By David J. Silverman, Capital News Service
BALTIMORE- Before entering the 1999 Baltimore mayor's race that he ultimately won, Martin O'Malley admits he was tempted more than once to jettison his career in public life.
He recalled thinking that a white, relatively obscure member of the Baltimore City Council would have little chance of winning in a predominantly African American city. Besides, he had inherited his friend's law practice and felt pressure to resurrect his career as a lawyer, not least of all to pay the mortgage and provide for his growing family.
"I had done my best in eight years of public service, it was time to start building my castle," he told students in a 2002 commencement address at his Catholic alma mater, Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C., a school which aims to instill in its students the Jesuit tradition of public service.
But there was just one problem with giving up public life, O'Malley concluded. "I had gone to Gonzaga."
The 43-year-old mayor says that a value system based on his Catholic faith and honed by a Jesuit education at Gonzaga has been at the heart of his political career. He says he learned not merely to have faith in God and in his own ability to help others, but to act on his principles and risk failure.
Now, after seven years as mayor of Baltimore, where he set out to tackle notoriously high crime rates and a crumbling public school system, O'Malley has trained his eyes on Annapolis and decided to take on incumbent Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich.
Those who know him say it is no secret that if successful in his run for governor O'Malley perhaps sees even higher office in his future. And whether he is propelled by mere political ambition or the Jesuit credo of service to others, O'Malley wears his faith on his sleeve and makes no secret of his deep Catholic convictions.
He attends church every Sunday and, before the gubernatorial campaign crowded his schedule, he often went during the week at St. Francis of Assisi church, not far from his home in Northeast Baltimore.
He says he prays both inside and outside of Church, including every morning when he wakes up. His four children, Grace, Tara, Jack and William all attend Catholic school.
In a recent interview, O'Malley says he believes religious values are essential to making his children good people. "What are we if we can't raise good children?" he asks.
The template, O'Malley says, is the upbringing his parents gave him, growing up the third of six children in a Bethesda home within walking distance from Our Lady of Lourdes, where he attended Catholic school until eighth grade. (His family would later move to Rockville.)
'They were an Irish family that had really good, solid and hardworking values," said Jane Brockman, a former neighbor whose daughter attended Our Lady of Lourdes with O'Malley. "They were very effervescent and moving, always on the go."
O'Malley's mother, Barbara, who works as an aide to Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md.,said she and her late husband, Thomas, raised the kids the same way other parents at Our Lady of Lourdes raised theirs.
"We taught them the differences between good and evil, to have discipline and self-discipline, to be honest and to help others," she said. "It's kind of basic but it seems like it's gone by the board these days with a lot of families."
At school, where he was elected president of the student government, O'Malley went to mass daily and took theology classes.
Brockman said that the nuns and teachers at Our Lady of Lourdes, aside from committing their students to public service and faith, encouraged children to speak out about what they believed in. "They were challenged and taught to think on their feet, and I think you still see that in Martin," she said.
Daniel M. Kerns, Jr., O'Malley's eighth grade teacher, recalls that O'Malley was even in middle school a class leader, gregarious and "very comfortable" in taking a prominent role in class discussions.
The young O'Malley, Kerns said, was not afraid to take positions that ran contrary to what might have been the standard.
Indeed, in his present political life, O'Malley has not hesitated to take positions that run contrary to Catholic doctrine. He is pro-choice on abortion; he supports embryonic stem cell research, and he has vowed to uphold the state's laws on the death penalty.
Hari Sevugan, O'Malley's campaign spokesman, said the mayor's faith informs his positions, but does not dictate them.
"He realizes that he's going to be a governor for all of Maryland," Sevugan said. "As governor, he's supposed to enforce the law and he takes that obligation very seriously."
Well-versed in scripture, O'Malley readily invokes God and his Catholic faith on the stump. He said the scene from the New Testament where Jesus washes the feet of the Apostles has always had a profound impact on him.
"Service to others is something noble and spiritually fulfilling," O'Malley says. "That's what drove me into a career in public service. I'm sure not doing it for the money."
Gonzaga, from which he graduated in 1981, put O'Malley in an urban setting that exposed him to homelessness and economic depredation. The school, O'Malley said, not only instituted a rigorous Jesuit academic culture, but tried to produce "men for others."
"I remember coming in from the suburbs and seeing the blight as we filed by lines of homeless people," O'Malley recalls. But it was in that environment where he says he learned from one of his mentors, the late Rev. Horace B. McKenna, S.J., what public service was all about.
McKenna, who served as a priest at a Gonzaga-affiliated church and founded a center for the needy in its basement, worked tirelessly to "give aid and comfort to the area's homeless," O'Malley said. If they had drug problems, he would "challenge them to take control of their lives" by stamping out their addictions.
But it wasn't from second hand experience where Gonzaga wanted its young men to learn to become good people. The school pushed students to reach out to the local community.
O'Malley enrolled in a seminar that split time between discussing issues of social justice inside the classroom and tutoring inner city children outside of it.
Even today, many see in his approach to public policy the fruits of his Jesuit education.
"One of their mottos is to be a person for others, and I think he really does believe that," said Rev. Msgr. William F. Burke, pastor at O'Malley's Baltimore church. "He's totally committed to his work and the demands of his office, and he believes he's there to serve others."
This spirituality, in part, may have played a key role in attracting a vital supporter early in that 1999 mayor's race.
That was the Rev. Frank M. Reid III, a prominent Baltimore clergyman, community activist and pastor of Bethel AME Church, an historic church in West Baltimore with one of the city's largest black congregations.
Reid, whose 1999 endorsement of O'Malley gave the candidate instant credibility in the black community, says he was drawn to the mayor's spirituality as well as his desire to reach across racial and economic lines.
The two have remained close, Reid says, and often commiserate in time of adversity and tragedy, for example during the death of a police officer.
"Mayor O'Malley takes his faith seriously and it plays a part in his everyday life and in his decision making," Reid says.
Acknowledged even by many of his critics as a gifted orator, O'Malley has a polished and affable style that exudes confidence. He tends to address audiences in measured tones and routinely reaches into a bag of quotes from the likes of John F. Kennedy. His message is invariably an ecumenical one, calling for unity and the expansion of services and opportunity to all Marylanders. O'Malley has an innate "spiritual ability" to connect with people of all stripes and "make them feel how he feels on a given issue," Reid says. That rare skill, he said, cannot be faked and "comes from a sincerity deep down within one's spirit."