Martin O’Malley formally launched his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination Saturday in the sun-drenched heart of the city he once led. But Baltimore today confronts an image far different than the one O’Malley left behind when his term as mayor ended eight years ago.
The city has been rocked by killings and riots and has become a national symbol of urban turmoil and despair.
O’Malley, 52, Saturday confronted the controversy as he has since parts of West Baltimore erupted in protest last month over the death of Freddie Gray, an African-American man who died in police custody.
Critics charged his anti-crime policies alienated that constituency. O’Malley vigorously disagreed, and spent a good chunk of his address Saturday addressing the concerns.
“For all of us who have given so much of our energies to making our city a safer, fairer, more just and more prosperous place, it was a heartbreaking night in the life of our city,” he said. “But there is something to be learned from that night, and there is something to be offered to our country from those flames.”
Baltimore’s agony, O’Malley told an audience of about 600, was “not only about race…not only about policing in America. It’s about everything it is supposed to mean to be an American.”
He talked about income inequality, poverty and how too many people have too little hope. He vowed to be their champion, to be beholden not to Wall Street but to working class people.
“Tell me how it is,” O’Malley said, “you can get pulled over for a broken tail light in our country, but if you wreck the nation’s economy you are untouchable.”
Protesters shouted dissent from nearby.
“Black men and women no longer feel safe walking around this city because of him,” said Tawanda Jones, a Baltimore teacher. Owen Anders, another teacher, said O’Malley would be a “very poor president. His current policies have helped lead to the deaths of hundreds of black Americans.”
Running to be America’s mayor is hardly a traditional path to the White House; no mayor of a major American city has gone directly to the White House. The last major political figure who tried, New York’s Rudolph Giuliani, went nowhere in 2008’s Republican primaries. President Barack Obama was a community organizer and a state senator representing a Chicago district, but never ran a city.
Big-city mayors often falter on the national stage because they deal with issues and serve constituencies that don’t mirror the demographic makeup of the nation as a whole. O’Malley remains a longshot, barely visible in Democratic presidential polls behind front-runner Hillary Clinton. Nor does he appear to have the passionate liberal following of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Baltimore’s reputation as a crime capital offers opponents an easy target, said Craig Varoga, chief strategist for O’Malley’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign.
“It’s a ready made TV ad,” Varoga said.
Others insisted O’Malley, like most savvy big city mayors, has a talent for battle. He’s fought political odds throughout his career, first as a young city councilman pledging to take tough steps to reduce the violence that seemed epidemic in some parts of the city.
He won a majority in the 1999 Democratic primary against prominent African-American opponents, then coasted to re-election four years later. In 2006, he became governor, toppling incumbent Republican Robert Ehrlich.
“He’ll have to defend his record, but he also has the opportunity to turn it to his advantage,” said Doug Thornell, managing director of SKDKnickerbocker, a Democratic consulting firm. “I would not count him out.”
O’Malley devoted much of his speech Saturday to his record, but took one swipe at Clinton.
“The presidency is not a crown to be passed back and forth between two royal families,” he said, also a reference to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is seeking the Republican nomination.
O’Malley also made a passing reference to his youth – Clinton in 67 and Sanders is 73.
“The story of our country’s best days are not found in a history book,” he said, “because this generation is about to write it.”
O’Malley faces tough odds. Relying on an urban agenda to create a political niche is risky for a practical reason: Early primary and caucus states lack big, Baltimore-like cities.
The first contests are scheduled for February in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. Not until March is the urban agenda likely to become prominent, when primaries are expected in Ohio and Michigan.
Urging urban change could be a tough sell in those early tests. “He’s flatlined so far, because Democrats who want a different candidate than Clinton are the progressives,” said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.
“He’s a mayor and a governor,” Smith said. “He’s a practical Democrat.”