From the Baltimore Sun

Politics is a balancing act for city's first lady
Jean Marbella

November 3, 2006

The man told the judge that he had been picked up for trespassing by a police officer who didn't really want to make the arrest.

"He said, 'I only have to do this for the man who wants to be mayor, I have to make my quota,' " the defendant said during an appearance at the Eastside District Court earlier this week.

He didn't get the details quite right -- the man whose administration is accused of having an arrest quota is Martin O'Malley, and he is already the mayor but wants to be governor. But the defendant did get the general outline of the controversy right, that critics say O'Malley's anti-crime efforts have led police to aggressively arrest numerous people for the most minor of infractions. City police deny they have a quota.

Unfortunately, the judge he was telling this to was Catherine "Katie" Curran O'Malley, associate judge of the District Court of Maryland, and wife of the mayor, the Democratic nominee for governor. While she ultimately didn't rule on the case -- the man was wanted in Pennsylvania on more serious charges, and he was expected to be extradited there -- it was one of those occasions when her role as a judge collides with her role as the mayor's wife.

It might only get more complicated if her husband were to win next week's election -- any state-appointed jobs, such as an appointment to the circuit or appellate court, would be "obviously nepotism," she says.

"As the spouse of a public servant, you have to watch the jobs you take; you do have possible conflicts," she said in a recent interview. Like being, she says, "a lawyer for a company lobbying for legislation."

You mean, like Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s wife, Kendel, working for Comcast, I ask.

"I didn't say that," she says coyly. "You did."

O'Malley, of course, knows exactly what she's saying. Before she was an O'Malley, after all, she was a Curran -- the daughter of J. Joseph Curran, Jr., the retiring Maryland attorney general whose family is long entrenched in state and local politics.

Which is why it's so unusual for Katie O'Malley, 44, a fixture on the political campaigns that her father and her husband have run over the years, to uncharacteristically sit out most of this one. As a judge, she is banned from politicking for other candidates, even the one she married, so during the campaign, her role as the smiling, supportive spouse has been filled by other Currans or O'Malleys.

She does keep abreast of what's happening, quizzing aides on how things are going on the campaign trail, but truth be told, she doesn't mind having a state-mandated excuse for not being on it herself.

"It's actually been a godsend, because we have children," she said of their two daughters and two sons, "and they are high maintenance."

Even without campaign duties, it's a full life. She relies on a veritable "village" of friends and family who help her on the home front, showing up at the O'Malley home in Northeast Baltimore with dinners and offers to babysit.

"I don't have any hired help," she says. "But I have help from a lot of sources. I even have this girlfriend who rearranged all the pots and pans in my kitchen; she couldn't stand the way they were."

She has never ruled out a run for office of her own, but not now, not with four young children. "I enjoy coming home at night and being with my kids," she says. Besides, she adds, her work as a judge is public service. For now, any races she runs are of the sporting kind -- she has completed a couple of marathons, and participates in events like last month's 5K Race for the Cure.

Assigned to the Eastside court at 1400 E. North Ave., one of several locations in the city where cases involving rental disputes, misdemeanors, lesser felonies, domestic violence and peace orders are heard, Judge O'Malley strides on high heels through the daily dramas that play out in the hallways and in the courtrooms. She jokes with other judges, bailiffs and lawyers, and seems as animated on the bench as she is off it, entering her courtroom in a blur of black robe and a thick cloud of hair. She alternately breaks into wide grins and exaggerated frowny faces at something a lawyer tells her and scrunches up her features at defendants who show up without a lawyer and ask for another delay or simply run out of excuses.

"Why'd ya take her car?" she asked one defendant who is charged with racking up thousands of dollars of damage on a car he "borrowed" without the owner's OK

"Relapse," is all the guy can come up with.

"We gotta get you sober," she says as she reviews his long criminal record.

Many of the cases she sees are, at root, drug cases, she says. "There are so many addicts and not enough drug treatment programs. It's very, very frustrating."

And indeed, case after case unfurls in dreary similarity on this particular day: Subject observed by police at known drug market, chased on foot or by car as bag or vial of suspected something or other gets tossed or is found in pocket. The courtroom becomes a secular confessional, with penitents going, heads bowed, before the judge: A tearful woman is mostly silent but has her attorney tell O'Malley that she is proud of her three sons and that she has enrolled in detox. A man wants her to know he's since gotten a job and has stopped smoking.

Not all are sorrowful, and O'Malley berates one for a bad attitude -- he spit on a cop during a traffic stop and doesn't appear apologetic now -- and gives him 50 hours of community service.

Maybe it's the spitting that got to her: She remains outraged even now, recalling a rally during her husband's 1999 run for mayor when speakers who were endorsing him were shouted down by another candidates' opponents, who also started spitting, she says.

So maybe the negativity of this year's campaign shouldn't seem so out of the ordinary. Still, she says she finds it disheartening, even if she agrees that both parties engage in it.

"It's been a mean campaign, all across the nation," she says. "This nastiness -- it's dispiriting. It gets so bitter and personal. The personal stuff is where it gets ugly, and our family has certainly gone through that."

Last year, an Ehrlich aide was forced to resign for spreading rumors about the O'Malleys' marriage, prompting the mayor, hand-in-hand with his wife, to make an announcement outside City Hall that he had always been faithful to her.

As someone who has grown up in and married into the world of politics, even a painful incident like that hasn't caused her to run screaming in the opposite direction, toward the sector that's called private for a reason. Instead, she's looking forward to what she hopes is a new role in Annapolis, noting that she's talked about juggling legal work with being married to a governor with fellow lawyer and former Maryland first lady, Frances Glendening.

"She's been a great source of advice," she says, before cautiously knocking on the wooden table that she's sitting at. "Not that I'm counting chickens till they hatch."
Copyright © 2006, The Baltimore Sun