Is It Time to Take Martin O'Malley Seriously?

The Maryland governor is determined to be part of the 2016 conversation. If Hillary Clinton lets him, that is.
Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley on stage with his Celtic rock band, O'Malley's March. (Chet Susslin/National Journal)

EASTON, Md. -- Outside the restored art deco theater, pickup trucks decked out with hand-painted protest messages such as "NØMALLEY" and "No more taxes" were circling the block. Inside, the man in black -- we're talking tight black shirt and jeans -- was on stage and in charge.

This was not the Martin O'Malley of the wonk world or the Sunday-show circuit. It was O'Malley the composer, lyricist, and singer, pennywhistle soloist, hushed Celtic storyteller, and jump-in-the-air, full-out guitar rocker. He teased his bandmates, bantered with the lighting crew, and repeatedly lost himself in the moment, moving smoothly from an Irish ballad to a Bruce Springsteen cover to a deadpan, dead-on rendition of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire." The group plays only a few times a year now and was rusty, but O'Malley owned the stage with the ease of someone who has been a leader for decades -- of a band, a city, a state, his fellow governors, and, maybe someday, his country.

People who have heard of O'Malley think they know who he is: a boring, soft-spoken, data-driven, unabashedly liberal, lifelong political junkie who has moved methodically up the career ladder to the Maryland governor's office and now is in the midst of what he tells National Journal is his "year of discernment" regarding a 2016 presidential bid. If he runs for president, the former Baltimore mayor would offer Democrats 15 years of executive experience during which he has built a stellar reputation as a manager.

There is, however, a new asterisk next to that résumé entry, in the form of a sordid prison scandal. If O'Malley were a character in a novel, it would be tragically inevitable that a Baltimore jail taken over by inmates and corrupt guards would raise questions about him at this particular moment. Because, even more than his fixation on Irish culture or his side gig as front man of O'Malley's March, his embrace of Baltimore is the most interesting, even admirable, thing about him.

He was a middle-class, suburban Washington kid who chose to build a political career in one of the grittiest, most troubled cities in America, with all the challenges and risks that entailed. He spent eight years on the Baltimore City Council and seven as mayor before moving to Annapolis to begin two terms as governor in January 2007. O'Malley has been closely identified with statistics-based governing in both of his executive positions: CitiStat to improve management and services in Baltimore; StateStat to do the same across Maryland; even BayStat to revive the Chesapeake Bay. Fusing passion with dispassion, he has deployed numbers to fight crime and pollution, to win approval for gambling casinos and gun restrictions, to pass tuition breaks for illegal immigrant students, and even to repeal the death penalty.

At the same time, over the past few years, he has steadily ascended in national politics -- as a key supporter of Hillary Rodham Clinton and later Barack Obama in 2008, as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association in 2011 and 2012, and as a prominent media spokesman for Obama and Democrats during the 2012 presidential campaign. He continues in a DGA leadership role as finance chairman, an ideal job for someone who might need to raise a lot of money for a presidential campaign in a year or two.

Clinton, 65, has frozen the field as she ponders her 2016 options. Awaiting her decision, halfway out of the wings, is a new generation of contenders topped by O'Malley, 50, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, 55. Though he is not (yet) writing a book, O'Malley has taken many preparatory steps toward running and hasn't been coy about acknowledging his interest. He says the impact of a race on his family, "along with more important factors, like what's best for the country, are things that I'll be weighing" in the months ahead.

Whether O'Malley has the charisma and fundraising prowess to make a serious bid is unclear at this point. He does have some noteworthy assets. Maryland is at the top of numerous lists rating metrics such as education and innovation. O'Malley has been on many lists of rising stars over the past decade. In 2009, Governing magazine cited his data-based management style in naming him a public official of the year. This year, in its May/June issue, Washington Monthly called him "arguably the best manager in government today."

An independent education report released amid this spring's prison furor found that low-income students in Maryland had made more progress over the past eight years than those in any other state -- a reminder that O'Malley's record remains enviable in many respects. But the corruption charges brought by the FBI in April against 25 inmates and prison guards at the Baltimore City Detention Center, overseen by the state, are forcing O'Malley to answer difficult questions. They are also giving extra ammunition to conservatives who have based their critique so far on tax hikes, what they view as overregulation, and O'Malley's allegedly boundless, even ruthless, ambition.

"I've come to the conclusion that he cares about nothing but his own personal political ambitions. Not the welfare of the state, not the future. It's all about him," says Maryland Delegate Anthony O'Donnell, a Republican who was state House minority leader from 2007 until early this year.

O'Malley has heard it all before. "Generally, people in my experience have tended to overestimate my ambition and greatly underestimate my conviction," the governor said in one of two extended interviews for this article. "I do what I believe is best, given the facts before me. I make every decision as if I'm not running for office again."

So far, he hasn't stopped running -- or winning.

In Search of a Narrative
Presidential candidates often have dramatic narratives that make their candidacies seem larger than themselves. There was Bill Clinton, whose father died before he was born and who grew up with an alcoholic stepfather; Obama, another fatherless son, who also had to surmount his name, his race, and an exotic childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia; Hillary Clinton, emerging from a troubled marriage as a senator, a secretary of State, and the first viable female contender for the presidency; John McCain, who survived years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

O'Malley's story is not like any of those. He's a smart, good-looking, white guy who grew up with two parents, two older sisters, and three younger brothers outside Washington in the affluent Maryland suburbs of Bethesda and Rockville. His political pedigree goes back generations. His grandparents were active in Democratic politics in Indiana and Pittsburgh. His parents met doing work for the Democratic National Committee. His father, who died in 2006, was a lawyer whom O'Malley says was an "Atticus Finch-type figure" to his four sons, all of whom became lawyers. His mother has been a receptionist for Sen. Barbara Mikulski, Maryland's Democratic senior senator, for more than 25 years.

O'Malley attended the Jesuits' Gonzaga High School in a checkered neighborhood near the U.S. Capitol, and then Catholic University a couple of miles away. The choice of Gonzaga in a sense foreshadowed the turn his life took later when he attended the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore, then stayed in the city to work as an assistant state's attorney, marry a top state official's daughter, and run for a series of political offices.

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Jill Lawrence is a national correspondent at National Journal. She was previously a columnist at Politics Daily, national political correspondent at USA Today and national political writer at the Associated Press.

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