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When 'Morally Bankrupt' Means Just Fine

Mayor Martin O'Malley had a principled position on slots. Legalized gambling might work to buck up Maryland's ailing horse industry, but slots, he said in 2005, are "a pretty morally bankrupt way" to fund education.

Now, Gov. Martin O'Malley proposes to open slots palaces across the state to generate hundreds of millions of dollars for, um, education.

A change of heart? Not really, the governor tells me: "I just don't see how I can ask the legislators to compromise if I'm not willing to do so myself."

As mayor of Baltimore, O'Malley had a principled position on gay marriage. It's "something I strongly believe in," he wrote to a constituent in 2004. In a TV interview that year, he said: "Churches will certainly have different views. And that certainly is their right, and no one should infringe on that. But ..... I'm not opposed to civil marriages."

Now, as governor, O'Malley opposes gay marriage and instead supports civil unions. After last week's state Court of Appeals ruling rejecting gay marriage, O'Malley said that "as we move forward, those of us with the responsibility of passing and enforcing laws have an obligation to protect the rights of all individuals equally, without telling any faith how to define its sacraments."

Another flip-flop? No, O'Malley tells me. "There are people who prefer that people in public life use the word 'marriage,' but I do try to use the term 'civil unions.'."

But those are not synonyms, I reply. Doesn't the fact that you used to favor civil marriage and now speak only of civil unions represent a new position? "That might be some evolution," the governor allows.

Okay, so a politician flip-flops on two sensitive issues. Wake me when you have some real news, right?

Except that O'Malley, more than almost any other politician these days, rose to power on his soaring rhetoric about government's obligations to the poor and others who have been left out. In an age when pols speak mostly in pre-masticated, focus-grouped slogans, O'Malley delivers elegant paragraphs laced with poetry and Scripture. He is, almost uniquely in elective politics, a man of the word.

So when those words turn out to be slippery, it matters more than with the other guys. Yes, O'Malley is held to a higher standard, unfair as that might be.

It matters that candidate O'Malley ripped then-Gov. Bob Ehrlich over the same slots prescription that Gov. O'Malley now endorses: Ehrlich, he said on the campaign trail, "wants a slot in every pot and a slot in every garage. I think slot machines should be used only to pay workers with jobs involved with racing."

Now, O'Malley says slots should prop up the failing horse industry, balance the budget and pay for schools and colleges.

The difference, he says, is that his Republican predecessor tried to sell slots as a silver bullet in lieu of tax increases, whereas the Democrat uses slots "as one component of a plan that calls for all of us to pay more in taxes."

When Lisa Polyak, a plaintiff in the gay marriage test case, heard Mayor O'Malley spell out his support for the concept at a meeting in 2004, she spelled out the differences between marriage and civil union and asked if he could really commit to marriage.

"'Yeah, I think I can do that,'" he replied, Polyak says.

She then wrote to the mayor to get his position on paper. O'Malley came back with an e-mail: "I'm just supporting something I strongly believe in." Again in 2005, O'Malley wrote Polyak, assuring her that "I do stand by my earlier comments."

Now that he has changed gears, "I find him in this instance to be just completely dishonest," says Polyak, who supported O'Malley for governor. "His flowery language notwithstanding, we tend to invest heavily in anyone who supports us at all. But when we have a sense that on a personal level, a politician really does get it, and then they set that aside as a political calculation, that's a heartbreaking thing."

The governor says: "I certainly understand the hurt and anger and outrage that many people" -- O'Malley studiously avoids the word "gay" -- "feel after the Court of Appeals decision, and that anger may be directed to public officials. But I'm open and willing to work with people of good faith to find a way toward equal protection under the law."

The official line in Annapolis is that O'Malley never meant to endorse "civil marriage," that by that phrase, he meant civil unions. "When he said that, the language was still evolving," says spokesman Rick Abbruzzese. "It's not like civil marriage is a term people use all the time."

Abbruzzese says O'Malley will push for civil unions and notes that lawmakers will consider a bill in January sponsored by Dels. Victor Ramirez (D-Prince George's) and Ben Barnes (D-Anne Arundel). But that bill proposes to legalize gay marriage, not civil unions. And Barnes says "it's important to call it civil marriage because it includes language assuring that no clergy will be required to perform anything that may be against the tenets of their religion."

Would that assurance take care of O'Malley's concern about not offending citizens whose religion rejects same-sex marriage? "It probably does," the governor says, and then he repeats that he favors civil unions.

Bottom line: Words matter, especially for a politician who's built his career on his ability to inspire.

"Believe," said the billboards Mayor O'Malley erected in Baltimore to instill hope in a dying city.

It'd be a shame if voters watching Gov. O'Malley had to conclude that they just don't know what to believe.

By Marc Fisher |  September 27, 2007; 7:12 AM ET
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Posted by: Me | September 27, 2007 9:57 AM

Dems are liars who will say anything to get elected. Warner, Kaine and in MD O'Malley. They all campaigned and either said explicitly or wordsmithed implications against raising taxes and as soon as they were inaugurated hardly got through the inaguration speech before they were championing tax increases.

Posted by: Stick | September 27, 2007 10:48 AM

Ummmm...he's a politician. Therefore, by definition, he speaks out of both sides of his mouth. Why should anyone find this surprising?

Posted by: cb | September 27, 2007 10:59 AM

Marc!!! Surely you are not suggesting that O'Malley lied to get elected!!! You do realize he is a Democrat, right? Isn't lying something the evil right-wing has exclusive rights to?

Gov. Bob Ehrlich may have been a Republican, but he told everybody the truth during the election.

Slots? Don't play us for fools. O'Malley was against slots because Ehrlich was trying to do it. No other reason. He wants the "credit" for himself and was willing to destroy the state economically to get it. Ehrlich wouldn't raise taxes to balance the budget so he cut spending. And the do-nothings that wanted something-for-nothing voted him out because they had to work for a living.

Maybe the next time you speak with O'Malley you can ask him where that $900 million surplus went that was in the state coffers when Gov Ehrlich left office.

It is kinda curious how this deficit happened. Try looking at the dollar difference's between Ehrlich's last budget and O'Malley's first budget. When you spend the surplus in one year without any defined way to replenish that money, you have to do one of two things to avoid a deficit: (1) Cut the budget back to what it was, (2) raise revenues - taxes.

Looks like tax-and-spend will be the chosen solution. Something for EVERYBODY to be aware of for the next election.

"It'd be a shame if voters watching Gov. O'Malley had to conclude that they just don't know what to believe."

Get used to it, for the next three years at least. I can see he is lying to us ... his mouth is moving.

Posted by: SoMD | September 27, 2007 12:14 PM

Think Bigger.

Posted by: Joe D | September 27, 2007 3:46 PM

The phrase "honest politician" is an oxymoron. Neither the Left nor the Right have exclusive claim to the appellation "liars." They are all crooked to one degree or another. The only president we have ever had that may contradict this was Jimmy Carter, and I'm sure that plenty of you have reasons to include him, too (I just can't think of any at the moment)!

Posted by: Stephen | September 27, 2007 5:33 PM

... or maybe "Honest Abe" Lincoln (George Washington? Nah ...).

Posted by: Stephen | September 27, 2007 5:34 PM

I killed myself going door to door for this guy. Now it turns out that he stands for nothing and is already suckling at the Special Interest Teat with Mike Miller. As much as I hated Ehrlich, at least I expected him to be a sleazebag. Martin, how could you do this to us??

Posted by: DisBELIEVE-ing O'Malley Supporter | September 27, 2007 7:58 PM

Marc, who tinkled in your Corn Flakes this morning? Your article rants like a little kid who couldn't find his prize.

Posted by: Try Again Later | September 27, 2007 9:43 PM

I just have to reply with your chat comment that you see nothing wrong with jaywalking. Please repeat that loudly the next time someone jaywalks and gets killed in Cleveland Park or anywhere else in the city...

Posted by: One | September 28, 2007 12:08 AM

Wish I could have been present when you did that interview with O'Malley, Marc. I would have told him that his pre-election speeches sounded like those of Padraig Pearse or James Connolly, but once he got elected, he turned into Michael Collins.

(For the record, Pearse and Connolly were executed following the Dublin Easter Rising against British rule in 1916. Collins was the Irish rebel who, in negotiating with Britain, accepted the partition of Ireland and thereby guaranteed another 80 plus years of off and on sectarian bloodshed in Northern Ireland.)

Posted by: Jack | September 28, 2007 9:35 AM

Stick wrote: "Dems are liars who will say anything to get elected." Hey Stick, try to avoid making blanket statements like that. Does the name Mitt Romney mean nothing to you?

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