The Democratic Convention

O'Malley savors the spotlight
Mayor: Rewarded with a prized speaking slot, he keeps a frantic pace, promoting the Democratic ticket in Boston.
By Kimberly A.C. Wilson
Sun National Staff

July 28, 2004

BOSTON - Martin O'Malley may be running late, but he's right on message.

It's 5:20 p.m. Tuesday and he has already accommodated dozens of interview requests from radio and TV stations across the country, hosted a party, tinkered with his big speech and published his daily convention newsletter.

There's no sign he'll stop talking any time soon.

Even on the second day of the Democratic National Convention, when dark circles become as ubiquitous as red, white and blue banners, Baltimore's mayor is looking fresh, riding high and playing to win.

As one of a handful of big-city mayors rewarded with a few minutes of speaking time at the convention, O'Malley is seizing his moment. When he takes the podium tonight, he plans to deliver a message he has been repeating for nearly three years: gamble with homeland security at America's peril.

"There's been so little movement on the homeland security front, when people ask me how long I've been writing my speech, I tell them since about Sept. 12, 2001," O'Malley says, and he isn't completely exaggerating.

In the three years since terrorists hijacked planes and crashed them in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, O'Malley has become a leading voice on homeland security issues.

When the U.S. Conference of Mayors tapped him to be co-chairman of a task force on federal and local terrorism prevention, he learned that city governments were footing most of the bill for homeland security - a risky proposition in urban centers such as Baltimore where high crime and struggling public schools compete for tax dollars, and in port cities where arriving cargo goes largely unchecked.

O'Malley tells Gordon Peterson, the longtime news anchor of Washington's WUSA-TV, that only a small percentage of U.S. ports are being inspected. He says the same thing by phone to a radio reporter in the Midwest. And, he says again and again, scarce federal funds for homeland security mean improvements have been few.

Holding fast to that security message, without variation or improvisation, is the major reason O'Malley was selected to be one of the Democratic Party's "surrogate speakers," assigned to communicate the Kerry/Edwards position on an array of issues.

Homeland security belongs to O'Malley.

"I'm available here, of course, but after the convention as well, anytime you need me," he tells a Democratic Party media coordinator after a series of telephone interviews.

All of the exposure is building toward tonight when O'Malley spends his moments in the pre-primetime speech laying out the choices that he thinks must be made to keep the nation secure. His 1,500-word speech, edited by party officials to a trim 1,000 words, fulfils the "keep it positive" edict imposed on convention speeches by the Kerry campaign.

"Mostly, I'll talk about what hasn't been done and what John Kerry will do," he says.

He's not the only mayor on the speakers' list. Three others have already spoken, none on the cusp of primetime like O'Malley.

At a four-day event where minutes of podium time are divvied out parsimoniously, two minutes here and five minutes there, being allotted seven and a half minutes is a big payoff in the currency of this convention.

"It's a humbling honor," he says. So humbling, he shrugs off questions about his State House aspirations. "I'm not here playing gubernatorial politics. I've got a lot to do," he says, downing a coffee.

It's a mantra of the convention: focus on unity, set home state rivalries aside for now.

"We already see a unity of purpose among Democrats - in Maryland and across the country," O'Malley writes in a signed editorial on the front of O'Malley Convention News, a colorful daily newsletter complete with the night's lineup of speakers, the Democratic Party's theme-of-the-day, a party calendar and a weather box.

Earlier yesterday, O'Malley bounded onto the stage at a Maryland delegation breakfast he hosted at the Seaport Hotel to introduce House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, now of San Francisco, but a member of the city's D'Alesandro political clan.

"Her father and brother both had the most difficult job in all of Maryland politics - that is mayor of Baltimore," O'Malley said, joking.

"Many things start in Maryland ... I'm so proud of the job that Martin O'Malley is doing as mayor of Baltimore," Pelosi said.

At the breakfast, underwritten by Comcast Cable, the Teamsters, Communication Workers of America, and the United Auto Workers, diners received black tote bags filled with goodies including a CD of his band, O'Malley's March. His band mates didn't make it to Boston, but O'Malley will perform with the local Sunday's Well band at a party tonight.

"When I look out at a gathering like this and I see [former Gov. Parris N. Glendening], four words come to mind: I miss you, man," O'Malley said, drawing laughter and applause from the crowd. "I'm sorry for all the times I asked for more money for Baltimore. Wasn't it nice when we had a governor who wanted to move Maryland forward?"

It was a reference to his own ambitions, perhaps, in a ballroom where his likely rival for the 2006 Democratic gubernatorial nomination, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, was eating breakfast.

Still, O'Malley soldiered on for unity.

Answering a reporter's questions a few minutes later, O'Malley stood back to back with Duncan.

"Are they going to say anything to one another?" a radio reporter, hip to the pair's deep competition, wondered aloud.

They almost didn't. Then O'Malley, on his way to a meeting with staff members, backtracked and gave Duncan a sporting handshake.

Copyright © 2004, The Baltimore Sun