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Tuesday 16 September 2014

Martin O'Malley's March: The race for the White House

He's the Irish-American politician with the Springsteen Touch who is tipped to push past Hillary Clinton in the race for the White House. Joe O'Shea looks at the rise and rise of Baltimore's Martin O'Malley

Joe O'Shea

Published 10/08/2014 | 02:30

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Marty O'Malley
Martin O'Malley
Hillary Clinton has yet to announce whether she'll run for president again

If, as a growing number of US pundits believe, Martin 
O'Malley has a real shot at the White House in 2016, musician Leo Moran and his Sawdoctors may be in the market for new tuxedos.

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O'Malley, the two-term Governor of the US state of Maryland, is increasingly being talked up as the most credible challenger to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination for President.

Young, charismatic and the poster boy for a new generation of Democrats seeking a break from the Clinton-Obama years, O'Malley is, as the name would suggest, of Irish descent.

But while US politicians such as Ronald Regan and Barack Obama have made a strong play of their pretty tenuous Irish roots, O'Malley is very much the real deal.

Some have looked at the 51-year-old's political philosophy and charisma and labelled him the 21st Century John F Kennedy. However, the guitar-slinging, bar-band playing governor with blue-collar touch leans more towards Bruce Springsteen than JFK.

A devout, daily mass-going Catholic, he fronts his own Celtic Rock band, called O'Malley's March, regularly gigged in local Irish bars and invited The Sawdoctors to play at both his inaugural balls. O'Malley even got up and jammed with the Tuam band at the last one.

Which is why The Sawdoctor's Leo Moran could conceivably be booked for the biggest gig of his life in Washington DC in January, 2017.

"A gig in the White House would be mad, but that's maybe a bit down the road yet," says Leo.

"Martin used to come to our gigs when we played around Maryland, we got to know him and he would come up on stage and sing a few songs with us. The Green And Red of Mayo would be one of his favourites.

"When he became Governor, and we were playing in Annapolis, he would invite us over to the Governor's mansion for dinner. And he has visited us in Tuam a couple of times, he loves coming to Ireland."

"He's great company, very lively. Martin's smart, just a great, easy-going guy. With loads of charisma".

O'Malley's great grandfather emigrated to the US from the Maam Valley area on the Galway-Mayo border in the early 1870s and his father was in the US air force in World War II.

A lawyer, the guy known as "Marty" to everybody in Baltimore was an assistant State's Attorney for the city before beginning his steady rise up the political ladder in the early 90s.

This week, The Washington Post, CNN and others flagged O'Malley as a credible challenger to Hillary Clinton after the Governor said he was "seriously considering" a challenge to the former Secretary of State.

Clinton has been portrayed as unbeatable as far as securing the Democratic nomination is concerned. However, there are growing voices within her own party calling for a challenger to emerge. Some back Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren from the left-wing of the party. Prominent members of the Kennedy clan, in an echo of their early support for the upstart of Barack Obama against Hillary in 2008, have been urging Warren to get into the fight.

Clinton is regarded by many in her party of being an elitist, too close to Wall Street, not liberal enough or too long at the centre of power in Washington. The danger for her now is that another, fresh-faced candidate emerges to beat her to the nomination as Obama did in 2008. And many believe that Martin O'Malley could be that dark horse.

His record as Mayor of Baltimore and then state Governor has seen him take plenty of risks, on everything from legalising same-sex marriage and medical marijuana to pushing for gun control and the repeal of the death penalty.

However, O'Malley has also proved to be very strong on law and order issues, very pro-business and tough on unions. When he inherited a $1.7bn deficit as Governor, he pushed through $9.5bn in budget cuts. It was an austerity programme that made many howl, but O'Malley boosted jobs (especially in the tech sector) and invested record sums in education to make Maryland's public schools the top-ranked in the US for five years in a row.

And, as a successful Irish-American politician in a city with a 63pc African-American population, O'Malley has proved he can cross the racial and cultural divides that continue to be a major factor in American politics.

The Maryland Governor also has the youth factor going for him. He may be 51, but he maintains a punishing gym schedule. Some newspapers in Baltimore have dubbed him "Muscles O'Malley" and made jokey comparisons with another (now ex) Governor, California's Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The Governor regularly finds excuses to take his shirt off, Vladimir Putin-style, usually for the annual December Polar Bear Swim in Baltimore.

This youthful, Man Of Action image is another factor in the increasing buzz about his future on the national stage in US politics. The Gov is also a beer drinker, which answers the old "Is this a politician you could have a beer with?" question.

As many US pundits have pointed out, O'Malley ticks a lot of boxes. He is a man of faith, has the kind of blue collar, beer-drinking, rock n' roll-loving image that goes across well with working class males but also the track record as a reformer and job creator that will play with middle-class voters. The fact that he is young, athletic and has bags of charisma also works for him.

Wicklow TD Andrew Doyle knows Martin O'Malley well. The Fine Gael Deputy has a brother, Donal, who ran an Irish bar in Baltimore up until recently and has seen Martin O'Malley at work and play.

"When my brother opened his bar, Martin played in it with his band," says the TD.

"The last time I saw him in the States, he was having his annual St Patrick's Day reception in the Governor's mansion in Annapolis. I went in and Martin was there in t-shirt and jeans, belting out songs from the stage".

Deputy Doyle believes O'Malley to be a smart, charismatic and innovative politician, a progressive thinker who, for instance, devised urban renewal strategies for the drug-blighted Baltimore of the early noughties which are now being copied in other cities around the world, including Paris.

"Martin is a great political operator, he has proved he can work with the African-American and other communities, and he has been very innovative as far as issues like law and order and attracting investment to Maryland are concerned. He's definitely not your old-school Irish-American politician," says Doyle.

However, there are still hints of the bruiser about O'Malley. The Wicklow TD recounts a meeting of an Irish-American political organisation where O'Malley was being pushed to the side by the security team around the then Governor, the man he would shortly unseat.

"He wasn't long in pushing his way back into the centre of things," says Doyle.

"O'Malley's definitely not the type of guy you could push around. I'd say that if he needs to get a little aggressive, in that sense, he's not afraid to do so. There's definitely a tough streak in him. And of course you need that in politics".

The big question now is if O'Malley can get the backing - and the dollars - to run the effective campaign that will turn him from a possible into a definite challenger for the Democratic nomination. He has to get the backing of the party faithful, and the unions and big financial backers to fill his war chest.

"With a presidential run, he's very capable," says Doyle. "And he ticks a lot of the boxes. But it's about luck and timing.

"When I was over there a few years ago, prior to Obama getting the nomination, everybody was saying Hillary Clinton was going to have no problem and the next ticket would be the Two O's, Obama and O'Malley.

"But of course it didn't work out like that. So you never know. Martin O'Malley could be the one who comes up on the rail, the surprise package. But if you know him, it wouldn't be that much of a surprise," added Doyle.

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