Martin O’Malley grew up in Bethesda and Rockville, one of six children, with religion and politics as his background music. His grandparents were Democratic Party leaders in their towns. His mother, Barbara, has worked for congresswoman turned senator Barbara Mikulski for the past 40 years. And O’Malley’s late father, Thomas, was a World War II bombardier and criminal-defense lawyer who ran for Montgomery County state’s attorney in 1998 as a Republican, losing to Doug Gansler, now Maryland attorney general.
“A couple things were always understood in our house,” O’Malley says. “Every Sunday you’d go to church, and every election you’d vote.”
Before law school at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, O’Malley went to Catholic schools: Our Lady of Lourdes, where he was president of the student body, DC’s Gonzaga High School, where he made lifelong friends who are still part of his inner circle, and Catholic University.
Richard Ben Cramer, author of a book about the 1988 presidential contenders, What It Takes, recalls meeting O’Malley, who’d been working as an advance man for Colorado senator and presidential hopeful Gary Hart in Iowa: “I’d never seen such political talent. Martin had the whole damn county organized.”
O’Malley went on to work for Mikulski, as state field director of her senate campaign and then as a legislative fellow, and in 1998 he was hired as an assistant state’s attorney in Baltimore.
But he failed in his first time at bat as a candidate, losing in a bid for a state-senate seat in 1990. He ran for the Baltimore city council the following year and won, earning a reputation over the next eight years as an intense, passionate, bomb-throwing politician.
O’Malley’s 1999 bid for the mayor’s office in Baltimore shocked the predominantly African-American city—his victory at age 36 even more so. After he emerged from a crowded field to win the Democratic primary, the Washington Post proclaimed: WHITE MAN GETS MAYORAL NOMINATION IN BALTIMORE.
Mayor O’Malley won high marks for making a dent in that city’s crime rate. In 2002, at the urging of Democrats who worried that lieutenant governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend wasn’t a strong enough candidate, he flirted with the idea of running for governor. But he resisted, say those who know him, because he felt he had more to do in Baltimore—and to show voters he wasn’t all about ambition.
By that time, the praise was starting to roll in and he was being touted as a bright young star in the party: one of “the best and the brightest,” as Esquire called him in 2002, one of the top five big city mayors, as Time said in 2005. Talk of Baltimore’s dynamic mayor as a possible Vice President or even presidential candidate wasn’t far behind.
When O’Malley beat Ehrlich in the 2006 gubernatorial race—after being spared a primary fight with Montgomery County executive Doug Duncan, who bowed out of the race—his national profile was on the rise.
Four years later, much of that star power has faded as he works to hold onto his job. Walking in the heart of crowded downtown Silver Spring during lunchtime, the governor of the state is barely noticed.
“Governing in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression will do that to you,” says McDaniel College’s Herb Smith.
Some believe that O’Malley’s support of Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary cost him a higher national profile. Cramer, who’s remained friends with O’Malley over the last 25 years, says the governor resisted pressure to switch horses.
“In the spring of ’08 comes a call from Martin’s erstwhile mentor, Gary Hart,” Cramer remembers. “He says, ‘Martin, you are on the wrong side of history. You have to switch to Obama right away.’ Martin says, ‘Senator, I was with you for not one, not two, but three failed presidential campaigns. What makes you think I would bolt now?’ ”
Ehrlich’s loss to O’Malley in 2006 was the first time in 16 races that the Maryland Republican had ever lost an election.
“I still haven’t recovered,” says his father, Bob Sr., a retired car salesman, Korean War veteran, and onetime Democrat.