstage after his speech. “It’s a big day for me, but it’s a very big day for my mom. Both my folks are getting in their 80s now. It’s great that she could see this.”

Ancestors on both sides of his family, he says, were Democratic National Convention delegates from Pittsburgh and Indiana, so it’s a special family honor to enter the spotlight on the convention stage. The question is, does the spotlight shine so brightly that the flaws start to show through the stage makeup? Not so far, given O’Malley’s reception here—and possibly never, if Ruppersberger is right about the mayor’s prospects. Let’s just hope he leaves the hotel room a bit closer to clean when he leaves.

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