The former Maryland governor wants to seize Elizabeth Warren’s mantle and take on Hillary too. Problem is almost no one knows him.
BALTIMORE—Martin O’Malley grins gamely when I ask him why there isn’t yet a “Martin O’Malley wing of the Democratic Party.” Elizabeth Warren has a wing. Why not him? O’Malley’s been in governance far longer, has accomplished more, is arguably just as liberal as the freshman senator from Massachusetts — and unlike Warren, he’s actually running for president. Why do some progressives tend to dismiss him as a mere technocrat who doesn’t inspire?
We are sitting in Joe Squared, a funky joint on North Avenue, which divides busy downtown Baltimore from the more gentrified section of town, and O’Malley has ordered a pizza (the “Baltimore Redevelopment special,” naturally). In a few days he’ll formally announce his candidacy for the White House, but now he’s reliving his mayoral glory days in gritty brownstone Baltimore. O’Malley has just taken me on a walking tour of one of the areas he’s proudest of, a slum-cum-arts district only a few blocks from where Freddie Gray was arrested. Gray’s death in police custody and the riots that erupted afterward gave Baltimore its most unwelcome moment in the national spotlight since “The Wire,” David Simon’s brutal HBO portrait of the city’s drug-haunted streets. (“That was a heartbreaking evening,” O’Malley says. “That’s the word I heard again and again among my neighbors, just heartbreaking, heartbreaking, because we had come so far over 15 years.”)
But since then peace has been restored and O’Malley, slender and handsome in shirt sleeves and powder-blue tie, shows he’s still a rock star on these streets—and not just because he really does play lead guitar in a band, O’Malley’s March. People stop him in the middle of busy intersections, wave to him from passing cars and gasp with delight as he barges into their happy hour at Liam Flynn’s Ale House. The admirers are black, white, brown—race doesn’t seem to matter. “You’re my favorite governor!” an African-American woman shouts from her car as she drives by. On the street, a white guy fumbles for his cellphone. “Hey, governor, you’re the best. How about a picture?” he says. O’Malley waves the fellow’s girlfriend into the photo: “It’s not a selfie. It’s an us-ie,” he cracks. He’s got the common touch.
But back at the pizza place, when we get back to the national question—the raging, nagging popularity of that newcomer up north who isn’t even running—O’Malley suddenly becomes … kind of wooden. “Yeah, uhh, I believe Sen. Warren has been, uh, very clear in her critique of what’s wrong with our financial markets,” he says after some hesitation, “and she’s also been very clear about our failure as a party to follow through on Wall Street reform. And people across the country respond to that clarity of message, and as a United States senator she’s had a big role to play. I have not as a governor or as a mayor had that sort of legislative role on the financial markets, but if I were to run for president and be elected, I certainly intend to follow through on the commitment of Wall Street reform.”
I wonder how long the pizza will take.
This is the Martin O’Malley problem. He doesn’t have the narrative down yet, and he’s still being very, very careful. After all, Elizabeth Warren began her rise to populist heroine only by taking on the Wall Street plutocrats; she’s gone beyond that, firing up the base with blunt diatribes against rules designed to protect the "tender fannies of the rich and the powerful," as she told one of her greatest admirers, Jon Stewart. O’Malley, who at 52 is about a dozen years younger than Warren, is no populist; he wants to run as a sober, mature candidate who can make government work, and he can argue he’s done just that in two terms as mayor and two more as governor.
O’Malley suddenly becomes … kind of wooden.
Nor is he a mere technocrat; he does have an embryonic narrative: “It’s not about left. It’s not about right. It’s not about center. It’s about doing the things that work,” he says in his freshly minted stump speech. O’Malley thinks that only by demonstrating that government can work — and it’s really only working on the state and local level, he says—can liberals finally get past the defensive we-agree-with-the-GOP-big-government-is-bad ethos that has turned the Democrats into a party of counterpunchers since Ronald Reagan set the agenda in the 1980s, helped by runaway inflation and huge federal deficits. That critique has driven successful Dems to the center since Hillary Clinton’s husband, Bill, embraced “market-based solutions” for the middle class, sarcastically described himself as an “Eisenhower Republican” and made tackling the federal deficit his priority.
O’Malley says his record proves government can help, not hurt. He’s great at rattling off his “greatest hits”: “We passed the living wage [dramatic increases for employees of government contractors]. We raised the minimum wage to $10.10. We made college more affordable by freezing tuition. We made public schools the best in the country for five years in a row. We made it easier for people to vote and not harder.” The progressive list goes on: passing marriage equality, decriminalizing marijuana, repealing the death penalty.
He’s also building what he describes as a “generational” argument—a euphemism for arguing that the Clintons and the Warrens represent old, tired ways, and he’s the new model for “entrepreneurial, data-driven governance.” “My candidacy would offer something very different than hers [Clinton’s],” he says. “One that is not only progressive but accomplished. … I think the Democratic Party can get very excited talking about the things we need to do, but there’s only one of us [in the race] so far that actually did these things, in city at a very tough time and in a state at a very tough time in our economy.” O’Malley has caught some pundit flak for talking up mayoral achievements like his “48-hour pothole guarantee.” (“This wonk is not about to fire up the party base,” Dana Milbank wrote in March, calling O’Malley the “Bruce Babbitt of 2016,” a guy who’s “campaigning as if he’s running to be Clinton’s EPA administrator or her OMB director.”) But on the other hand, Maryland did earn the highest median household income in the country during his tenure. Or as one of O’Malley’s aides puts it, “If no one is getting their potholes filled, how are we going to get the health care system fixed?”
This all sounds fine, but O’Malley is still from Maryland, a small, demographically eccentric state on the East Coast where the last guy to get even close to the Oval Office was Spiro Agnew. Maryland has one of the largest African-American populations of any state in the country and, because it borders D.C., is also home to a massive number of federal employees and union members. O’Malley thus enjoyed large liberal Democratic majorities in the state Legislature that enabled him to pass his programs. He raised taxes and fees roughly 20 times to fund his programs, driving some businesses from the state—including Beretta USA, which left in 2014 after O’Malley signed one of the toughest gun control laws in the country (among other provisions, it bans magazines that hold more than 10 bullets and 45 types of semiautomatic rifles). And he famously failed to get his liberal anointed successor, Anthony Brown, elected as governor last year; Brown, an uninspiring candidate tied to O’Malley’s increasingly unpopular tax hikes, lost to moderate Republican Larry Hogan.
But saddling O’Malley with Brown’s inadequacies is an unfair rap, says O’Malley spokeswoman Lis Smith. When O’Malley himself was up for reelection as governor in 2010, Smith says, “he took many of the same hits [over tax hikes], but he won that election by 14 points against a credible challenger in a very tough environment, and when the economy was worse, by making the proactive case for why these tough fiscal choices were necessary—to invest in schools, freeze college tuition, etc." (O’Malley himself, asked whether Maryland is just too different from the rest of the country to be a launching pad, insists: “Maryland is America in miniature.”)
For now, however, his profile remains equally diminutive—that of a local and state guy who hasn’t quite made the big leap. Despite hovering around the national stage for years—and delivering a decidedly underwhelming speech at the 2012 Democratic convention—O’Malley simply hasn’t caught fire. A Public Policy Polling survey in May had Hillary Clinton leading with 63 percent to 13 percent for Bernie Sanders, 6 percent for Jim Webb, 5 percent for Lincoln Chafee, and just 2 percent for O'Malley. Oddly enough, despite his lingering popularity in the state, only 31 percent of Marylanders think O’Malley should run for president in 2016, according to a statewide Goucher poll (though that is a 12-point increase from the fall 2014, when only 19 percent thought he should run).
None of these grim numbers are disqualifiers, by any means, not at this very early stage. O’Malley has made some forays into early primary states and the signs aren’t bad. In April, he spent a night playing guitar on stage for a packed crowd at Cooney’s, a tavern in Beaverdale, the Des Moines neighborhood where Obama launched his grass-roots strategy in 2008 (and which is still referred to as “Obamadale”). The next night, O’Malley delivered a well-received speech to a record crowd (along with Webb) at the annual Polk County Democrats’ spring awards dinner, bringing the audience to its feet eight times. “He sounded presidential,” says Tom Henderson, chair of the Polk County Democrats. Responding to the Warren phenomenon, O’Malley called for a return to Glass-Steagall in a Des Moines Register op-ed and echoed Warren on fair trade rules for labor, saying he opposes Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership deal because it represents a “chasing of lower wages abroad.”
He’s a candidate as opposed to a theory or dream or a hope.”
A snapshot of past Democratic insurgencies might also give O’Malley some encouragement. “Look at Memorial Day in 2003, where Howard Dean was in the polls. Or Memorial Day 1991, where Bill Clinton was. Or Memorial Day 2007, look at where Barack Obama was,” says Steve McMahon, a political consultant who worked with Ted Kennedy and Dean. All were way back in the field at this stage, or unnoticed. “Voters are just now starting to tune in a little bit,” says McMahon.
There is also, among Democrats, a time-honored tradition of obscure, long-shot governors rising suddenly (sometimes preceded by dull convention speeches), if not always getting all the way to the White House: Jimmy Carter, Clinton, Dean. “Do you remember Howard Dean in 2001?” says Zephyr Teachout, another progressive firebrand who nearly upended the New York gubernatorial race last year by giving Gov. Andrew Cuomo a scare. “Of course you don’t. No one does. I worked for Howard Dean in 2001. He couldn’t excite a dog then. It wasn’t until he went national as a candidate that he became a rabble-rouser.” And Dean was from Vermont, an even smaller and possibly more liberal state than Maryland. Like many progressives, Teachout is eagerly looking for alternatives to Hillary Clinton and finds O’Malley “interesting.”
“He’s a candidate as opposed to a theory or dream or a hope,” says McMahon. “And in the history of our party there’s a moment generally at which the insurgent, the underdog, the unlikely nominee, makes the front-runner look vulnerable … Whether it was Bill Bradley with Al Gore in 2000, Gary Hart with Walter Mondale in 1984, or Howard Dean with John Kerry in 2004. Usually the insurgent doesn’t win the nomination. But sometimes they’re Barack Obama and they do win.”
Still, liberal Democrats say it’s absurd for O’Malley to expect a national following when he’s done little to earn it on the national, as opposed to a statewide, stage. “The reason Elizabeth Warren has a ‘wing’ of the party is she’s been standing up fighting on these populist progressive issues her whole career,” says Neil Sroka, communications director for Democracy for America, a progressive group. “She’s speaking directly to the frustration that Americans have, the notion that the system is rigged in favor of the wealthiest. The interest in Warren is an organic one. ‘Run Warren Run’ came out of the grass roots. It’s not because some people in Washington, D.C. decided she should run.”
There is also a lingering suspicion among Warren progressives that what drives O’Malley is somehow less pure than what impels Warren or Sanders; that it’s personal ambition more than his eagerness to push a progressive agenda, and that his long-term plan might be to become nominee Hillary Clinton’s veep choice or to merely make his mark now and “wait his turn” after her presidency. “People look at him like he’s been kind of climbing a ladder his whole career, and now he’s looking for the next step,” says Ari Rabin-Havt, a SiriusXM radio host and former aide to Harry Reid. “He’s in the D.C. insider channels, not in the channels of people talking behind the scenes, when grass-roots Democrats get together to talk on Twitter.”
But progressives in the party appear willing to give O’Malley a chance. "O'Malley's support for debt-free college, expanding Social Security benefits and more Wall Street reform has turned a lot of heads,” says Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “What we're seeing is exactly what progressives want at this early stage of the election: a race to the top among Clinton, O'Malley and Sanders.”
Yet clearly O’Malley is going to have to raise his game—and directly take on both Clinton and the Warren wing of the party. McMahon says O’Malley has a two-stage challenge. The first is to displace Warren among Hillary-hating liberals and consolidate them behind him. “That would allow him to go from being a theoretical candidate to a plausible one. To go from there to becoming a potential candidate ultimately requires him to get people to take a second look at Hillary Clinton,” he says. “… And that he can do only by taking her on directly and forcing her to shift her position on a key issue,” like trade.
Other pundits agree that O’Malley, to succeed as a candidate, must somehow get Hillary Clinton’s attention. He must move her in the way that Warren has already done on Wall Street, prodding the front-runner to declare recently in Iowa: “There’s something wrong when hedge fund managers pay lower tax rates than nurses.” “The real question is, who’s going to be the one to push Hillary to say, ‘I’m against fast-track [trade] authority’?” says Sam Seder, another progressive talk-radio host.
People look at him like he’s been kind of climbing a ladder his whole career, and now he’s looking for the next step.”
O’Malley’s in a tight jam ideologically as well: To go from being an unknown into a national figure, he needs to sound liberal enough to claim the Warren mantle, while not appearing too radical to the general electorate. O’Malley does have polls on his side suggesting the country has grown more liberal and less conservative: For the first time in a decade and a half, Gallup recently found that the percentage of those identifying their views on social issues as liberal now equals, at 31 percent, the percentage of those who describe themselves as socially conservative.
Back on North Avenue in Baltimore, as we continue our walking tour, I ask O’Malley about his now-controversial record on crime. After the rioting started over Freddie Gray’s death, O’Malley flew home from Europe, eliciting raised eyebrows among local officials who wondered just what he thought he could accomplish. (“By the time I got here, the good people of the city had gotten things under control,” he says.) Among his critics since the riots has been David Simon, the former Baltimore Sun reporter who developed “The Wire”—which O’Malley hated—and who wrote on his blog that O’Malley orchestrated mass arrests to bring the crime rate down in his efforts to run for governor: “Mr. O’Malley tossed the Fourth Amendment out a window and began using the police department to sweep the corners and rowhouse stoops.”
O’Malley says that’s unfair, and he always sought a balanced approach, suggesting that the problems lie more with his successors. “We had allowed ourselves to become the most violent, addicted, dangerous city in America,” he says. “When I ran for mayor we talked about not only improving policing, but how to police the police. And you have to do both, and intervene earlier in the lives of people … That’s what we did every day in office. We had civilian reviews. ... We had reduced the recidivism rate by 15 to 20 percent, reduced the incarcerated population to its lowest level in 20 years, and brought violent crime to a 35-year low… You have to tend to it all the time.”
(O’Malley adds that he and Simon—who says he’d vote for O’Malley for president anyway—recently made up when they met on the train and the writer bought him a beer. “David and I have known each other a long time,” he says. “Other people looked at Baltimore’s challenges and saw nothing but hopelessness and impossibilities. I’ve always been drawn to tough challenges and tough fights. We saved a lot of lives here …”)
Today, the arts district O’Malley helped create out of slums clearly delights him. He points to a lush green median on North Avenue. “Those bushes weren’t there before. These are the things you notice when you’re mayor.” As we stroll, a local artist, Sergio Martinez, who’s just moved here from D.C. to take advantage of the low rents and inviting atmosphere, comes up and begs O’Malley to see his new studio. “The artists are like the Marines; they’re the first ones in,” O’Malley cracks as we head over to Martinez’s loft and he poses for another in a series of “us-ies” with his local fans.
And in the end, that’s the unanswered question: Is Martin O’Malley still just a local celebrity, or can he really leverage that up to a place on the national stage? Can he become a gubernatorial long-shot-turned-hotshot, like Bill Clinton in 1992 or, for a time, Howard Dean in 2004, and show that he’s bigger than his city and his state? Or will he turn out more like, say, Rick Perry in 2012, when the Texas governor stumbled as he tried to make a similar leap.
O’Malley’s own test is still ahead of him.
Source: Politics, Policy, Political News Top Stories https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/05/martin-omalley-2016-118408