He comes bounding out of the Charleston Airport terminal looking trim, sharp and ready. As the early morning sun hits his face, he squints his eyes. He gazes across the expansive sidewalk, jumbled with people, baggage and taxis. He’s searching for a familiar face near a waiting car.
At first glance, he looks like any other successful business guy in the prime of his life, eager to get to his first stop and get the next deal done. But this guy is different. He’s a former governor and his next deal is running for president of the United States.
Let me say right up front: He’s my guy.
I first met Martin more than 30 years ago, when he was an extremely eager college-dropout volunteer and I was research director for the 1984 Gary Hart campaign for president. Even then, you knew this kid had it. It wasn’t clear what it was, but you knew he had a lot of it.
There was no one who came into the office earlier, stayed later or worked harder in between. Sometimes he’d wear the same clothes several days in a row because he would sleep on a sofa in the campaign headquarters, and he was too busy to go home, take a shower and change clothes.
His only rare diversion was to entertain us all with a few Irish ballads or rock-and-roll songs on his guitar. He was a good musician and all the young girl volunteers thought he was cute.
He was a golden boy — smart, talented and, most of all, driven.
And that drive took him a long way. He worked his way through college and law school (mostly by playing music in bars), became a prosecutor, then city councilman and then two-term mayor of Baltimore. While it’s pretty amazing that this white, proud Irish Catholic could get elected mayor in an overwhelmingly African-American city, what’s more amazing is that he was re-elected with virtually no opposition.
He then went on to knock off an incumbent Republican governor and serve two highly successful terms. There’s a lot that could be said of his two terms as governor, but for me, the fact that Maryland’s schools were rated best in the country five years in a row pretty much says it all.
Now to the hardcore politics.
As he’s only registering at a few percent in any poll, most rational folks would think his quest for the presidency borders somewhere between fantasy and delusion. Maybe.
But politicians like O’Malley are a strange and unique breed; they live on self-generated energy and optimism. They seize on the smallest bit of good news or random words of encouragement from a stranger on the street.
It becomes the fuel to drive them on to the next stop, to make the next fundraising call with enthusiasm and to joyfully give the next speech like it is a new inspiration coming to them for the first time — never mind that it’s the same speech they have given hundreds of times before.
And the political landscape is changing. Two weeks ago there were five Democrats standing on CNN’s debate stage and the shadow of Joe Biden’s possible candidacy loomed over all. But now, at the all-important Jefferson Jackson Democratic Party dinner in Iowa this weekend, there will be only three — a 74-year-old socialist and a well-known and well-worn former first lady…and O’Malley.
Although Bernie’s rhetoric about the 1 percent warms the hearts of many Democrats, I would contend those who think he can actually get elected president are the ones who are delusional. As for Hillary, sure, she is light-years ahead in the polls, has all the right politicians’ endorsements and has more money than God.
But she also has baggage — in fact, she and Bill have more baggage than Delta Airlines. And we are all standing by the baggage chute waiting to see what’s going to come out next. We don’t know what it will be, but we know something is coming.
And the history of Democratic presidential primaries is that every candidate gets their “moment” — that one instant when they get a break, when they have an opening, when the rocket fuse is lit. For most, the moment is fleeting — it doesn’t last, the window closes and the fuse on the rocket fizzles.
But sometimes, ever so rarely….
And that’s the moment that O’Malley is playing for — that one moment when all is possible.
It’s the moment that he first started to dream about for himself 30 years ago in the dirty, dank campaign headquarters over a porno theater on Seventh Street in Washington, D.C., that was the Hart headquarters.
It’s the moment that he will have earned by the years of his hard work, his gritty determination to make the right tough decisions as mayor and governor, the countless late nights in nameless airports and the all-too-many missed moments with his four small children.
So where does all this leave O’Malley? Now, he’s standing there on the stage, one of three. He has a head full of good ideas and heart full of passion to make the American dream real for everyone.
But the real question is whether the American dream is real for Martin O’Malley.
Is this still a country where a middle-class kid with a burning commitment to make a difference, who became a successful mayor and governor, who has done all the right things and played by all the rules — can become president of the United States?
Martin O’Malley believes the American dream is still alive — and I do too.
Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and president of the S.C. New Democrats, an independent reform group started by former Gov Richard Riley. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.