Did the flames and fury that ravaged West Baltimore last month reflect the fate of former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s likely presidential campaign?
O’Malley fashions himself as a no-nonsense crime fighter, but his city has not only become a national monument to urban devastation, but it is experiencing one of its worst murder sprees in years.
The former Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor is expected to announce Saturday that he’s seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. When he addresses a rally that morning in Baltimore’s Federal Hill Park, in the city’s gleaming Inner Harbor, he’ll offer a record that’s part gutsy liberal, championing gay marriage and higher minimum wages, and part tough-on-crime urban healer.
Other Democrats in the presidential race, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, don’t have that background. But they also don’t have to answer the kinds of hard questions O’Malley faces, particularly among African-Americans.
He made his reputation as the mayor who successfully reduced crime in one of the nation’s most violent cities. A centerpiece of his strategy was a “zero tolerance” policy toward any violation of the law, no matter how minute. It chilled further the already tense relationship between police and crime-ravaged communities.
“It was a miserable failure,” said the Rev. Alvin Gwynn Sr., president of the city’s Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Baltimore. “It was so lopsided; it affected minorities more than anyone else.”
The Justice Policy Institute, a nonprofit research group, found that those policies resulted in an unusually high number of arrests, “many for minor and sometimes frivolous offenses, like loitering and open container violations.”
An opponent could have an easy time ripping into O’Malley on this issue. “This is a ready-made TV ad,” said Craig Varoga, chief strategist for O’Malley’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign, now a Democratic consultant not aligned with a presidential candidate.
O’Malley has vigorously defended his urban policies, saying they were effective in reducing crime.
Under his leadership, he told the Polk County, Iowa, Democratic Party on April 10, “Baltimore went on to achieve the greatest reduction of crime of any city in America.”
O’Malley points to his expanding efforts to deal with police brutality and has noted that all over Baltimore, people were clamoring for a crackdown on crime when he took office. His supporters refer to a 2010 Baltimore Sun column that noted, “People all over the city were sold on zero tolerance. You can knock it now, but that’s how a lot of us felt 10 years ago, as Baltimore came hobbling and bloodied out of the 1990s.”
The Sun found that Baltimore’s 2000-2010 decline in “incidents of crime” was the biggest drop of any major city. O’Malley’s claims appear correct.
Times have since changed dramatically. Two days after O’Malley’s Iowa speech, Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African-American, was injured while being arrested in West Baltimore. He died a week later from damage to his spinal cord, and community outrage over the police handling of the matter sparked violent protests in late April. Fires raged. Stores were looted. Police and protesters filled the streets.
At the same time, crime in the city has been on the upswing. So far in May, the city has recorded 36 homicides, its deadliest month since December 1999, when O’Malley was sworn in as mayor.
Some see the turmoil giving O’Malley the same kind of boost he had when he ran for mayor. At the height of his zero tolerance effort, he won re-election as mayor overwhelmingly in 2003, and he went on in 2006 to win the governorship over incumbent Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich.
“He has an opportunity to turn it to his advantage,” said Doug Thornell, managing director at SKDKnickerbocker, a political consulting firm. “He can lead a discussion on how to improve opportunities in urban America.”
While O’Malley’s rally Saturday will be a psychological world away from the riot-torn Baltimore streets, “The riots there are going to be an inevitable part of the coverage of his announcement. It’s probably not a good look for him,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a website for election analysis at the University of Virginia.
O’Malley hasn’t avoided the controversy. He cut short a trip to Ireland as civil unrest gripped West Baltimore. He came home and visited neighborhood churches, helped prepare food bags and chatted with local residents.
He defended his record, noting that as mayor he never had any community leader ask for fewer police in the neighborhood.
And he wrote an op-ed for The Huffington Post, urging several steps to ease urban ills: expanded drug treatment, body cameras for law enforcement officers and “timely and standard reporting of police-involved shootings, excessive force and discourtesy complaints so that we can improve public trust for public safety.”
O’Malley starts his campaign already in a deep hole. Despite frequent trips to key early primary and caucus states, he’s barely noticed among Democratic voters. Iowa’s Loras College Poll last month had him fourth at 2.4 percent, well behind Clinton, at 57 percent.
In the University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll of Democrats from April 24 to May 3, O’Malley was tied for sixth with 1 percent. He was seen favorably by 10 percent of Democratic voters – but 58 percent didn’t know him.
“Ultimately, all of the non-Clinton Democrats need a surprising development to truly compete for the nomination – something we can’t predict right now, “ said Kondik.