O'Malley did his job — on and off stage

Gov. Martin O'Malley did his job Tuesday night in Charlotte.

He fired up the party faithful with a call and response: "Forward, Not Back." He hit the Republican nominee hard on his Swiss bank accounts — reinforcing a campaign message that Mitt Romney isn't like the rest of middle class America. And he gave an enthusiastic, high-volume endorsement of President Barack Obama — along with a little Maryland history thrown in for good measure.

Governor O'Malley got the crowd revved up to reach even greater heights during the speeches by San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro and First Lady Michelle Obama. And at the end of the night, his nine minutes on stage received mixed reviews.

But to someone who has known Martin O'Malley for a long time, what is more noteworthy than those fleeting minutes on our TV screens is how and why he got there.

Sometimes, because his hobby is music not golf, Martin O'Malley gets pegged as a performer. But the truth is he works harder than anyone else. He is willing take risks and spend political capital. And he has an uncommon ability to seize opportunities that come his way. That's why he was speaking at 10 p.m. Tuesday night.

Here are a few examples of what I mean:

Right away when he became mayor, Mr. O'Malley used the goodwill his victory had earned to raise police salaries by 33 percent — to make it clear that while he was asking a lot from officers, their work would be appreciated. There were protests as he cut other spending — and closed firehouses — but he knew what he wanted to accomplish.

Within a few months of his election to the governor's office, he called a special legislative session to raise revenue to pay for an historic education initiative the Maryland General Assembly had approved but not funded. The votes weren't there when he called the session, but they were when the tallies came in — because he kept working until the last vote.

And when his peers chose him to chair the Democratic Governors Association (DGA), it was mostly known as a sleepy backwater that hadn't produced a national leader since Bill Clinton. Govs. Jack Markell, Joe Manchin and Brian Schweitzer are effective public servants, but they aren't exactly household names — and neither was Parris Glendening, the last Maryland governor to hold the post.

Martin O'Malley put the DGA back on the map — and America's Democratic governors on the frontline of policy debates — in a way that it hadn't been in years. He saw the opportunity that the organization provided to advance a political and policy agenda, and he did the work necessary to seize it.

So while pundits will focus on the more than 20 million viewers who caught last night's speech, or the 36 million Democrats who voted in the last contested presidential primary in 2008, what will determine Martin O'Malley's future — or anyone else who aspires to lead — is what goes on when the camera isn't running.

Not many people beyond their friends and families recall that Mark Warner and Rudy Giuliani gave the keynote speeches at their parties' respective conventions in 2008. 1996 keynoters Susan Molinari and Evan Bayh — both of whom are out of politics — are further proof that getting a high profile speaking gig is no predictor of future political glory.

But the relentlessness that comes from seeing a treasured policy goal go down in defeat and fighting to get it done next year — or maybe in Martin O'Malley's case, losing a state Senate election by 44 votes when he was 27 years old — is what determines who rises to the top in public service.

Speeches are nice. But what matters is how you do the job you have — as governor, mayor or legislator. It's whether you seize the opportunities before you — to do good, for the right reasons. And it's whether you show up to work the next day when the lights are turned off and arena is empty — like Mr. O'Malley did Wednesday morning, making the rounds in Charlotte and pushing Democrats to do more as November approaches.

For Martin O'Malley — and many of the other men and women on stage — what looked like a few minutes on TV to us actually represented years of effort. And the work isn't done yet.

Steve Kearney is a principal at Kearney O'Doherty Public Affairs in Baltimore. He formerly served as communications director in Martin O'Malley's administrations as mayor and governor. His email is sk@kopublicaffairs.com.