Martin O’Malley launches populist campaign from embattled hometown

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Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley with his wife, Katie, at event in Baltimore where he announced that he is entering the Democratic presidential race. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

BALTIMORE — Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley launched his presidential campaign here Saturday on top of a knoll overlooking the city’s Inner Harbor. Reachable only by a steep ascent up the hill, the setting served as a fitting reminder that his battle against the presumptive favorite for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton, also will be an uphill one.

O’Malley was the mayor of Baltimore from 1999 to 2007, but that experience came off as a footnote in an address designed less to reflect its setting than to position the candidate as an electable progressive alternative to Clinton running on his record as Maryland governor from 2007 to 2015. The tension between his record as governor and as mayor was evident at his announcement.

O’Malley paused briefly in his Federal Hill speech to lament last month’s “heartbreaking” riots that tore apart sections of his city — sections miles away from the affluent, picturesque neighborhood he chose as a backdrop for the biggest moment of his political career.

As a governor, O’Malley was on the forefront of progressive Democratic legislating, signing into law both a state-based DREAM Act — expanding in-state tuition to the children of undocumented immigrants — and the legalization of gay marriage in his mid-Atlantic state. But as mayor, he imposed a police-crackdown that some have linked to the current tensions between the black community and police in Baltimore, dramatically worsened in April by the police-custody death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray.

On Saturday, a small group of protesters made their way to O’Malley’s presidential announcement to disrupt his speech and to speak to reporters about their resentments relating to his time as mayor and the stricter policing policies he brought to bear in their city. The base of Federal Hill Park, where the public and media entered before ascending to the area where O’Malley spoke, was cordoned off by metal fences and guarded by security, which led to reporters far outnumbering demonstrators inside the secure perimeter.

Tawanda Jones, 36, sister of Tyrone West, who died in police custody in 2013, was among the protesters who attempted to disrupt O’Malley’s speech from inside the park, but behind another series of gates that separated media and credentialed guests from the general public. She told reporters she believed O’Malley’s policies led directly to her brother’s death.

“My brother, who was driving while black in a Mercedes Benz, was brutally murdered, brutally beaten to death. Freddie Gray was brutally beaten to death. I blame him,” Jones, a lifelong Baltimore resident, said of O’Malley.

Though she does not support O’Malley’s candidacy, she said she has not decided who she favors in the presidential primaries and added she was hopeful O’Malley’s presence in the race will bring attention to the issues that have divided the town he still calls home.

In his remarks, O’Malley sought to move beyond the city’s policing issues to a commentary on economic opportunity more in line with what he’d like to be the central narrative of his campaign.

“Last month, television sets around the world were filled with the anger and the rage and the flames of some of the humblest and hardes-hit neighborhoods of Baltimore. 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,” O’Malley said. “What took place here was not only about race … not only about policing in America. It’s about everything it is supposed to mean to be an American. The scourge of hopelessness that happened to ignite here that evening transcends race or geography.

“The hard truth of our shared reality is this: Unemployment in many American cities and in many small towns across the United States is higher now than it was eight years ago,” O’Malley continued. “Conditions of extreme and growing poverty create conditions for extreme violence.”

Earlier this month , O’Malley drove Yahoo News political columnist Matt Bai around Baltimore to talk about his history with the city and with trying to crack down on crime, perhaps in anticipation of the new scrutiny of his record as mayor, which might interfere with the image his campaign is seeking to project of him as a progressive.

“I wondered which he found more painful — that the city he loved had come unglued or that others might think he should shoulder the blame,” Bai wrote then.

But questions about the current situation in his home city obscure a bigger challenge for O’Malley in this race. It’s not just that Clinton is a juggernaut, or that O’Malley’s polling numbers are hovering just above zero — it’s that he is so clearly and deliberately trying to position himself as the progressive in the Democratic primary contest when Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who already is in the race, has crowded into that space ahead of him. 

That leaves O’Malley with a narrower lane than he’d like and a need to argue both that he’s progressive and more electable than the other man running to Clinton’s left.

Sanders has a substantial social media following, an ease on economic equality issues and a surprisingly pragmatic congressional record despite his self-avowed socialism, the latter which could make him unappealing to more-moderate voters. His anti-campaign finance bent and rage against the current political system are core positions that contrast sharply with O’Malley’s record as a major party fundraiser during his tenure as the Democratic Governors Association chairman.

Building on the implementation of the Maryland-based DREAM Act, O’Malley created a higher profile for himself on immigration issues by becoming an outspoken critic of President Obama’s handling of the child migrant crisis, causing friction with the White House when he suggested that returning the children to their home countries in Latin America would send them back “to certain death.”

One of the speakers selected to deliver introductory remarks about O’Malley was Jonathan Jayes-Green, a Panamanian who recently graduated with honors from Baltimore’s Goucher College because of Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive order.

Once O’Malley arrived onstage, he stood in front of risers packed with dozens of supporters of all ethnicities and ages who looked as if they were plucked straight from a political stock photo meant to signify diversity and the sort of winning coalition Obama put together. Signs scattered throughout the park displayed O’Malley’s campaign slogan “New leadership” — also an obvious jab in an election that ultimately could feature a Bush versus a Clinton.

In an anti-Wall Street section of his announcement speech, he noted that both Bush and Clinton were the favorites in banking circles and appeared ready to try to tap into the populist movement in the primary electorate still disappointed that Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has declined to run for the Democratic nomination.

“The presidency is not a crown to be passed back and forth by you between two royal families,” O’Malley said in a message “to the bullies of Wall Street” and one of his biggest applause lines of the afternoon.

After the speech ended, O’Malley exited the park in an SUV, waving through the rolled-down window at the rope line, where supporters who already had cleared security checkpoints earlier in the day stood to cheer him on.

A few yards away, Nathan Leonard, a 19-year-old who lives with his parents in Baltimore and grew up in Dallas, laid out O’Malley’s place in this race as he saw it.

“Growing up in a state where you have politicians like Ted Cruz and Rick Perry in control, I’m kind of in my youth figuring out who I was and why I was gay and having my political leaders so closed-minded. … It was so refreshing to come to Maryland and have such supportive, forward-thinking politicians in power,” Leonard said. “Hillary’s record in the past — voting for the Iraq War, shady deals with the Clinton Foundation — kind of has me a little worried, and Bernie Sanders seems too far to the left, so Martin O’Malley resonates most with me.”

The trick for O’Malley will be finding more voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and the other early-voting states who think the same way.

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