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My Turn: O’Malley and the poetry of greater purpose

Last modified: 7/1/2015 12:22:14 AM
Buses hydroplane through a torrential downpour; lightning streaks the green leafy expanses of the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Just a day prior, I stood at the Baltimore airport and watched scenes of terrorist attacks on three continents: a beheading, a bombed mosque, a devastated resort. A new resourceful enemy rises from ashes of foreign policy misadventures.

I overhear the black workers at the rental car desk reflect on the president’s speech in Charleston, how he had sung “Amazing Grace.” Not one, but two glassy-eyed and homeless men wait for me at the curb of my hotel. One’s sign says, “Homeless with HIV, please help.” It is hard not to be discouraged at home and abroad with such storm clouds.

The buses stop at a house on a river where Gov. Martin O’Malley is having dinner with the friends of a long career. Green plastic tablecloths and cheap fold-up chairs crowd under a tent. Rain stops. Martin joyfully anticipates the fight ahead; gives thanks. Then he surprises with a poem, “These Chesapeake Men” – about fishers who selflessly brave the storm-tossed sea for those they love.

Shades of Robert Kennedy; politics and grace. With Martin, there is a poetry of greater purpose. Just the day prior, Martin gave a landmark foreign policy address, then joined the marriage celebration at the steps of the Supreme Court. A day of boldness of heart and leadership; to which he is no stranger. Passing marriage equality. Defending it at the ballot box. Fifteen years of hands-on executive experience. Data-driven governance. A Maryland DREAM Act. In a phrase, New Leadership.

Martin doesn’t need to “evolve” – he has led; never has that been more clear. On equality, terrorism, gun violence, racism, immigration, climate change, rebuilding our cities, economic rebirth – O’Malley comes out swinging.

There are big ideas and there are those who achieve them.

A man of his time

The buses rev up for the return to the hotel when the governor mischievously says with a shy grin, “Hey, want to check out the water?” We slip away and stride across the rain-drenched grass to a pale gray dock, giving no thought to our dress shoes. Martin repeats a line from the poem and sips beer from a bottle. Silver calm of after-storm light. Placid water ripples so peacefully that Martin muses about taking a paddleboard out. “It’s like flying, the water is so still.”

He says this place reminds him of the two empty lots his father owned in these parts when he was a boy. They’d explore by canoe the brackish ribbons flowing to the sea from that humble home base. Heartbroken when his father sold the property, there’s a sadness and a joy in his face when he relates this tale. “You can’t go home again,” the saying goes. I think Martin knows this. But he is consciously sacrificing this sort of peace so that others might find their home in the life of this world. That is the height of sacrifice; the firmament of true unselfish public service.

We discuss Baltimore. We agree his offering himself up – daring to try – where others would not, and the progress he made in one of the most violent and addicted cities in America was an achievement few believed possible – and he is adamant that the work he began is not done. We’ll hear a lot about our cities in this campaign.

I ask how he is holding up. His shoulders slacken, his kind green eyes scan the sliver of gold daylight left on the horizon. He speaks of the awesome burden and joy of his decision. He concedes there are mornings of doubt. But he centers himself. He prays. Martin says he could not look himself in the mirror if he didn’t dare to try. We look out over the water one last time in thoughtful silence. His tall form reflected in the ripples, an image forms in my mind of a president walking shirt-sleeved in the poorest streets of Baltimore or forcefully addressing the United Nations, equally at home in both settings; a rebuilder of cities and a champion of new leadership – on these shores, and in the world beyond.

The birthplace of Frederick Douglas; the great abolitionist, is near here. “You can paddle out to it,” Martin explains. Yet, there is no ruin to see where he was born into slavery, no great monument – just a marker in the dirt, amid rustling reeds. A reminder, our time on Earth is short. Our window for progress is fleeting. When the calling comes, answer it. Dare to try.

I am proud to support Martin O’Malley for president – a singular candidate for our momentous times.

(Jay Surdukowski is an attorney in Concord who most recently represented Gov. Maggie Hassan in her re-election campaign.)


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