Josh Kurtz: The Peter Principle

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

But because political calculation is now attached to every move that Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and his top lieutenants make, Maryland insiders went into analytical overdrive Thursday with the news that O’Malley’s brother Peter was jettisoning his job as chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party to become chief of staff to Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D).

Thursday was one of those days that proves just how divorced from reality political junkies are. The Peter O’Malley to City Hall news made page three of Friday’s Baltimore Sun and the back page of the Washington Post Metro section.

But it was Topic A for political insiders from one end of the state to the other. Throw in the fact that the same day, Gov. O’Malley announced that he was luring his old City Hall press wizard, Raquel Guillory, away from Attorney General Doug Gansler (D) to become his State House communications chief, and it was a feast of Hot Stove League political developments for insiders to gorge on.

It may just be that being chief of staff for Rawlings-Blake is a job that perfectly suits Peter O’Malley’s interests and talents. He was, after all, a 40-year-old man in search of a full-time job, and no one expected him to really enjoy the ceremonial functions of being state Democratic chairman, the traveling from county to county to eat rubber chicken dinners and make small talk with local party Pooh-Bah’s.

In addition to being a talented campaign operative, Peter O’Malley served his brother well as director of CitiStat when Martin O’Malley was mayor, and spent some time as chief of staff to Jim Smith during Smith’s tenure as Baltimore County executive. He knows how to do the job, and on a day-to-day, operational level – taking politics out of the picture for a minute – Rawlings-Blake is lucky to have him.

Of course, it’s impossible to take politics out of the picture for any length of time. Rawlings-Blake’s opponents, most notably, the campaign manager for Otis Rolley, who will probably prove to be her toughest challenger unless Kweisi Mfume gets in the fall primary, seized on the news as a sign of weakness. Rawlings-Blake, they fairly shouted, is clearly acknowledging that she can’t win a full term in November without the vaunted O’Malley machine propping her up.

Another school of thought says that by inking Peter O’Malley, Rawlings-Blake is already looking beyond her re-election and plotting a run for governor in 2014, when, as the line-up currently stands, the Baltimore region will be sorely underrepresented.

Both scenarios have a whiff of plausibility. But there is little sign so far that Rawlings-Blake shouldn’t be anything but the heavy favorite for re-election. And with or without Peter O’Malley on the job the fact is that she will have the O’Malley machine in her corner, and will put it to good use.

As for Rawlings-Blake’s future political plans – if she does a good job at City Hall over the next couple of years she probably deserves consideration as a gubernatorial contender, if that’s what interests her. But would she have the O’Malley’s by her side then? Remember, when Martin O’Malley tapped Anthony Brown to be his running mate, it was widely assumed that O’Malley would lend a hand to Brown’s own 2014 statewide ambitions, and some of his Baltimore supporters are already quietly boosting Brown’s putative gubernatorial candidacy.

Whether those efforts become more overt in the months ahead remains to be seen, and Martin O’Malley of course is under no obligation to directly promote his No. 2 to succeed him. Only O’Malley and Brown and the people closest to them truly know what was promised back in 2005 and what wasn’t.

When Peter O’Malley went to work for Jim Smith, it was another “Aha!” moment in Maryland politics. A lot of people assumed that Gov. O’Malley was prepping Smith to run for comptroller against Peter Franchot (D), who was quickly becoming a thorn in the governor’s side. Smith certainly toyed with the idea of running for comptroller, along with other political options, but ultimately never made the leap. But anyone who thought Peter O’Malley would be doing anything but piloting his brother’s re-election campaign, in spirit if not in name, was hopelessly naïve.

Which brings us back to his installation at City Hall, and why he bailed on the state party job. For Martin O’Malley, having his brother as state Democratic chairman was not a bad thing. But face it, Barack Obama will win Maryland big next year with or without Peter O’Malley at state party headquarters, and state Democratic leaders don’t have much else on their agenda for 2012. It doesn’t necessarily best serve Martin O’Malley’s interests to have his brother there.

But as Martin O’Malley charts his future political course, the success (or failure) of Baltimore, as much as anything, will define the political narrative of his career that he’s able to present to the nation. So sure, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake gains plenty by having Peter O’Malley at City Hall, whether she’s shoring herself up politically, plotting her next political step, or simply getting a good manager for her administration.

For the O’Malley’s, putting Peter O’Malley at Rawlings-Blake’s side is an insurance policy, and a not-so-subtle way to remind her, “Don’t screw it up!”

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at joshkurtz92@gmail.com.

Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Mapmaker, Mapmaker Make Me a Map

Two More Giants Exit the Maryland Scene

Six Degrees of William Donald Schaefer

The Lion in Winter

O’Malley’s (Coast to Coast) March

This Time It’s Personal

Seinfeld in Maryland

The First 107 Days

Team of Rivals?

Rob Garagiola’s Political Highway

Blame the Teachers!

The Nine Lives of the ICC

The Incredible Shrinking City

Paying the Fare