No regrets for O'Malley
Michael Olesker
Michael Olesker

November 5, 2002

THE MAN who might have been elected governor today spent yesterday morning on a fifth-grade field trip with his daughter. Martin O'Malley thought it was the most important way to spend his day. Let Kathleen Kennedy Townsend flit here, and Robert Ehrlich flit there. The mayor of Baltimore, embracing his daughter Tara and her classmates at Immaculate Conception, had peace of mind within the confines of his rambunctious city.

And, not to be overlooked, that little cover story in Esquire didn't exactly hurt.

The Esquire piece, due on newsstands this week, calls O'Malley "the best young mayor in America." But the piece is savvy enough to note, right at the top, that he might have been climbing politically higher today. He might have become governor of Maryland had he not chosen, several months back, to do the right thing instead of merely the politically expedient thing.

O'Malley, Esquire's Robert Kurson writes, "needs it done now. He is 39 years old and already he's out of time, even with his handsome looks and beautiful blond wife and the whispers in his ear that he can be president, he can be anything, if only he gives it time."

In fact, today's gubernatorial election reminds us that O'Malley has decided to give it time. For months, he grappled with running for governor vs. a fulfillment of at least one full term at City Hall. His family (with one major exception) wanted him to run for governor. His wife, Baltimore District Judge Katie O'Malley, did not. Nor did those who argued that the city needed him more than the state did. Nor those who told him: You made an implicit deal to stay for the full run when you asked people to vote for you.

As Esquire puts it: "He could win. And it would be a lot easier than this. Maryland is the second-richest state in America. Kids don't shoot kids in Annapolis. O'Malley dreamed about it. He could win. He could be anything. Only problem was, Baltimore wasn't finished."

When O'Malley finally made up his mind, he did it for the right reasons: The city's struggles were more pressing than the state's. The state will survive, no matter which candidate wins today. But the city has its special needs, and they include vigor and intelligence and passion at City Hall.

Yesterday, all those arguments came back to O'Malley as he stood in the back of his daughter's classroom, waiting for school buses to arrive to take them on their field trip.

"I get questioned about it all the time," O'Malley said. He spoke softly, not to disturb the class as they readied to leave. "They say, 'Are you sorry you decided not to run for governor? Are you sorry you stayed mayor?' The answer is no. I did a lot of agonizing over it leading up to the decision. I thought I could beat either one.

"But I've had no regrets since I made up my mind. I have a tremendous sense of calm and peace about staying where I am. We're doing important things here. If I think about being governor, I ask myself, 'What if we looked back at Baltimore and found the city crumbling and back where it was on crime and violence? What did we win then?' It's too important to build on the things we've started to do."

O'Malley has endorsed Townsend. He's taped commercials for her, and he spoke to a couple of Townsend campaign gatherings over the weekend. There was talk of him cutting another, last-minute broadcast spot late yesterday. But there has lingered, in some quarters, the suspicion that O'Malley's heart wasn't really in it, that he understood that an Ehrlich victory might make it easier for him down the road -- challenging a Republican governor four years from now, rather than a Democrat.

O'Malley denies it, and says a few times that he wants Townsend to win. In fact, his political role model is Gary Hart, the former U.S. senator (and presidential candidate) for whom O'Malley worked while in college. O'Malley still turns to Hart for advice. Maybe he sees Capitol Hill in his future, and not Annapolis.

In the meantime, though, he basks in the national attention of Esquire. It's the same magazine that, 18 years ago, published a piece called "The Best Damn Mayor in America." It was all about William Donald Schaefer. Schaefer hated it. He thought it violated his privacy and called it "the worst piece of journalism in history."

The piece on O'Malley? "I thought it was great," O'Malley said. "It outlined everything we're trying to do."

He meant the city of Baltimore. But it also captures a young mayor who might want to run for president one day -- but decided not to run for governor today. And says he has no regrets about it.
Copyright © 2002, The Baltimore Sun