O'Malley's Onstage Swan Song
Mayor Ends Rock Career to Focus on Bid for Governor

By David Snyder
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 19, 2005; Page B01

The rock star had been going on for a while -- singing, strumming his emerald-green guitar and strutting the stage -- when his band dropped the volume so he could versify on matters political.

"We will not be defeated even by five years of George W. Bush," he said, echoing a theme struck by Bruce Springsteen, Bono and scores of other pop musicians who campaigned last fall to try to defeat the president.

Then he added: "The liberation of Maryland has begun."

Martin O'Malley, part-time musician, full-time mayor of Baltimore and likely candidate for governor of Maryland, announced this week that he is hanging up his guitar after a last round of shows, including his band's final St. Patrick's Day performance at Towson's Recher Theatre.

It is a move that critics say he should have made long ago, at a time when Baltimore's homicide rate remains among the nation's highest, despite O'Malley's campaign pledge to cut it sharply. But others applaud O'Malley for holding on so long with his band, O'Malley's March, which admirers say sets him apart from other politicians: a mayor with a real hobby and bit of musical talent. Or, looked at differently, a politically minded musician who actually works in the political realm.

As O'Malley plans a statewide race for governor, he is considering constituencies far beyond those that have twice elected him mayor. If Baltimore voters were bothered by a mayor who swigs Guinness and flexes his muscles for crowds of adoring female fans, they didn't show it at the polls.

But how will farmers on the Eastern Shore or families in such conservative communities as Frederick react to a rock-playing politico? Will they wonder whether, at 41, the mayor and father of four isn't getting a bit old to be romping in pubs past midnight?

The persona "cuts both ways," said Donald Norris, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. "It's kind of cool and neat, but there's the gravitas thing. If you've got a guy who's running for governor of the state running around in a cutoff shirt playing in a rock band, people could get the impression that he's less than serious."

O'Malley said his decision to step down from the band, which he has led since 1987, had more to do with age and a desire to be a better mayor and candidate than any calculation about what image he projects.

"It's not like we did focus groups or polled on it before we made a decision," he said in an interview. "It was just time. . . . I'm 41. It gets harder to jump around on stage with a guitar."

O'Malley announced this year that he is "laying the groundwork" for a gubernatorial bid. Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) also is considering a run, and the two are widely expected to face off in the state's Democratic primary next year. Early polls show O'Malley leading Duncan -- considered a more stolid and even presence than the mercurial mayor -- in a primary matchup. But Baltimore's crime problem and a host of other ills could prove challenging for O'Malley to overcome, in a primary or a general election against Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R).

For opponents, the rock concerts could offer enticing imagery of a playboy mayor carousing while Rome burns.

"I think people are entitled to a recreation of their choosing," said Kevin Igoe, a GOP consultant who has worked with Ehrlich. "But I think he has some concerns about the image. It's going to take a hell of an effort to tell people in Calvert County that Calvert County should be more like Baltimore city. He's going to need to spend a lot more time in those places."

Long a favorite son in the state Democratic Party, and sometimes mentioned as a rising star on the national scene, O'Malley has been vexed with the continued increase in homicides in Baltimore and with long-simmering rumors about his personal life.

But overall crime in the city is down, and the mayor recently confronted the rumors of an extramarital affair, publicly denying them after reports that an Ehrlich aide acknowledged an orchestrated campaign to spread such gossip. The aide, Joseph Steffen, was fired by Ehrlich.

Performing with the band takes O'Malley away from the politics, immersing him in the music he's played 25 years, he said. "It's a left-brain activity that's helped to make a whole person," O'Malley said.

At the same time, it's an ideal platform for the mayor to project his image, his message, without having the burdens of being mayor.

Like having to wear a suit and tie. Or even a shirt with sleeves.

"I will vote for him no matter what he runs for," said Erin Gilland Roby, 48, who wore a Kelly-green button that said "Official Leprechaun" to Thursday's concert. "I really, really like the guy."


"He's not one-sided," she said. "This is another facet to the man," she said, gesturing through the smoke at the Recher Theatre, as O'Malley's March was warming up to go on. "Look, he's not at the level of the people you see on TV. But he certainly gives it his all."

The seven-member band plays traditional Irish music with electric guitars and drums, along with covers of more modern fare, such as U2 and the Pogues. O'Malley is the public face of the operation, if not necessarily its most accomplished musician. He writes some of the songs, and sings all of them.

Some fans come to the band's well-attended shows, check out the mayor and soak up the act.

As the show wound down Thursday, Gilland Roby sat at the bar, looking a bit less enthusiastic than when entered.

How was the band?

"Loud," she said.

What about the music?

Gilland Roby made a gesture with her hands and face that said, "Well, so-so."

"I only recognized a few songs," she said before turning her gaze back toward the stage.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company