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O’Malley’s Tin Whistle

The ambitious governor of Maryland stumbles toward 2016.

By From the December 2012 - January 2013 issue

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MARTIN O’MALLEY arrived at this year’s Democratic convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, as a potential 2016 presidential candidate. Whether he left it as one is less clear.

His convention speech fell flat. It revolved around a labored routine, complete with corny gesticulations, in which he asked the audience to join him in praising Barack Obama for “moving America forward, not back.” Footage from the address captured many members of the crowd either zoned out or talking among themselves. One sensed that O’Malley’s political career had just moved back, not forward.

As the Washington Post noted, “it was immediately clear that O’Malley’s speech was not generating nearly the same buzz as more-spirited addresses by some of the party’s other rising stars, including Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who lifted the convention crowd into a frenzy just before O’Malley took the stage shortly before 10 p.m.”

For an intensely image-conscious pol like O’Malley, such reports must have stung. Through his status as the head of the Democratic Governors Association, he had secured a speaking slot in prime time. But he simply couldn’t deliver.

He had even brought his Celtic rock group, O’Malley’s March, with him to the convention. O’Malley is known for wearing sleeveless muscle T-shirts while strumming away at his guitar, and he was looking forward to showing off with a noted celebrity. But the weather conspired against him in an ominous foreshadowing of his lackluster convention appearance, reported the Washington Post: “…O’Malley, who has a side career as a musician, was to appear on stage with a band fronted by actor Jeff Bridges during a street festival here. Shortly before O’Malley was to be called to join the band, a torrential downpour cut the show short.”

Also raining on his parade in Charlotte was the sour response of pundits and party hacks to his pre-convention appearance on CBS’s Face the Nation, during which he had fumbled a question from host Bob Schieffer about whether he could “honestly say that people are better off today than they were four years ago.” “No,” O’Malley replied, setting off a moment of panic in the Obama camp. “But that’s not the question of this election.” O’Malley tried to backtrack the following day, but the damage was already done.

“I think we can all agree Martin O’Malley is not better off today than he was four days ago,” Conn Carroll, an editorial writer for the Washington Examiner, tweeted after he watched the governor’s underwhelming convention address.

O’Malley’s ambitions, however, remain undimmed. By all appearances, he still has his heart set on 2016. Earlier in the year, he had relayed to his supporters his family’s enthusiasm at seeing him listed among potential presidential contenders. “My daughters will e-mail me when they see the honorable mentions with such tremendous leaders as Hillary Clinton and Andrew Cuomo, who’s done an outstanding job in New York, and Vice President Biden, who my daughters just adore,” he said at a Democratic gathering. “They’ll e-mail me and say, ‘Boy, Dad, it’s nice to be included.’ So there’s that sort of talk.”

Not long after the convention, O’Malley turned up at Iowa Senator Tom Harkin’s “Annual Steak Fry,” an event that attracts likely presidential hopefuls. O’Malley’s remarks didn’t show much improvement from the convention (he repeated his forward-not-back routine), but the crowd was kinder, laughing dutifully at his notion of sharp anti-Republican humor: “These guys wouldn’t pass gas if they thought it could help our president accelerate the economy.” O’Malley also gushed about Bill Clinton, saying that he “loved” his convention speech and that he went back and watched it “forty times.” But it is Clinton’s rhetorical belly flop at the 1988 convention that should give O’Malley more inspiration, as it shows that such moments do not necessarily sink a career.

O’MALLEY FALLS into the category of a poor man’s Clinton. He is a transparently ambitious pol who calls himself, as Clinton once did, the “education governor.” Though he is far less talented and clever than the former president, O’Malley shares his easy extroversion. “He is not a bad guy to drink a beer with,” says a Maryland assemblyman, who chuckles at the pub performances of O’Malley’s March. “He has an Irish rock band. He likes to wear cut-off sweat shirts and T-shirts. He has a strong degree of narcissism.”

O’Malley doesn’t play the saxophone like Clinton, but rather the “tin whistle,” as Pat Troy, a veteran pub owner in Alexandria, Virginia, recalls. “He was a talented young man,” says Troy, who hired O’Malley to perform at one of his taverns in the 1980s. “He had a nice personality. He had stage presence. He has never changed.” One night, however, O’Malley failed to show up for a performance. “You left me stranded,” Troy said to him. O’Malley fessed up that he was on a date at the time. “So I fired him,” says Troy, who remained fond of him nonetheless, though he now finds the Catholic governor’s support for gay marriage and abortion rights disappointing. “It just shows that an awful lot of Catholics don’t give a damn,” says Troy.

Born in 1963 to Catholic parents in Potomac, Maryland, O’Malley has used his education from the Church in the Washington, D.C., area—he went to Our Lady of Lourdes School, Jesuit Gonzaga High School, and Catholic University—to subvert her on moral issues, thereby raising his national profile in the eyes of progressives. In 2011, O’Malley openly defied his bishop on gay marriage. To the dismay of conservative Maryland Democrats, he announced that passage of gay marriage would be one of his top legislative priorities, and he admitted envy of checkered Catholic Andrew Cuomo’s success in slam- dunking secularism over the bishops of New York State. “There are times in Annapolis when a governor’s support can move an issue over the goal line,” he said. “I think we can learn from what they did.”

Far from afraid of the Church’s reaction to his stance, O’Malley publicized it. In August of 2011, he proudly released to the press letters that he had exchanged with then Baltimore Archbishop Edwin O’Brien about gay marriage. “Maryland is not New York,” Archbishop O’Brien had written to him. “We urge you not to allow your role as the leader of our state to be used in allowing the debate surrounding the definition of marriage to be determined by mere political expediency. The people of Maryland deserve no less.”

O’Malley replied disingenously, “I do not presume, nor would I ever presume as governor, to question or infringe upon your freedom to define, to preach about, and to administer the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church,” (in reality, he objects to the withholding of Communion from pro-abortion politicians). “But on the public issue of granting equal civil marital rights to same-sex couples, you and I disagree….I look forward to working with you on other issues of mutual agreement. And I respect your freedom to disagree with me as a citizen and as a religious leader without questioning your motives.”

“He has an Irish temper,” says Mark Newgent, an editor for the blog Red Maryland. “He has never had to face a lot of opposition. He is very sanctimonious. He is very preachy. He has never found a straw man he doesn’t like to burn down.”

O’Malley’s hubris in picking fights with the Church while making a show of his Irish and Catholic heritage doesn’t surprise Newgent. “You will see pictures of him with ash on his forehead, and he can rattle off Irish poems,” he said. O’Malley knows that the complacent Maryland media, which is largely in his pocket in a one-party state, won’t make an issue of such hypocrisy. “He has never been held accountable,” says Newgent, who thinks that an O’Malley run for the presidency is likely. “He has the ego to do it. He has been running for president from his first day as a councilman.”

O’MALLEY WENT TO LAW SCHOOL and passed the bar, but his chief interest was always politics. He cut his teeth as an organizer in Gary Hart’s 1984 presidential campaign. Later he joined Congresswoman Barbara Mikulski’s office as a field director, before jumping into Baltimore politics as a city council member and then mayor. He married into the Curran family, a politically powerful Maryland clan. His wife, Catherine Curran, is a state district judge, and her father was the state’s attorney general for many years.

O’Malley is said to have been one of the inspirations for Tommy Carcetti, the fictional mayor of a crooked and crime-infested Baltimore in The Wire, an HBO show. But O’Malley resents the comparison. After an MSNBC host introduced him as “one of the real-life inspirations for the mayor of the hit TV show The Wire,” he replied testily: “I would take issue with whether or not I’m the inspiration for The Wire. I’m the antidote to The Wire.”

O’Malley is given to boasts about a cleaned-up Maryland that don’t hold up under scrutiny. As mayor of Baltimore, he bragged about a plummeting crime rate, but both Democrats and Republicans dismissed his claim as the product of flaky methodology. Similarly, his claim that Maryland tops the nation in quality of public education comes from the liberal publication Education Week, which uses as its principal criterion not educational achievement but the amount of money a state spends per pupil.

He proposed this year a new “genuine progress indicator” to measure economic growth in the state—an attempt to move away from hardheaded, measurable criteria toward vaguer indices of improvement, such as the amount of time Marylanders spend on “volunteer work” and the length of their commutes.

“This is a very disturbing development in Maryland if we are going to go and develop a whole new system to measure economic performance,” Jim Pettit of the group Change Maryland told the Capital Gazette. “There is a very touch-feely aspect to all of this.” Petit observed to the paper that O’Malley’s new standard wouldn’t include data from the Internal Revenue Service showing that people and businesses are fleeing the state. “According to Pettit, 36,400 jobs have been lost in the state since 2007, and the number of Fortune 500 companies has dropped from 11 to three in that same time,” reported the paper.

In their frequent TV appearances together, the head of the Republican Governors Association, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, has taken to needling O’Malley over the steady stream of Maryland businesses and residents moving to Virginia. After O’Malley told a radio interviewer that he would like to debate McDonnell, “followed immediately by a push-up contest,” McDonnell’s spokesman Tucker Martin said the governor didn’t have time, since “we’re just so busy helping the thousands of former Maryland residents who have recently moved to Virginia get situated.”

Maryland Democrats privately grumble that O’Malley has built up his national image as a progressive champion at their expense, pushing the state in directions more liberal than they would like. At a time of economic distress, he has pursued a largely frivolous agenda—the promotion of wind farms, the expansion of casino gambling, amnesty (he calls illegal immigrants “new Americans”), and gay marriage top the list—in hopes of ingratiating himself with coastal elites.

Typical of this lightweight style was his instruction to all members of his cabinet that they read a Rolling Stone interview with Bruce Springsteen. “I thought the clarity of language, the clarity of purpose, and the clarity of principle that came ringing through that interview, where Bruce Springsteen talked about the state of our nation, was something very powerful and insightful,” O’Malley told the press solemnly after the homework assignment made news.

But Marylanders don’t appear to view O’Malley as born to run for president. According to a poll conducted by the Washington Post in the fall, fewer than half of them approve of his job performance. Worse, only 22 percent of Maryland voters see him as a good potential president. It would seem that O’Malley’s march to 2016, with a dog whistle in one hand and a tin whistle in the other, has lost the beat.

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About the Author
George Neumayr, a contributing editor to The American Spectator, is co-author, with Phyllis Schlafly, of the new book, No Higher Power: Obama's War on Religious Freedom.