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The Fall of Martin O’Malley

O’Malley was once a rising star in the Democratic Party. What went wrong?

Hillary Clinton. Barack Obama. Ted Kennedy. Julian Castro. Cory Booker. It’s a laundry list of Democratic pols in the past twenty years, all of whom catapulted their national political ambitions with prime-time speaking roles at the Democratic National Convention. So when Martin O’Malley, just a first term governor of Maryland, was invited to speak in one of these roles at the 2012 DNC, it was clear that he was being ordained for political greatness. It became a question of “when”, not “if”, he would become part of national Democratic leadership for years to come. Since that day, however, O’Malley’s career has taken a different turn. After finishing out his term as Governor, he declared his candidacy for President in the midst of the Freddie Gray riots in 2015, and his attempt at national politics was as brief as they were ill-fated, winning just 0.6% of the delegates in the Iowa caucus before quietly dropping out of the race. After a failed attempt at the DNC chairmanship, he resigned to a career in academia. So, what exactly went wrong?

In order to understand Martin O’Malley’s hard fall, we need to first understand his mercurial rise. O’Malley started his political career as a city councilman in Baltimore during the late 1990’s. As the New York Times put it, “violence was epidemic in Baltimore in the 1990s…as crack intruded into a drug market long dominated by heroin.” In 1993, the city had over 350 homicides, a record breaking year for the city. It remained over 300 for much of the remaining decade. O’Malley had an intimate view of the crisis for two terms and in 1999, ran for mayor on a zero tolerance, anti-crime platform. Despite being a white candidate in a predominantly African American city, he completed an upset against primary opponent and fellow city councilmember Carl Stokes, winning the mayorship with a clear mandate to carry out his anti-crime policies.

O’Malley walking through CitiStat in 2007

It was with this mandate that he began making significant changes to the city. First, O’Malley brought CompStat, the innovative GIS crime-mapping tool, from New York to Baltimore (rebranded as “CitiStat”). At the time, the move was lauded as an act of rare governmental innovation — O’Malley won Harvard’s Innovations in American Government award in 2004 and, as the Washington Post put it, “CitiStat…saved an estimated $350 million and helped generate the city’s first budget surplus in years.” O’Malley also became an outspoken thought leader on homeland security in the wake of 9/11, co-chairing the US Conference of Mayors’ Homeland Security Task Force.

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As his second term wrapped up, it was clear that O’Malley had his eye on the governor’s mansion. His mayoral initiatives were impressive and shiny and gave him a brag sheet to contend with at the next level. The Baltimore Sun endorsed O’Malley, lauding him as a “former two-term city councilman [who] inherited a city of rising crime, falling schools, and shrinking economic prospects. He was able to reverse course on all of those areas.” He eventually won the race with 53% of the vote. Everything was looking up for him.


As governor, O’Malley doubled down on his CitiStat innovation (dubbed “StateStat”) and incorporated it across the entire state and among twenty Maryland agencies (ie BayStat measuring the health of the Chesapeake Bay, StudentStat measuring public school student achievement rates, etc).

Hailed as a financial and technological innovation, the bundled initiative was praised for providing transparent, open data to the public regarding the state’s progress towards O’Malley’s initial campaign goals. Everyone from Barack Obama to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi cited the program as a symbol of the very best that progressive government could be — an efficient, savvy, and democratizing machine. In terms of more concrete policy changes, he also made significant waves. With initiatives on immigration, same sex marriage, capital punishment, gun control, and abortion, coupled with his prime-time appearance at the DNC in 2012, O’Malley had assembled a healthy roster of accomplishments in such short order that when he announced his candidacy for President in 2015, it surprised absolutely no one. To Baltimore locals, it was always clear that, “to borrow a catchphrase from his address, his career is moving forward, not back.”

All of these successes and national recognition make his eventual political downfall all the more curious. Ultimately, it all boils down to three factors.

First, O’Malley was unlucky with the circumstances surrounding his 2016 Presidential primary run. His primary strategy was abundantly clear — market himself as the most liberal candidate in the election while pointing to tangible legislative and efficiency improvements in Maryland. From a $15 minimum wage to significant Wall Street changes (he called himself the “Glass-Steagall candidate”) to immigration reform to a proposed national assault weapons ban, O’Malley was doing an excellent job at providing Democratic voters an alternative to the obvious frontrunner, Hillary Clinton. This all came to a grinding halt when, on April 30th, 2015, Bernie Sanders entered the race. As a self proclaimed democratic socialist, Bernie Sanders flanked O’Malley to the left on several signature issues. As the “Bernie Sanders before Bernie Sanders” in the race, O’Malley saw a significant obstacle in Sanders’ entrance, stuck in the middle between a Blue Dog front-runner and a socialist upstart. All you need to see is O’Malley’s performance in this democratic debate to tell you everything about his tragedy of circumstance. Clinton would hit him for his overzealousness, and Bernie would criticize him for his more moderate stances — it’s no surprise, then, O’Malley had such an abysmal showing in Iowa, with only 0.6% of the state delegate equivalents. By the end of the night, he had quietly dropped out of the race.

Second, for all of O’Malley’s progressivism throughout his governor stint and in the Presidential primary, his policies on crime remained inextricably stuck in the past. Compared to Bernie Sanders’ and Hillary Clinton’s campaign platforms on criminal justice, O’Malley’s agenda on crime was more aligned with the 1990s “tough on crime” rhetoric (championed by none other than Joe Biden). William Bratton utilized technology to usher in an era of broken windows policing in New York and O’Malley followed suit in Baltimore. Ironically, in his post-political career, O’Malley parades his new-age CitiStat and StateStat initiatives as tools of smart and efficient governing for forward looking bureaucracy. But that very same new-age technology enabled some of the most old-school, zero tolerance policing seen in recent memory.

In 2016, the Department of Justice released the results of an investigation into the Baltimore Police Department. As the Baltimore Sun so poignantly puts it (bolding for emphasis):

Probably the most pointed section (pages 40 and 41, in case Mr. O’Malley would like to give them a read), details the decision in the late 1990s to adopt “zero tolerance” policing — a shift in tactics that immediately followed Mr. O’Malley’s election as mayor and his recruitment of consultants and command officers from New York. The strategy involved a massive increase in stop-and-frisk searches and discretionary arrests for quality of life crimes like loitering and disturbing the peace in an effort to clear corners. “The result was a massive increase in the quantity of arrests — but a corresponding decline in quality,” the report says, leading to poor policing practices, fractured relations with the community and massive civil rights violations that led to a 2006 ACLU lawsuit, which the city settled in 2010 after Mr. O’Malley had decamped for Annapolis.

With Mr. O’Malley out of City Hall, a series of police commissioners disavowed those tactics, but they were unable to extirpate them from the department. As the DOJ’s report notes, many of the department’s front-line supervisors cut their teeth in the O’Malley era and have never dropped the idea that good police work requires routine violations of the Constitution. Consequently, officers on the street are still encouraged tacitly and in many cases explicitly to clear corners and make arrests whether any crimes are being committed or not.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that so many officers cling to the tenets of zero-tolerance because Mr. O’Malley does, too. He has demonstrated on numerous occasions that nothing that has happened since he left city government has changed his mind — not the massive protests of police tactics that followed Freddie Gray’s death and not the inconvenient truth that violent crime in Baltimore dropped even more after he was gone and arrest numbers plummeted. He kept it up on Midday, arguing that if (sic) what he did must have been good because he easily won re-election as mayor.

It’s a lot to unpack. To summarize:

  • O’Malley ushered in a time of zero tolerance policing, coinciding with the advent of CitiStat, which further pushed stronger enforcement and pressure to focus on “quality of life crimes” instead of actual violent crime.
  • In 2005, in a city of roughly 600,000 residents, there were 108,447 people arrested (no doubt with the help of CitiStat). In a June 2010 report by the Justice Police Institute, 2/3rds of the jail population were there for non-violent offenses (So significantly did the amount of arrests increase, in fact, according to the Sun, judges had to free arrestees because they could not get court hearings within 24 hours).
  • Not only did O’Malley categorically fail with crime and race relations, he left a legacy of his incompetence behind.

Despite all of his heavy-handed errors on this issue, you can explain some of it away. After all, as the Sun put it, “More than 80,000 Baltimoreans voted to make O’Malley their mayor. They had heard his impassioned pledges to make the city safer — to make Clifton Park as safe as Roland Park — and they liked what they heard. Let’s not forget that. O’Malley had a lot of buy-in”. It’s O’Malley’s main defense for his record — they voted for me! And then they voted for me again! And two more times! In his mind, he had a clear mandate for zero tolerance policing.

There’s nothing that explains this issue more precisely than O’Malley’s character representation in The Wire, Tommy Carcetti, who makes an impassioned speech as councilman about the crime in Baltimore. Most fans of the Wire, woke to “broken windows” and the War on Drugs, watched this speech and walked away with immense appreciation and pride for Carcetti.

And yet, like co-creator Ed Burns said, “everything about the speech was just a recall and a retread of the drug war. And he was arguing for more warfare…I was amazed to find that a lot of viewers, you know, longtime viewers, had watched that episode and they followed Carcetti right off the cliff. They were, despite what they had been shown for 12 episodes in terms of the box that the drug war is, they thought he was the solution, because he sounded like the solution.”

Carcetti sounded like the solution and he won the votes. O’Malley sounded like the solution and he won the votes. It’s hard to blame a re-elected politician for bad policies when they get re-elected in spite of those bad policies.

And yet, the results showed that he was never the solution.

By 2006, in the midst of the gubernatorial race, the city faced a lawsuit brought by the ACLU and the NAACP on behalf of 14 people who had been arrested for dubious reasons. Four years later, Baltimore paid $870,000 to settle that suit and city leaders agreed to officially disavow zero-tolerance policing. This became most of the popular punching bags for O’Malley in his Presidential primary run.

In the end, O’Malley was not saved by the optics and strong rhetoric that kept him in office, he succumbed to the final tally of his policies.

Finally, with all of this baggage around crime and race relations, it is only fitting that O’Malley announced his bid for Presidency in the midst of the Freddie Gray protests. Gray, a Black man who died in police custody and sparked nationwide calls for an end to zero tolerance policing in 2015, is the model of the excesses of the O’Malley administration’s approach to fighting crime. It says a lot about a man to turn his back on the city he spent the majority of his life working for, right at its peak of turmoil and anguish. Right when they needed a strong, steady hand to right the ship, O’Malley was gone. This wasn’t just a quirk of scheduling circumstance either. In the Sun’s endorsement of O’Malley for governor, they make an important caveat: “Neither Mr. O’Malley nor anyone else can claim that the city’s chronic problems are now solved. Far from it. There are still too many murders, too much poverty and too many failing students in the public schools to even contemplate such a notion. But the progress under the mayor’s tenure is clear and irrefutable”. Rather than hanging his hat on good politics, he left just as soon as he could show a hint of progress. He did it as a mayor and he did it as a governor. This mode of politics is unfortunately normalized these days (Mayor Pete comes to mind) and O’Malley embodies that mentality precisely.

It says something symbolically about O’Malley’s political trajectory, as well. At every step in his journey to the top of the political mountain, those around O’Malley always knew he was interviewing for the next rung. No matter his current job, his ambition always seemed to push him further up. As House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell said, “It’s the worst-kept secret in Maryland that the governor has national ambitions [in the midst of a $1.5 billion budget shortfall]”. This isn’t just one man complaining about sour grapes, either.

Let’s look at his platform for President in 2016. One of the cornerstones of his financial platform was the “reinstatement” of Glass-Steagall and the break-up of large financial institutions formerly considered “too big to fail”. Sounds fine, right? Okay, what about the Private Equity Growth Capital Council, one of the main corporate benefactors of The NewDEAL, the non-profit he launched in 2011, dedicated to supporting “pro-business progressives”. What’s his real opinion on the issue? It’s hard to say and that’s exactly the problem.

O’Malley endorsing Clinton in 2008

Let’s look at critics attacking his gubernatorial record for checking boxes ahead of the 2016 election to cater to progressive voters. It might be a little cynical to think that he simply pursued these initiatives because of an eye towards the Democratic nomination, right? Well, those critics have a good point. In 2007, he penned an opinion piece on the Washington Post about reclaiming the political center. Following his departure in 2016’s race, O’Malley endorsed, not Sanders, despite similar campaign platforms, but Hillary Clinton, the establishment moderate Democrat in the race. He also endorsed her in 2008 as well. So who is the real O’Malley — the “Bernie before Bernie” O’Malley or the “embrace the centrism” O’Malley? My money is on the latter.

This is all to say, O’Malley is less like a principled, pragmatic progressive, as he tried so hard to portray himself as, as he is a normal politician who was a victim of his own ambition. His career in politics points to a simple truth: his gubernatorial record and presidential platform was not necessarily what he believed in, but what he believed would sell and what he believed would win.

Martin O’Malley was once a rising star in state and national politics in the Democratic party. A champion of progressive initiatives and government accountability, O’Malley catapulted from Baltimore city councilman to Presidential hopeful in just four political cycles. However, a combination of bad luck and regressive crime policies stymied his bid for national politics and continued political relevance. His story, more broadly, offers a cautionary tale to up and coming politicians about the plight of “The Chosen One” and the pressure to prioritize optics over good faith governing. As voters, we need to be wary of these fresh, “superstar” types that quickly rise through the political ranks.

Often, like in the case of O’Malley, there are skeletons in the closet. We just need to look.

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