Easy street for Maryland's governor on home turf canvass


Seán Flynnjoins Martin O’Malley on the gubernatorial campaign trail in Bethesda, Maryland

THE CLOCK has nudged past 8pm but the streets of Bethesda are still bathed in autumn sunshine as the governor’s bulky SUV pulls up beside the Barnes and Noble book store.

Governor Martin O’Malley bounces out of the jeep, adjusts his tie and walks into a welcoming sea of well-wishers.

O’Malley, governor of Maryland, is fighting to retain his post against the Republican Robert Ehrlich, whom he unseated in 2006.

He remains ahead in the polls but the tentative, uncertain pace of economic recovery has put Democrats on the back foot.

The Obama factor is also key; Ehrlich is courting moderate Democrats and others already disillusioned by the president’s “failure” to deliver on those big promises of change, hope and better times.

But tonight O’Malley, great-grandson of Irish emigrants, is comfortable on his home turf.

Bethesda is one of the most prosperous suburbs in Maryland with average income north (as they say here) of $100,000, about €75,000. Many of the locals appear to work for the “administration”, seven miles down the road in Washington DC. Most appear insulated from the cold winds of recession. As we pass the huge Apple store at 9pm on a Tuesday night, there are long lines waiting to pay $700 for an iPad. Locals proudly tell you that Bethesda has the highest level of gym membership and the largest number of restaurants per head of population across the entire US.

Around here the tree-lined avenues and big rambling houses have a picture-perfect quality; this is the east coast equivalent of Wisteria Lane.

O’Malley, with his athletic stride and telegenic looks, fits in well with the locals.

Critics snipe that he can be difficult to warm to “despite his rock star shtick and Irish good looks”. But for this Irish observer, he did a good job on the canvass: smooth but not oily, friendly but not intrusive.

In truth, this is easy street for O’Malley. Most of the punters request a photo with the governor on their iPhones. No one raises faraway issues like unemployment, recession and foreclosure.

The most animated exchange is with a young mother who wants better, more organic stuff in the school lunch box.

There is a saying around these parts that any successful politician must look after the three Is – the Irish, Italians and Israelis.

O’Malley is big on his Irish roots. One of his closest advisers and the director of the governor’s office is Colm O’Comartun, a UCD graduate.

The governor once played in a Celtic rock band, the Shannon Tide. And in the Rí Rá pub in downtown Bethesda, he downs the Guinness with aplomb.

But the Irish factor scarcely registered on this canvass, or across the campaign.

The average voter has a positive impression of Ireland and the Irish – a definite plus – but otherwise Irishness per se does not deliver a huge political dividend, says O’Malley.

The governor with the Irish name appears to be in decent shape for the contest on November 2nd.

Traditionally, the Democrats have been dominant in Maryland. When he won in 2002, Ehrlich was the first Republican governor of the state in 36 years.

O’Malley’s political progress owes much to his acknowledged success as mayor of Baltimore for six years. Today Baltimore is a different place from the crime-infested ghetto captured so vividly in The Wire. Vastly increased resources for drug treatment facilities and a sharper policing focus have delivered a 40 per cent drop in violent crime. O’Malley was named one of America’s five best mayors by Timemagazine.

As governor, O’Malley’s big idea has been to raise taxes to fund education and public services. Maryland has the highest-ranked public school system in the United States.

O’Malley was last month given America’s Greatest Education Governor Award by the US National Education Association.

The citation praised his strong defence of public education and the great strides in improving school funding, expanding school programmes, and taking the needs of the child into account in education policy decisions.

Republicans, predictably, don’t view O’Malley’s record with the same enthusiasm.

One Republican tweet concludes: “A left-wing organisation gives a made-up award in order to prop up a Democrat in trouble? Well, knock me over with a feather.”

O’Malley is also being bashed by the Republicans for those tax increases, and is accused of stifling economic recovery.

Ehrlich says he will roll back a 20 per cent increase in the state sales tax. He has also warned that O’Malley, if re-elected, would introduce 43 new taxes on everything from gym membership to car maintenance.

But O’Malley will be a tough nut to crack. The strong record on crime and education may be his calling card. But his success in cutting 4,000 state posts while maintaining fiscal responsibility is much admired.

In the end, the election will probably be decided by the 600,000 or so registered independents in the state.

O’Malley is currently just ahead in the polls. The governor says he is not looking beyond next month’s election – but he has the looks, the philosophy and the Irish background of a former US president.

On his upbringing in Bethesda, he recounts: “So you’d come in from the lily-white suburbs, and you’d see DC looming up in front of you, and then when we took that left onto I Street, you’d walk by the morning line of homeless and poor and jobless men who were waiting in line at Fr Horace McKenna’s, a Jesuit priest who ministered to the poor from the church next to the school.

“That was not lost to many of us walking into school by that line every day, how lucky we were, how much we had.”