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Colm O’Comartun grew up on another continent, but he’s stepping into one of Washington’s most important campaign positions.
The Irish-born O’Comartun couldn’t have known that one day he would be executive director of the Democratic Governors Association, but his love for policy and record of loyal service to Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) has him in a key role for the upcoming elections.
For the past eight years, O’Comartun has held various titles under O’Malley, but their relationship has grown to where he’s become the governor’s closest aide. Literally.
O’Comartun doesn’t shy away from the “body man” label, joking about his “clichéd utilitarian look” that often included multiple phones, a three-ring binder and “four days worth of supplies.” But to those who know him well, O’Comartun is much more than that.
“I’ve had a hard time figuring out how to tie my shoes the last couple weeks,” joked O’Malley, the new chairman of the DGA who described O’Comartun as a “traveling chief of staff.”
“He’s my link to everyone in my administration,” O’Malley explained, and he’s a “walking encyclopedia of individual elected officials and their backgrounds.”
Even though O’Comartun doesn’t have the typical profile of a political-strategist-turned-campaign-committee-leader, the Democratic governors believe he’s the right man for the job.
Colm (pronounced Col-um) O’Co-martun, 42, was born and raised in Dublin, where much of his extended family still lives.
His love of history started at a young age as he walked from his house to spend an afternoon exploring the Kilmainham Gaol, one of the largest uninhabited prisons in Europe, where revolutionaries were once kept in the early 20th century.
O’Comartun also grew up during a tumultuous time in Ireland’s history.
“There were a lot of characters and a lot of party participation,” he said of the pervasive politics in his homeland at the time. “That led to some entertainment value.”
When he decided to go to University College Dublin, it wasn’t a complete surprise since his father was head of security there and he grew up in and around the campus. O’Comartun earned undergraduate and master’s degrees from the school, with a year in Sydney sandwiched in between.
After he won a visa lottery (insert luck-of-the-Irish joke here), O’Comartun packed his bags to live and work in the United States.
His first job was working in the development office for his alma mater in Boston. That led to positions at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University (also in development), and Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government (as director of alumni programs).
When Boston College received money to help the peace process in Northern Ireland, O’Comartun was hired as director of the Irish Institute. Instead of making peace and reconciliation the goal, O’Comartun came to realize that “we were in the good-government business.”
It was a different approach to healing years of distrust.
As Northern Ireland moved toward self-governance, O’Comartun brought groups of Irish leaders (including Nationalists and Unionists) who were suspicious of each other to the United States for two weeks to visit with American leaders and learn about best practices. The discussions gave the Irish delegates a mechanism to discuss their own issues indirectly by questioning U.S. officials.
Alasdair McDonnell, a member of the U.K. Parliament for South Belfast and a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, first met O’Comartun in Boston and subsequently during a trip to O’Malley’s Baltimore. McDonnell remembered O’Comartun as a “very dynamic, professional young man.”
“Even at that stage, it was obvious he had the drive to go places,” McDonnell told Roll Call in a phone interview from Belfast.
O’Comartun and O’Malley also met through the visits. O’Comartun brought a delegation to Baltimore to meet with the newly elected white mayor of a majority-black city and connected with a man navigating his own issues of distrust with his constituency. O’Comartun also helped bring O’Malley to Northern Ireland.
When the mayor found out that O’Comartun was looking to do something more, O’Malley brought him onto his team.
O’Comartun started in the mayor’s office in 2002 as a special assistant working with the vice mayor. But he was spending more and more time with O’Malley, and their relationship grew beyond their shared heritage.
When O’Comartun starts talking about systems and the delivery of city services, the pace of his speech (and unmistakable Irish accent) accelerates.
“On economic development, he’s a policy wonk behind that accent,” according to David Dixon, O’Malley’s media consultant. But O’Comartun is also more than that.
“He’s strategic in understanding how policy works with message,” Dixon added. “He was the person who helped localize the big picture economic messages we were talking about in the campaign. He put a Maryland face on it.”
O’Comartun helped tailor television ads during the governor’s re-election race to highlight the work O’Malley had done in various media markets.
From 2006, when O’Malley defeated incumbent Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R), to their rematch last fall, O’Comartun knows what it’s like to go through a competitive race.
“He’s been around these tough campaigns. He’s seen plenty of live ammo,” said Dixon, who has worked with O’Malley since his first run for mayor in 1999.
O’Comartun has earned the trust and respect not only of O’Malley, but of the rest of the governor’s advisers.
“When we can’t communicate with the governor, he’s the guy,” said O’Malley’s longtime pollster Fred Yang. “I know when I’m talking to Colm, I’m talking to the governor. I know I’ll get an honest hearing and he’ll faithfully represent what I’m saying.”
“Colm has been an unsung but indispensable part of the team,” Yang added. “He keeps all aspects of the O’Malley world together. He is the nexus.”
Now O’Comartun is at the center of national Democratic efforts to win as many governorships as possible.
He’s not coming into the position blind. Since O’Malley has held positions in the DGA leadership for three of his first four years in office, O’Comartun has been the governor’s liaison to the committee.
“Every governor has one person,” said Nathan Daschle, the outgoing executive director of the DGA who worked in the job for four years. “Colm is it.”
“Colm has the ability to put politics and policy and message together in a way that the diverse governors in diverse states can rally around,” O’Malley said.
There are some limits to O’Comartun’s versatile service. According to O’Malley, his aide can’t sing and knows nothing about guitars, rendering him useless when it comes to the governor’s famous band O’Malley’s March.
But with his new role at the DGA, O’Comartun has enough to keep him busy.