Martin O'Malley: A profile in anonymity in the Democratic field

Up until the Iowa caucuses, Martin O'Malley had what it took to beat Hillary—except name recognition. And that problem in Baltimore.

(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Update (Feb. 1, 2016): After a dismal third-place showing in the Iowa caucuses, Martin O’Malley announced that he was suspending his campaign to become the Democratic Party’s nominee for President. This profile was published in the months leading up to that announcement.

Tanya at the Avis counter at the Cedar Rapids airport has never heard of him. Misty at the front desk of the Quality Inn in Coralville has never heard of him. Kelly at the food truck in Iowa City has never heard of him. Neither have Nikki and Maria at the University of Iowa Bookstore. For a candidate for the presidency of the United States, this does not bode well.

Yet here is the handsome, experienced, melodic Martin Joseph O’Malley—ex-mayor of burned-out Baltimore; ex-governor of crabby Maryland; father of two daughters and two sons; guitarist and lead singer for an eclectic, electric Celtic band—standing in a lawyer’s living room in the middle of Middle America, striving almost incognito for the Oval Office on a platform of higher taxes, lower crime, smaller banks and bigger dreams.

“You have a choice now,” Martin O’Malley proclaims.

At 52, O’Malley has come to Iowa to challenge Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. He introduces himself as a paragon of youth and incorruptibility, quotes philosophers from Thomas Merton to Bruce Springsteen, and flaunts what he calls his success as the doge of a racially divided metropolis that the world this spring saw consumed by the flames of failure. “If you ask people about Baltimore now,” says a woman named Lee Hamill, who has driven with her husband Bob through an afternoon of torrential prairie rain to hear O’Malley speak, “they will say one word: ‘Fires.’ ”

Related: Freddie Gray, Baltimore, and the day after the night before

The setting is a two-storey white stucco home on a leafy street in the antique-y village of Mount Vernon, which once was hailed by Budget Travel magazine as “America’s Coolest Small Town.” More than a hundred people have crammed into the house of a local attorney to participate in politics in its purest form, like a scene from Norman Rockwell—a candidate in shirtsleeves, stating his qualities, defending his history, making his case. When Hillary Clinton launched her campaign in April, she came to Mount Vernon, too.

Next January, the Democrats and Republicans of the Hawkeye State will gather in their respective caucuses to formally favour a presidential nominee, the first chapter in this country’s unique and arcane process of town meetings and primary elections that will determine Barack Obama’s replacement. That makes Iowans the most important electors of all; the incessant barrage of beseeching every Tanya and Misty and Nikki and Kelly for her vote has only just begun. The latest poll by the Des Moines Register has Mrs. Clinton ahead of Mr. O’Malley in the state by 57 per cent to two.

(Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

(Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

“We are on the threshold of a new era of American progress,” O’Malley tells the audience, claiming to represent “a different generation from some of the honourable people who are seeking my party’s nomination.” By this, of course, he means the 67-year-old Hillary herself, as well as Sen. Bernie Sanders, the petulant 72-year-old Burlington socialist who aims to decapitate every millionaire and billionaire in the country with the possible exception of Ben and Jerry, the Vermont ice cream magnates.

O’Malley boasts that he was able to steer Maryland through the Great Recession by raising gasoline taxes—“it doesn’t kill your economy”—and champions his state’s early legalization of same-sex marriage. He lauds “the best public schools in the country,” the nation’s highest median income, Maryland’s elimination of capital punishment, its granting of driver’s licences to undocumented immigrants, its higher-than-average minimum wage.

He tells of growing up as one of six children of a Second World War bomber pilot—his mother got her own flying permit at the age of 15—and of being raised “to love our country, love our family, and love God.”

Turning to Baltimore itself, O’Malley asserts that, “as mayor of a great but very challenged city” from 1999 to 2007, and despite “a pretty brutal racial legacy going back three or four hundred years,” his public safety policies drastically reduced Charm City’s apocalyptic crime rate. He cites a manifest of law-enforcement gains, including: GPS mapping of  “discourtesy and brutality complaints”; dozens of unannounced “integrity stings” to weed out bad-apple officers; and initiatives that “drove police shootings down to their lowest level.”

Protests in Baltimore After Funeral Held For Baltimore Man Who Died While In Police Custody

Martin O’Malley graduated from Baltimore’s black-and-white political dialectic eight years ago and moved on to the governor’s mansion in Annapolis. But then came April 2015 and the death of a black man named Freddie Carlos Gray.

Chased down by white and African-American officers on bicycles and on foot, arrested for possession of a small knife, Gray allegedly was shackled hand and foot and left to tumble around the back of a careering police van until, somehow, he suffered a spinal injury that would leave him dead within a week. As news of Gray’s unseemly demise seeped across the inner city, several of Baltimore’s saddest pockets of poverty and dysfunction self-destructed even further in saturnalias of looting, larceny and the torch.

Not until six constables were indicted for crimes including murder did the burning cease, but its ashes still flutter over the candidacy of a man who claims to have bequeathed a city healed. “The hard truth of our times is this: when you have a concentration of wealth in the hands of so few people, the only outcomes are either a sensible rebalancing, or pitchforks or stones or Molotov cocktails,” O’Malley says now in Mount Vernon, selling a liberal spin on the recent conflagration.

“When people looked at Baltimore this spring,” this reporter tells him after the house party ends, “they saw pitchforks, stones and Molotov cocktails. Is that your legacy?”

“While these bad incidents involving the police are another match,” the candidate replies, “the kerosene is great numbers of people unemployed. I think all of us need to better understand this. I’d be angry, too.”

“Sure, Martin O’Malley had a formula for crime reduction: put everybody in jail,” the man of the cloth seethes.

It is not yet 7:30 on a sweltering Sunday morning in Baltimore, and the Reverend Dr. Jamal Harrison Bryant is moments away from the first of three impassioned services of Christian worship at an African Methodist Episcopal cathedral called the Empowerment Temple, far uptown from the shimmering Inner Harbor. In the pre-eminent Rev. Bryant, a leader of protest and apostle of community progress, the presidential candidate does not find an ally.

“Martin O’Malley is the father of mass incarceration in the state of Maryland,” Bryant says. “He was the instigator of ‘jump-out policing’—show up on a street corner and grab everybody. He was building up the numbers, arresting petty criminals, but not going up the food chain.”

With this accusation, Bryant echoes the words of David Simon, creator of the television drama series The Wire, which was set in Baltimore and featured a mayor named Tommy Carcetti who “juked” crime statistics to make the city appear safer—and his own record more glowing—than it actually was. “O’Malley’s tenure was as destructive a mayoralty to causes of crime and punishment as Baltimore has ever seen,” Simon told The Daily Beast, “and, by that standard, Tommy Carcetti makes him look good.”

This is the protocol, Bryant attests, that led to the police department’s lust for the capture of little men like Freddie Gray, men who are mere flotsam on an ocean of communal dysfunction and dependency. Black Baltimore, he avows, will remember this on Primary Day next spring.

“It was right there for everybody to see when O’Malley made his official launch announcement last week, down at the Inner Harbor,” says Bryant. “He gave this city eight years as mayor, he gave this state two terms as governor, and there were not a thousand people there. This is your home guy and he can’t draw a thousand people?”

“He’s a nice guy, and if Hillary’s elected, he’ll probably be the secretary of something,” says Bryant. “But I don’t think that anybody in Baltimore thinks that Martin O’Malley is going to be president.”

Baltimore Orioles fans watch members of the Toronto Blue Jays take batting practice before a baseball game between the Orioles and the Blue Jays, Monday, May 11, 2015, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Baltimore Orioles fans watch members of the Toronto Blue Jays take batting practice before a baseball game between the Orioles and the Blue Jays, Monday, May 11, 2015, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

None of the white people at Oriole Park at Camden Yards seem to think he will be, either. In the minutes before the O’s are to host the detested New York Yankees, a reporter approaches 17 Marylanders and asks a simple, three-word question: “O’Malley for president?”

He gets 16 nos and one maybe.

“No. He has no business sense,” says Barry Feldman, a former financial-services CEO who is assisting his son-in-law at a T-shirt stand.

“No. Bernie Sanders promises to wipe out my student debt,” smiles a recent Penn State graduate behind the counter at a coffee shop.

“No!” snaps a Navy veteran named Jim Laraway. “All the taxes, all the fees. Never again!” Laraway is with his wife Denise, eating hot dogs in the shade of a statue of Brooks Robinson, who was the Orioles’ Gold Glove third baseman back when Hillary Clinton was president of the Young Republicans at Wellesley College, Bernie Sanders was a blissed-out hippie, and Martin O’Malley was in diapers. “Baltimore is more than just the riots,” Denise says. “It’s the harbour, the sports teams, the pride we have. The riots were just a snapshot in time.”

“When those cops get acquitted,” predicts her husband, “it’s gonna explode again.”

Denise says that she is “very impressed” by the other Baltimorean in the presidential field—the right-wing Republican and miracle-making pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson. “I don’t always vote by party,” Denise reports. “I voted for Obama the first time he ran, but not the second. As far as O’Malley is concerned, I’d have to say ‘maybe.’ ”

Up in Section 326, Orioles fan Leo Debandi voices a vehement no, but allows that “if O’Malley surrounds himself with the right people, he could be viable.” The riots, Debandi says, are a stain on O’Malley’s scorecard, even though he no longer was in municipal or state office when they occurred. “He had a lot to do with the history of policing, and that riot was the culmination of all the enforcement he put in,” Debandi says. “He swung it too far to the other side.

“Was it safe to come downtown when he did that? Yeah. But a lot of people who live in this city resent what he did.”

(Cheryl Senter/AP)

(Cheryl Senter/AP)

What then, is Martin O’Malley’s path to Pennsylvania Avenue?

“History is full of candidates who were virtually unknown who made their case to the people of Iowa and New Hampshire and a different dynamic developed,” O’Malley tells Maclean’s. “I’m not different from other people who are now household names.”

“It will take a while, but Hillary’s numbers will eventually go down,” says George Appleby, a Des Moines lawyer who is O’Malley’s Iowa state director. “She has 100 per cent name recognition, but she has also had the benefit of a lack of serious opposition. My sense is that the major factor will be age. We have just had two presidents who were Baby Boomers, and I don’t think we’re going to go backward to somebody much older. I think Martin will never get the numbers that Hillary has in Iowa, but he will finish strong here and be catapulted on to New Hampshire and the nomination.”

Thirty years ago, when Martin O’Malley was a student at the Catholic University of America with a burgeoning passion for politics, he came to Iowa to work for the (unsuccessful) presidential campaign of a handsome, experienced senator from Colorado named Gary Hart, making phone calls and singing in supporters’ living rooms. He bunked for a while at George Appleby’s home; in this sport, as in baseball, team loyalty runs deep.

“When those riots occurred in April,” Appleby says, “you could tell that it was pretty painful for him. He certainly felt it in his heart. But my guess is that it isn’t going to sway voters out here, or in New Hampshire. If there were any cities in Iowa that had inner-city neighbourhoods with terrible unemployment and terrible violence, it might resonate. Des Moines and Cedar Rapids and Waterloo have some African-Americans, but it just is not an issue here.”

“I don’t want to stereotype Baltimore,” agrees Lauren Freeman, a third-year student from Cedar Rapids who is a member of the University of Iowa Democrats. “The riots have been an issue, but it is an issue nationally. Baltimore has a lot of issues, but I think Martin O’Malley did a lot of good things for that city.”

At the University of Iowa, political scientist Cary Covington reasons that “any chance that O’Malley has to win the nomination is out of his control. He has to hope that Hillary self-destructs, but the irony is that having O’Malley and Bernie Sanders in the race reduces the chance that she will. Without them, there are no debates. Her only opponent would be the media.

Related: Q&A with author Peter Schweizer on the Clintons’ wealth

“I don’t think that the riots are going to matter to O’Malley’s candidacy, because nobody out here is going to ask that question. For him to win, Hillary needs to implode, and we are just one email that’s not supposed to exist away from that happening.”

Back in the lawyer’s living room in Mount Vernon, Bob Hamill and his wife, Lee, are willing to give Martin Joseph O’Malley a thoughtful hearing. “I have to be very honest—I have been waving the flag for Hillary,” Lee admits. “But I want to hear O’Malley. He’s not that well-known. Maybe Hillary’s too well-known.”

“Hillary has been under such an intensely negative media barrage, they’re definitely trying to imply that she must have done something that’s illegal, immoral or fattening,” Bob jibes. “Martin O’Malley is a very articulate, very sincere candidate. He was mayor of Baltimore, which is a city with very big problems, but he overcame them.”

Related: On the road (again) with Hillary Clinton

“People who have never been to Baltimore will focus in on the riots, but that’s not what defines the whole city,” his wife says. “A few months ago, if you asked people about Baltimore, they would have said, ‘Crab cakes.’ ”

“Did you grow up in Iowa?” a reporter wonders. “No, I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland!” Bob Hamill smiles. “But that was more than 50 years ago. It was a different place then. Ever since Ferguson, Mo., the spotlight is showing up the failings of America’s police forces, as if it is inbred in some way. It seems to be the same issue whether it is Baltimore or Texas or Cleveland. That’s why you can’t attribute things that happen in Baltimore to a single candidate.”

“Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” Martin O’Malley is sighing nearby, quoting Springsteen. He offers the words of Thomas Merton, the Catholic monk and mystic: “Any appeal that begins in despair is doomed to fail.”

But one modern thinker whom Martin O’Malley does not cite is Taylor Swift: “Band-Aids don’t fix bullet holes.”

And on the stump in the middle of Middle America, a candidate from a city in cinders is saying, “Our country is Baltimore, and Baltimore is our country.”

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