Youngest mayor of a large city at 37, governor at 43; it’s possible that Martin O’Malley, fueled by family, Jesuit ideals and Irish history, will march all the way to the White House.
Martin O’Malley is easy on the eye – very easy on the eye.
He’s handsome, young, and he’s got talent. He paid his way through college playing music – Irish music. His band, O’Malley’s March, has opened for Shane MacGowan, Tommy Makem, The Sawdoctors, and the Baltimore Symphony. And he can speak. He’s an orator in the truest sense. His speeches bring to mind Lincoln, J.F.K. and his brother Bobby, with whom he has been compared, and Martin Luther King.
O’Malley is Governor of Maryland; he could be in Hollywood, or winning Grammy Awards, or at least making tons of money as an entertainment lawyer.
But he’s in public service.
He accepted the call because of two factors, family and education.
Born in 1963, and raised in Bethesda and Rockville, Maryland, the eldest son in a family of six children, O’Malley grew up in a household where involvement in the community was encouraged. His mother worked for Senator Barbara Mikulski and nurtured her son’s interest in politics. His father was a lawyer rooted in civil rights. O’Malley remembers as a teenager waiting for his father outside Maryland’s notorious House of Corrections maximum security prison. “He went in and he came out, it must have been the summer, just soaking wet. He said, ‘The free and civilized people should never hold even convicted criminals in a place like that.’”
One of the ﬁrst things O’Malley did as governor was close the dilapidated prison, which was built in 1878, saying it was “not suited for modern-day incarceration, much less maximum security.”
But O’Malley is not soft on crime. He drew criticism recently when he vetoed a measure that would have opened up the possibility of parole for low-level, non-violent drug dealers.
When he was elected Mayor of Baltimore in June 1999, at the age of 37, O’Malley promised zero tolerance on drug-related offenses.
“We buried almost a dozen ofﬁcers who gave their lives in the line of duty, and an entire family was ﬁrebombed in its sleep for having the temerity to call 911 about the drug dealers who were making life impossible for their children in front of their home.” The pain, when he talks about this particular incident, is evident on O’Malley’s face. But he’s proud that by the end of his two terms, violent crime was at its lowest levels since the 1960s.
O’Malley’s election over two black candidates in a largely African-American city marked a watershed in American politics. He was an immensely popular mayor. He rode on the back of city ﬁre trucks, worked with sanitation crews, and visited schools and community centers, rousing citizens to join his campaign.
“It was really about justice. It was about all of us being in this together. It was about the dignity of every individual and about our responsibility to make our piece of this world a better place,” he says.
In November, O’Malley was sworn in as Governor of Maryland, the only Democrat to beat an incumbent Republican governor. He continues his “we’re all in this together” standard, increasing funding for public education (O’Malley credits his Jesuit education as a huge influence in his life), and putting forward a legislative package to make state government more accountable and more efﬁcient.
O’Malley has caught the eye of Democratic Party elite. He was the only mayor to speak at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. He further increased his credibility with the party when he ﬁlled in for Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire on June 2, 2007.
People are saying that O’Malley will run for president someday – it’s only a matter of time. O’Malley believes that people overestimate his ambition and underestimate his conviction. “I’m primarily interested in being the best governor I can be and as effective as I can possibly be,” he says.
His wife, Catherine “Katie” Curran, whose Irish roots are in County Kilkenny, is a dynamo in her own right. A former Assistant State Attorney, she is now a Maryland state judge (her father, J. Joseph Curran, served as State Attorney General from 1987-2007). The couple has four children, Grace, 16, (named for Grace O’Malley, The Pirate Queen, from whom O’Malley is descended), Tara, 15, William, 9, and Jack, 4.
I met with Governor O’Malley in Washington, D.C., on May 29. We talked for several hours. An edited version of that conversation follows.
So why public service?
I went into public service because I grew up in a house where that was considered an honorable and important thing to do. My parents met putting together a Young Democrats newsletter. Both of their parents had been very involved in the Democratic Party. On Mom’s side, from Fort Wayne, Indiana, her dad was the chair of the party through the Roosevelt years. My dad’s father was a ward leader in Pittsburgh during the Roosevelt years.
My mom had her collection of campaign buttons and pictures of John F. Kennedy. My father was someone who, albeit a lawyer in private practice, raised us to be involved in the public affairs of our community and country. So that’s the motivation in my heart.
I worked for Barbara Mikulski as her ﬁeld director in 1986 when she was running for U.S. Senate and afterwards she brought me up to the Hill so I could see beyond the campaign.
Then, when I was in college, I worked on the campaign of Senator Gary Hart and that was a very empowering experience as well.
Some of my friends, because of their disappointment over his withdrawing in 1987, were turned off. That actually drove me to be more involved.
Was there a time when you considered going in another direction – say the music business?
I went to law school because I wanted to be just like my father, who was a lawyer. I have three brothers and all four of us are lawyers, so that tells you a little something about the force of my father’s character. The Jesuits at Gonzaga High School used to say “expectation becomes behavior,” and my father expected that we would, of course, do what we wanted to do, and no doubt that would involve becoming lawyers and being involved in the public life of our community [laughs].
So the Jesuits were also an inﬂuence.
It’s what Father Quigley at Georgetown talked about, “that tomorrow can be better than today and that each of us has a personal and moral responsibility to make it so.” I do think my Jesuit education was important.
I would come from a lily-white neighborhood every day with a lot of other lily-white kids and we ﬁle down the street from the train station on our way to high school. We would go by St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church, in the basement of which, Fr. McKenna, a modern day saint, ran a mission and a soup kitchen for homeless men. He tried to get them into jobs and face up to their addictions. It made an indelible impression on many of us, and it certainly had an impression on me, when every day I walked by that mission and then went to class.
As Mayor of Baltimore you were able to connect with the largely African-American population. Why was that?
I think that an awareness of Irish history and an awareness of the Irish-American experience enabled me to shed some of the baggage that most of us who are white in America have when it comes to communicating and establishing understanding with our neighbors of color.
I grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, and if you go to the Rockville Library, my name is on a little card somewhere – I took out every book in that library on Irish history, and read every book I could possibly ﬁnd on Irish history. Whenever you read a people’s history long enough, you become aware of the triumph of the human spirit, and the sort of universal eternal truths that are the core of the human experience.
It is fairly obvious that education, or lack of, and poverty go hand in hand. Where do you weigh in on Brown versus Education and the recent ruling by the Supreme Court?
With the caveat that I didn’t read the cases when they were briefed and I’m certainly not an expert, it disturbs me greatly to see the direction in which the court is moving, especially for Chief Justice Roberts to say “the way one stops discrimination is to stop discriminating.”
Well, that’s a wonderful thought, and it also completely ignores a very painful 300-year history that sees tremendous gaps in education and disparities in terms of health and concentrations of poverty, which have stemmed from slavery and the subordination of people of color. While I do think that we have made progress, we still have a long way to go before we can say – whether it’s about minority business development or achievement in education — we are beyond the need for some afﬁrmative steps for healing and making real, equal opportunity to all people in our country.
On the same day as the Supreme Court decision, the Immigration Bill was shot down.
It was a bad day.
I was very disappointed. Our failure to reform immigration in a comprehensive way is a real tragedy on many scores, not only for the families it affects directly, but also for us as a country.
There are worse problems than people wanting to come to America, and that is people no longer wanting to come here because we cease to be the tolerant, open place that we have always proclaimed ourselves to be.
And in the sort of mean-spiritedness that killed the immigration reform compromise, I think you see a vision of America that is totally 180 degrees the opposite of the Statue of Liberty and the words emblazoned there, and what those kids in Tiananmen Square admired and were willing to die for. It’s really sad.
America seems to want to build a wall around itself.
Richard Florida who wrote The Rise of the Creative Class and The Flight of the Creative Class talks about that sort of walled America where we used to assume that we would always have adequate numbers of engineers and doctors; that we would always be on the leading edge of health care discoveries and scientiﬁc advances because we’re a place where people like Albert Einstein and other great minds wanted to come to live in a free society where their talents could be used to the fullest for the betterment of themselves and their families but also, hopefully, for mankind. In the world’s eyes that image has been greatly tarnished.
Do you think the anti-immigrant sentiment is related to 9/11 and issues of homeland security?
I think that making investments in security would greatly tame the xenophobia. When people are scared it’s easier for some politicians to make a group of people all scapegoats or all the enemy.
You have been outspoken on homeland security.
I found myself having to navigate through those rocks when there was a proposal by Dubai to take over the Port of Baltimore. I fought it tooth and nail and hit it with everything I had. I think there are some responsibilities that are still very fundamental and which only we can fulﬁll for ourselves, and one is security and we are not doing it. We haven’t taken the steps we need on border security, or port security, or airport security. If you read the latest 9/11 Commission Report, we are scratching our heads and wondering why ﬁve years later most metropolitan areas still don’t have interoperable communications, or better plans in place to ﬁght pandemic ﬂu, let alone some bio-terror attack.
There seems to be more emphasis on wiretapping individuals than on the bigger picture.
It’s a very scary time. It’s just after an attack that the Constitution is in the greatest danger. That was true in World War Two and it’s true now in the wake of terrorism. I do think that we are starting to wake up a bit; whether it’s the wiretapping or the allowing, promoting, adopting of torture as an acceptable tactic.
My father was a World War Two veteran. He had 33 bombing missions over Japan in a B-24 Liberator and I went to see him at the house where we were all raised, and he was sitting alone on the back porch. I sat down across from him. He held up the paper with the Abu Ghraib headlines and pictures of the hooded prisoners who were being tortured by the American Army and he said, with tears welling in his eyes, “Are you proud of the great country that I’m leaving to you.”
Bruce Springsteen in the last presidential campaign said that America’s government has strayed too far from America’s values and it’s time to pick up the pieces and move forward. “Because the country we carry in our hearts is waiting.” And I do think that people are ﬁnally, in greater numbers, feeling that way. But we need to ﬁnd our voice – the opposition party – and speak from the foundation of American principles, which are really universal principles of all humanity. And we need to be very clear and plain in addressing those, and I think that if we do we can get back to the America that we carry in our hearts.
Have you endorsed a presidential candidate?
Yes. Deﬁnitely. I’m very committed to Hillary Clinton. I endorsed her publicly in late April. And I endorsed her privately at your Top 100 event in March. I do feel that she, uniquely among those running in a strong ﬁeld, has the ability to restore America’s credibility and standing in the eyes of the world, virtually overnight, with her election.
These Bush years have been so disastrous for America’s security and America’s moral leadership in the world that we have so much ground to make up. For my kids’ sake I want to do it as quickly as possible, and I think that Hillary’s a strong and disciplined person. I think she has the respect because of her role as ﬁrst lady, and because of the terriﬁc job she’s doing as a U.S. senator. I worked with her on homeland security issues and there was no U.S. senator better, from a mayoral perspective, than she. No doubt informed by the attacks of September 11 on New York.
What about Iraq?
I think we need to get out of there as quickly as we can. Our men and women did their job and they need to come home. Their continued presence only puts them in further jeopardy and makes them a target and it makes us less safe, not more. It depletes our National Guard and I would like to see them brought home as quickly as possible.
They were not sent there to prevent a civil war, they were sent to take out Saddam Hussein and they’ve done that. I’ve sadly been to more funerals as governor in six months, line of duty funerals, than in seven years as mayor of Baltimore. That’s saying something.
Certainly the Clinton White House was crucial in the Northern Ireland peace process. You wrote a song about Northern Ireland, “Song for Justice.” Is it time to write a new song in light of the new power-sharing Assembly?
Yes. It probably is time to write a new song. It’s amazing how far things have come from a situation that just so recently many would have said was hopeless and intractable and impossible, and I’m just glad that I was able to live to see it.
I was 20 when I wrote Gary Hart’s position paper on Northern Ireland. I had to go through great machinations to get it in front of him, but I knew he felt that the only way to get the logjam broken was through American involvement, and once he got it he signed it.
Hart become the ﬁrst major presidential candidate to endorse the idea of a U.S. peace envoy and all-party talks – those were the two core elements, which were new at the time. Then, once Hart won New Hampshire, Mondale was, in essence, forced to adopt the same position and thereafter it was always something that was expected of Democratic candidates. It was the same position that Bob Kerrey had in 1992, and that Bill Clinton had.
Whether it was writing position papers, or songs, or keeping Northern Ireland alive as an issue, Americans were crucial to the peace process.
I’m very proud of the American role in that. I’m happy that I lived to see it. It also gives me great comfort now because whenever I get frustrated in working with my Republican colleagues I look at Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness and I say, “By God, if they can do it, so can I.”
Yes. It’s time to write a new song.
Will you have time to play a new song?
I haven’t been playing much. We have recorded the guts of an underground CD. It’s called Banished to the Basement, but we don’t know if it will ever see the light of day. I’ve just had to put the band on the side. There was no time for it during the campaign, and of course, you know your opponents will key on the things that others see as positive attributes and try to lampoon and turn them into negatives, so I’ve just gotten away from it.
The last six months have just been a real roller-coaster of adjustment to the new job and to a much broader, more diverse group of people that I serve, and it’s just hard to stay current with the band. I really do miss it.
I do think that playing music is a bit of an international language, understood inherently by all people, and it helped me bridge racial divides as mayor of a majority African-American city. Whenever I would visit schools, kids would come up to me and say “Hey, Mayor, I play the clarinet.” “Hey, Mayor, I play the drums.” There was that sort of commonality. In Baltimore when I was mayor no one had any problem with it and I think people actually appreciated it. They give you a little more freedom at that level, I think, than as governor.
Your band O’Malley’s March has opened for Shane MacGowan.
Yes. I think that Shane’s magic is his ability to capture the energy and the passion and the anger and the empathy and the sweetness altogether and to express it in the right language.
The other thing is he likes the old stuff. As new as he makes it, it is still rooted in tradition and that’s hard to pull off and that’s what I really respect him for. When I gave him one of my CDs when we warmed up for him, as nervous as can be in his presence, he looked on the back and asked, “You write these?” I said I wrote a few of them but I prefer the old stuff, and he said, “I prefer the old stuff too.”
I don’t know what came ﬁrst, the [Irish] history or the music. My mother used to play the Clancy Brothers records, not just on St. Patrick’s Day, and she was German.
Where do your O’Malley ancestors hail from?
My O’Malleys were from up in the mountains between Galway and Mayo in the valley where The Quiet Man was ﬁlmed. If you keep going through Cong, the road up through Ouchterard and you go out to where Peacock’s is, and if you bang a right and go through that pass it will dead-end right there at Maam. And half the houses in Maam are owned by O’Malleys.
Do you have any cousins over there?
I do. I have the storybook relationship with a long lost cousin. We make up for 120 years of not writing to each other by e-mailing. He’s a schoolteacher whose name is Thomas O’Malley and he helped hook me up with the whole family genealogy.
My great-grandfather kind of stepped out of a blank page. All we knew was that he was from Galway, as many people in Pittsburgh were. I got his death certiﬁcate, found out his father’s name [Thomas] and his mother’s, and wrote over to Galway for death certiﬁcates. I narrowed it down – there were only two Thomas O’Malleys with sons named Martin born approximately the right time. Only one of them was born in the exact year, the one who immigrated to America.
Pierce, the former bass player for The Sawdoctors, lives near Clonbur, and so I caught him after a show. I said, “Look, I think my family comes from a little crossroads called Kilmilkin, do you know where it is?” And he said, “I do, and I will take a photo of your ancestral home.” And like the gullible Yank, I said, “How will you know which one is mine?” And he says, “There are only three of them. And I’ll take a wide angle.”
Pierce arranged for me to have dinner with Thomas O’Malley, who told me that the Martin O’Malley in his family had immigrated to England to Newcastle-on-Tyne. “I said was he a miner?” And he said, “Yes, he was a miner,” and I said, “Well, that’s what he did in America as well.” And then Thomas said, “He wouldn’t have settled by any chance in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania?” And I said, “Yeah, that’s where my father is from, and there’s three hundred other O’Malleys here to this day because he did.”
Thomas turns to his sister and he says, “Therese, get out the picture of ‘Question mark’ O’Malley.” So Therese pulls out a picture of this well-groomed guy in a high collar with a big mustache, and his eyes look like an amalgam of my father and my father’s brother, and pictures I’d seen of my grandfather. He said, “This photo we got out of what would be his [Martin O’Malley’s] long-deceased brother’s family photo album, along with that letter from Newcastle. We can identify everyone else but we couldn’t square this guy.” And there at the bottom of the picture it said, Stanton Studios, Forbes and Market, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Thomas said, “Is that your great-grandfather?” and I said, “It absolutely is.” And he said, “Have you seen a picture of him before?” I said, “No, but there’s no doubt in my mind that that’s my great-grandfather.”
Are you hopeful for the future?
I am. I suffer from being an optimist. The nice thing about Maryland is that it’s a pretty manageable state. We have about ﬁve and a half million people, where some other states have huge challenges in job loss and loss of population. Our challenges are the opposite, because of the great institutions, the centers for scientiﬁc learning and discovery, and the NSA [National Security Agency]. We’re growing by leaps and bounds – we have thousands of jobs slated to come here from the most recent base realignment that happened with the military installations, and what gives me optimism is the notion that we have the talent in Maryland to unleash what Jeffrey Sachs [director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University] calls the weapons of mass salvation – the cures to malaria, dysentery, TB, or other horrible things that from an American perspective are entirely preventable and yet kill tens of thousand of people every month, all around the globe, many of them children. That’s how our nation regains its moral leadership of this world. It’s not from the smart bombs, it’s from the smart, compassionate hands and heads that come together in this place.
What are your thoughts on the future of America?
We go through bad phases but I do think we move forward. I do think this period of American history will be regarded as an aberration. I do think that however it gets deconstructed, wherever the blame falls, for the bad things that have happened and the good things we chose not to do, that this period of American history will ultimately be regarded as a detour from our principles and not, you know, some sort of inevitable cycle of the rise and fall of empire. Because we’re not an empire, we’re a republic and that’s the truth that we’ll return to. ♦