ANNAPOLIS – Historians can recall few Maryland governors who met one-on-one with foreign heads of state who were here on official business — and none who met as “old acquaintances.”
But that is what Gov. Martin O’Malley and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said they were doing Tuesday over lunch at the governor’s mansion in Annapolis, while Olmert was in town for a Middle East peace conference at the nearby Naval Academy.
“This is a relationship that has been going on for about 10 years,” said Art Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council.
He said then-Baltimore Mayor O’Malley visited Jerusalem in 2001, when Olmert was mayor of that city. Olmert then visited O’Malley in Baltimore in 2005.
While they talked mayoral and other business in their previous meetings, aides said that Tuesday’s lunch was solely a social occasion.
“It was a meeting of old acquaintances,” said Christine Hansen, press secretary for O’Malley. “They had lunch and they talked.”
But O’Malley may have had some business in mind when he planned the lunch, said Barry Rascovar, communications consultant and political commentator.
“Clearly, O’Malley cannot play a role in the Middle East peace process. But Olmert certainly can play a role in O’Malley’s future political ambitions,” Rascovar said.
He noted that if O’Malley wanted to make a run for U.S. Senate or seek a Cabinet position in the White House, a connection with Olmert could improve his prospects.
“In all those scenarios, being seen as a friend of Israel and a visible friend of Israel could be very important,” Rascovar said. “And for O’Malley, this meeting will have a very positive impact on his ability to raise funds in the Jewish community.”
Abramson agreed that Jewish voters “would look favorably upon” O’Malley’s meeting with Olmert. But he did not think that was the main reason the governor extended a lunch invitation.
“If Gordon Brown, the prime minister of England, came and the governor had a prior relationship with Brown, he would have done the same thing,” Abramson said. “The key to the whole thing is a prior relationship.”
Relationship or not, that a prime minister would meet with O’Malley at all is noteworthy, said Mimi Calver, director of exhibits and artistic property at the Maryland State Archives.
“There have been interesting foreigners who have come,” Calver said. “But they weren’t heads of state.”
They range from the Marquis de Lafayette’s visit with the governor in 1824, while on a return tour of the United States, to a 1984 visit by the duke and duchess of Kent in recognition of Maryland Day.
Calver said the only other heads of state to dine with Maryland governors were Americans: President Franklin Roosevelt in September 1938 and President William Howard Taft in June 1912.
Anne Garside, director of communications for the Maryland Historical Society, said that when governors do entertain visiting heads of state, they typically do so “on a social-ceremonial level,” and not on a personal level.
“It’s different because with a lot of ceremonial visits, the governor doesn’t necessarily know the head of state,” she said.
Garside found Tuesday’s visit all the more noteworthy because Olmert made time to see the governor while in Annapolis on important state business.
“It may be the first time where the prime minister has come strictly on what is very much a working visit,” she said.
The queen of England visited Maryland’s governors in 1957 and again in 2007 — in both cases, while en route to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of the Jamestown colony in Virginia. The royal family of Luxembourg visited the governor in July 1940, but as refugees fleeing the occupying army of Nazi Germany.
In none of those instances did the visiting royalty and the governor have a previous history.
“Understandably, (Tuesday’s meeting) was a more private, more personal gesture, because he knows him as a friend,” Garside said. “And so it wasn’t a state ceremonial lunch. It was more a personal lunch.”