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President Street

Martin O'Malley is on the short list of Democratic presidential candidates. Can he win?

Another body cannot possibly squeeze into the packed house at James Joyce's Irish Pub & Restaurant, an early anchor in Harbor East when it served its first Guinness pint and plate of corned beef and cabbage a decade ago. Leading the pub's 10th anniversary party on stage this November night, in his familiar-to-Baltimoreans tight black T-shirt, Gov. Martin O'Malley strums his guitar and leans into the microphone, taking his band, O'Malley's March, through an energetic set of Celtic ballads and Irish-tinged rock songs, including a cover of The Pogues' "Dirty Little Town."

"Dreamed a dream by the old canal
I kissed my girl by the factory wall
Dirty old town
Dirty old town"

The song, cast in a struggling industrial city, couldn't be more appropriate for O'Malley, who also performed here at the pub's opening as then-Mayor of Baltimore—when Harbor East was still mostly empty warehouses and desolate docks. At the time, the city's crime and homicide rates were becoming the stuff of legend in the HBO series The Wire—an image O'Malley fought like crazy and a show that gets his ire up to this day. Now, however, the holiday lights decorating the hotel, restaurant, and gleaming office buildings behind him in the pub's front glass window seem almost symbolic, an affirmation of the burgeoning upscale district, the city's wider rebirth, and even O'Malley's political career, which is experiencing something of a revival tonight.

He'd suffered through a disappointing General Assembly earlier in 2012 when legislators ignored or punted much of his agenda, barely managing to pass a "doomsday" budget just before midnight on the session's final day. But a week earlier, on election night, O'Malley rebounded remarkably. The Governor had thrown his full weight behind several risky hot-button referendum issues—Maryland's same-sex marriage law; the Dream Act (to assist undocumented immigrants with in-state tuition); an expansion of gambling; and a new, partisan congressional map—and won on all four measures.

"In that way, he was like Schaefer, driving around and reporting potholes."

On top of those victories, as then-head of the Democratic Governor's Association, O'Malley had advocated tirelessly for President Barack Obama in his reelection bid, frequently appearing on the Sunday talk shows to square off with the Republican opposition. In the aftermath of Obama's victory, O'Malley's effective stumping added to the perception of the Governor's growing political momentum. Almost immediately after the votes were counted, political pundits, on the basis of O'Malley's referendum victories and increased national stature, put him on the short list of 2016 Democratic contenders with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

"I saw him play at McGinn's on Charles Street, which became Mick O'Shea's, when he was playing there regularly," says Ellen Muth. "He's debonair, handsome the way JFK was in the 1960s."

Her daughter, Lane, standing next to her between sets, also saw O'Malley play many times when he was mayor. "I told my mom then, 'He's going to be president in 10 years.'" Not necessarily because of any legislative achievements, Lane admits, but instead because of one of O'Malley's most commented-upon attributes as a politician, "because he was charming and appealing."

Perhaps it's worth noting, for those who believe in such signs, that the James Joyce's Pub is located, of course, on President Street.

Standing at the corner of Harford Road and the Alameda announcing that he was running for mayor in June of 1999, O'Malley's political future was hardly guaranteed—as is often posited given his sturdy good looks and marriage to former Maryland Attorney General Joe Curran's daughter—let alone destined for a White House bid. He entered the race late, not jumping in until after former NAACP head Kweisi Mfume announced he was staying out.

Although always a brash, outspoken, camera-ready councilman, he joined a crowded field seeking to replace three-term incumbent Kurt Schmoke, a race that included O'Malley's closest ally on the City Council, its president, Lawrence Bell, and popular councilman Carl Stokes—frontrunners in the wake of Mfume's non-candidacy. "One of them was at 90 percent name recognition, another at 89 percent," O'Malley recalls with a smile in his Annapolis statehouse office shortly before greeting the General Assembly on opening day of this year's session. "I was at 30 percent, and that's when I knew I had them."

The remark may sound more cocky than self-deprecating, but O'Malley had actually lost his first state Senate race to incumbent John Pica by a narrow margin.

In fact, before Mfume deferred, O'Malley admits wrestling with the idea that his nascent political career might be winding down after two City Council terms. "I'd recently taken over a friend's legal practice in Towson at that point, not exactly the employment base to make a run for citywide office," O'Malley says. "I wanted Kweisi [whom O'Malley later sought out to save Baltimore's annual African-American festival] to run. I had served two honorable terms. And I had a growing family."

Gov. Martin O'Malley speaks In Iowa. —AP Wide World Images

But he offered a contrast to Schmoke in and substance, and became convinced he could change Baltimore's trajectory with his tough-on-crime, public-safety-first approach. Equally important, he felt his City Council colleagues could not. "No disrespect intended to either man," O'Malley says of Bell and Stokes, "but I knew them and didn't think they could make a difference. I told Katie [Judge Catherine "Katie" Curran O'Malley], I had a responsibility to run and that we had to try. Fortunately, she agreed." The Washington Post headline after O'Malley unexpectedly garnered 53 percent of the Democratic primary vote: "White Man Gets Mayoral Nomination in Baltimore."

Norma Secoura, an Overlea Republican who worked in former Gov. Robert Ehrlich's administration, found O'Malley to be engaged and attentive to his constituents from the start, first, as her councilman and then, as mayor. "In that way, he was like [former Mayor William Donald] Schaefer, driving around and reporting potholes," Secoura says. "And whenever I saw him in City Hall as mayor, he was the same way, on the BlackBerry, managing all of that minutia and the city at the same time. He's someone who prepares for every meeting; reads the pages of every bill."

"My Republican friends will hate to hear it," Secoura says, "but in many ways he was the best option for Baltimore in those days."

Current City Councilman Bill Henry, who worked in several City Hall positions in the 1990s, interacted with the young councilman during late work nights. He says losing that state Senate race by such a close margin strengthened O'Malley. "He wasn't ever going to leave anything to chance after that—whether it was a constituent complaining about a broken streetlight—or his next campaign."

During his first term, O'Malley brought New York City's data-driven CompStat policing model to Baltimore, built it out to CitiStat, and launched, memorably, the "Believe" campaign, putting his name into national media spotlight for the first time. The CitiStat efficiency model has since been adopted by cities across the country.

Retired City police Maj. Michael Hilliard, assigned to O'Malley's district when he was a councilman, notes that while Schaefer and O'Malley famously did not get along—"they hated each other," Hilliard says—they both took a detail-driven, hands-on approach to running the city. Schaefer through the dint of his quirky and often agitating personality; O'Malley through his numbers-obsessed, managerial style. (Former Gov. Parris Glendening quips that Schaefer actually got along with few of Maryland's top executives in government: "He thought he could do it better than anyone," Glendening says. "He's in heaven right now and probably thinks he could run things better there.")

Hilliard, who later directed the department's communication section, said CompStat "put cops on dots." O'Malley then took the process to other agencies, and linked it to 311 non-emergency calls related to city agencies. "Using that model and expanding it to other city agencies, holding them accountable, that's probably the most innovative thing he's done. It works," says Hilliard, who now directs community services for Harbel, Northeast Baltimore's neighborhood association. Hilliard adds that counter to his folk- rocker alter ego, O'Malley could be "a holy terror" in CompStat accountability sessions.

Further burnishing his efficiency-hawk credibility, O'Malley developed StateStat as governor, resumé material he will surely tout during any potential presidential campaign, particularly given the never-ending Capitol Hill fiscal and debt crises.

"He's got a playful side, but those who judge him by his stage persona, or that he goes to the gym, miss him entirely," Hilliard says. "He's right out of central casting, but he's not a lightweight by any means. He's intense, smart, knows what he's doing, and works hard. It's [for] that combination that people pegged him for higher office."

O'Malley, too, as befits someone with a reputation as a tenacious (even ruthless, if you put full stock in David Simon's Carcetti-as-O'Malley-avatar in The Wire) behind-the-scenes player, has politics in his blood. His grandfathers were FDR Democrats; one holding a county chairmanship in Fort Wayne, IN, the other serving as a Pittsburgh ward leader. His father twice ran for office in Montgomery County, and met his mother, who to this day answers the phone for Sen. Barbara Mikulski, working on a young Democrats newsletter in D.C. At 20, he left his Catholic University studies to join the Iowa presidential campaign of then-Colorado Sen. Gary Hart, who reportedly bought him his first legal beer in Des Moines. "[Joining the Hart campaign was] my response to the Reagan years," says O'Malley, who has remained in contact with Hart over the years. In 1987, he was Hart's national field director before the Colorado Democrat's second presidential run imploded after his affair with Donna Rice came to light.

Still, it's not as if Baltimore—with seemingly insurmountable heroin, homicide, and AIDS epidemics and its depressing poverty and graduation rates—was an easy springboard for someone dreaming of sleeping in the Lincoln Bedroom. O'Malley had his share of problems as mayor, especially early on, with his first police chief resigning less than two months into office and his fourth in place by his first term's end. He faced "daily blowback," in his words, over his zero-tolerance arrest policy, including a lawsuit the city settled with the ACLU and NAACP. And yet, he handily won reelection, earning a 2004 Democratic National Convention speaking engagement, which famously fell flat, but didn't squelch speculation of an eventual O'Malley drive for governor and, in Baltimore at least, the desk at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Forming his federal O Say Can You See PAC this fall was the clearest sign that O'Malley, for all intents and purposes, is "in" the 2016 race, says St. Mary's College of Maryland political science professor Todd Eberly. "You use it to give people money, and you want them to remember you," he says. The hiring of Stephen Neuman, who served as an Obama campaign strategist, to manage his PAC and later, to take over as his director of public affairs, similarly speaks to designs on higher office.

Glendening also believes O'Malley will run, though maybe not in 2016 if Hillary Clinton pursues the office again, noting O'Malley's support for her 2008 campaign and his relationship with the Clintons. "I think he's ambitious, and I think for a long time he's felt he could be a good president," says Glendening, who heads Smart Growth America's Leadership Institute and maintains a relationship with O'Malley, praising his environmental efforts.

Performing with O'Malley's March; with his Wife, Katie, in Annapolis; At Bowie State University with Pres. Barack Obama and Sen. Barbara Mikulski. —Getty Images and AP Wide World Images (2)

Interestingly, O'Malley, whether motivated by ego, as his critics claim, his Jesuit education, his family background, his love of history—"In high school, I probably took out every book on Irish history in the Rockville library"—or more likely a combination of all of the above, has never denied his personal ambitions. He mentioned running for governor while on the City Council. He says straightforwardly that he doesn't see a conflict between what may be viewed as his ambition through the years and taking care of the job at hand. Republican state legislators, however, have accused him of overlooking—or alternatively, exploiting—his position as governor while on recent trips, for example, to Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, to name three early primary states. "What's the saying?," O'Malley rhetorically asks an interviewer after providing a mini-history tour of the Office of the Maryland Governor. "The best way to get the next job is to do a good job at the one you have?"

University of Maryland Baltimore County Department of Public Policy chairman Donald F. Norris dismisses a recent Gonzales poll that reported 58 percent of Marylanders don't think O'Malley should run for president. The same poll put the Governor's approval rating at 54 percent.

"He has a lot going for him as a potential candidate," says Norris, who believes the majority of Marylanders would ultimately support an O'Malley bid. "He's run a city government, a state government, and managed to balance the budget every year. He came into office [as governor] at the start of the recession, balanced the budget, and, at the same time, has come close to closing the state's structural deficit."

Along with his record as mayor, O'Malley will surely tout Maryland's high national rankings in public education, college tuition costs, median income, ability to attract Ph.D.'s, and bond rating, as he did in January's "State of the State" address. Similarly, Eberly says O'Malley's recent legislative accomplishments project very well onto the national stage.

"He went through a period of a couple of years where he was grounded to an extent; unable to get his agenda [wind power, gambling, gas tax, death penalty] through," Eberly says. "But after November, if I'm Martin O'Malley, I'm online right now looking at good prices on campaign buses. They won't get any cheaper. He had a night that I don't think he could've imagined and that sets him up perfectly for a primary contest in four years."

And O'Malley's seizing an opportunity in the current legislative session to add to his primary credentials. With a mountain of newfound political capital in hand, he's pushing again for offshore wind power and a death penalty repeal, as well as record school funding, stricter gun-control legislation, and some form of revenue for transportation infrastructure—if not his original plan to increase the gas tax, which didn't go anywhere last year. Some of these proposals he will very likely succeed in signing into law.

Which isn't to say that O'Malley doesn't face enormous hurdles in a campaign.

Maryland's a small state, which hurts in terms of pulling together a network and a donor list. He possesses some national-security experience, via the Port of Baltimore, but doesn't have foreign policy or military experience. Clinton, Biden, and Cuomo, who has also put a solid Democratic resumé together in New York, all have vastly greater name recognition. There's also a good chance Democratic party leaders will quickly fall in line behind Hillary Clinton, if she enters, given her gravitas, and the opportunity to elect the first woman president. With her age, 69 on election day in 2016, and recent health issues, however, a Clinton campaign is not as certain as it once was.

So what else hasn't O'Malley done? He hasn't written a book, for example, that can take him on a tour of primary states after his term ends in 2014. (He seems to recognize this traditional step in the campaign process, handing a reporter a stack of favorite speeches in lieu of a book, which, he says, he has been "too busy" to write.) He'll also need to line up a job after this term, whether it's a position at a university, law firm, think tank, or the Democratic Party leadership. "He'll need a base," Glendening says. "It hurt [Mitt] Romney that he was seen as only running for president. "Not to mention," Glendening adds with a laugh, "he's got all those kids who will be looking at colleges."

O'Malley rarely communicates that he is someone who "feels their pain" the way Bill Clinton did.

O'Malley also hasn't displayed Obama's soaring oratory skills nor Bill Clinton's Southern affability from the podium. Of course, Clinton, another bright, ambitious, small-state governor, didn't have a problem overcoming a speech that flopped on the floor of the DNC. However, Bill Clinton's more natural empathy always came across in smaller settings and, obviously, he grew into a master at articulating policy and delivering the televised address. O'Malley, by comparison—with his well-coiffed hair, preacher curl biceps, measured body language—may be as sympathetic to the problems of others, but rarely communicates that he is someone who "feels their pain" the way Bill Clinton did.

In fact, O'Malley, who volunteers that while he's never taken a personality test, he's sure he'd register as an introvert—"I enjoy alone time to sit with my guitar, or read"—actually appears most genuine in public when his old temper rises, though it flashes less than it used to. Like when he refers to "David Simon's whinings about Baltimore," which he takes personally, and "the 'black ops' that were the hallmark of all of Gov. Ehrlich's campaigns." (An Ehrlich aide was fired after spreading rumors that O'Malley was having an affair.)

Still, Towson University scholar Martha Kumar, author of Managing the President's Message: The White House Communications Operation, believes O'Malley has the time to get better at delivering key speeches. "One of the important things about the presidential campaign, is the length," Kumar says. "There is a real opportunity to learn and listen to people's problems in different regions across the country," and to incorporate that experience into better messaging.

The bottom line, says Gary Hart, who should know, is that it's impossible to know who will catch fire in each primary season and who will flame out, and why.

"Nobody knows," Hart says. "If I had the answer to that question, I'd be a wealthy man. People say 'charisma,' but that's hard to define. Sometimes it's a generation thing, and that's a factor to look at when you consider Clinton and Biden. They may be well known, but their time may have passed. I would expect Gov. O'Malley to test the waters a lot in the next three years."

Hart adds that a presidential campaign is unique because of its scale. "It's not like running 50 [individual] state races," Hart says. "The key for the governor will be his ability to discuss three things: One, the U.S. economy, two, the role of the U.S. in the world; and three, national security. And he'll talk about his record in Baltimore, in Maryland, and the role of education, the role of infrastructure, and issues like climate change."

Hart's advice for O'Malley, who, hasn't sat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, for example, is "to take a lot of trips and find out what's going on in the Middle East, Europe, and the Far East."

Mfume, who served five terms in Congress rather than campaigning for mayor, laughs good-naturedly when it's suggested that by deciding not to run for mayor in 1999, he may have unwittingly launched the career of a president. But he also says he relates to O'Malley's political journey.

"It's frustrating being a member of the City Council—sometimes you feel like you're banging your head against the wall," says Mfume, whose eight-year council term preceded O'Malley's by just a few years. "I understand it [O'Malley's consideration of giving up his council seat]. In fact, I was on my way to law school when [former Congressman] Parren Mitchell called me and said he was retiring and that I should run."

Mfume, who says that he encouraged O'Malley to run for mayor, also believes the former Northeast councilman has what it takes to make a compelling bid for the highest office in the land—and all that entails.

"I've been around long enough to say this," Mfume says. "If you really want to do something, you have to get a buzz going among Democratic Party activists and it's very possible he could do that. . . . He's smart enough, wise enough, and experienced enough to navigate those waters, as others [potential Democratic nominees] launch their own ships."

When asked if he's willing to declare support for an O'Malley candidacy, Mfume hedges. Just a bit.

"I'll wait until I get that call from the Governor," he says. "But I think you know how I feel."