O'Malley’s Democratic challenge is not only Clinton but Sanders too

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley greets people before an April fundraiser in Iowa, where he has spent months trying to win early support ahead of the nation's first presidential caucus.

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley greets people before an April fundraiser in Iowa, where he has spent months trying to win early support ahead of the nation’s first presidential caucus.

(Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press)

The campaign launch was the type Martin O’Malley long envisioned: a scenic waterfront setting, a big, enthusiastic hometown audience, and introductory speakers lauding the Democratic hopeful’s record of public service that began in the mayor’s office.

The problem: It was Bernie Sanders’ presidential announcement in Vermont, just days before O’Malley was to follow a similar script.

This week’s Sanders rally was the latest bit of thunder-stealing that has deprived O’Malley, the wonky former governor of Maryland and long-shot presidential hopeful, of the oxygen he needs to have any chance at the Democratic nomination. O’Malley, who formally launched his candidacy Saturday, not only faces a dominant front-runner in Hillary Rodham Clinton but is also being upstaged by Sanders, the shrewd self-styled socialist senator from Vermont who has made an early and successful play for Clinton skeptics in the party base.


O’Malley’s pitch Saturday, with a heavy dose of anti-Wall Street rhetoric and calls to restore the middle-class dream, was aimed squarely at progressive voters who have been drawn to Sanders and aren’t keen on another Clinton in the White House.

“I’ve got news for the bullies of Wall Street: The presidency is not a crown to be passed back and forth by you between two royal families,” O’Malley said from atop Baltimore’s Federal Hill, which overlooks the city’s Inner Harbor and downtown skyline.

O’Malley has been carefully laying the groundwork for a White House run for years — some in Baltimore might even say the ambitious former mayor’s plotting began well more than a decade ago when he was still in City Hall.

He seemingly did everything a potential Democratic candidate is supposed to do. In a strongly Democratic state, he pushed legislation to legalize same-sex marriage, repeal the death penalty, raise the minimum wage, tighten restrictions on guns and offer in-state tuition for people who entered the U.S. illegally before age 16, the so-called DREAMers. He also pushed a major infrastructure program paid for by a gas tax increase, one of several tax changes that factored into Democrats’ defeat in the 2014 gubernatorial election to replace the term-limited O’Malley.

Politically, he traveled the country vigorously on behalf of Democratic candidates, including service as chairman of the Democratic Governors Assn. that gave him a platform to build relationships with key operatives and donors nationwide. He was a leading public boosters for President Obama’s reelection campaign and had a prime-time speaking slot at the 2012 Democratic National Convention.

But it’s not just Sanders. Recent events have also seemed to conspire against the best-laid plans for O’Malley.

He had prided himself on being a law-and-order Democrat, the type of political calculation that seemed likely to prove valuable. (He once showed a video to an audience in New Hampshire that highlighted his crime-fighting strategies as mayor of Baltimore and joked about its similarity to ‘The Wire.’”)

But after recent riots in Baltimore over the death of an unarmed black man who was mortally injured in police custody, critics argued that overly aggressive policing policies he endorsed may have contributed to a culture of distrust between police and the community.

O’Malley addressed the unrest head-on in his speech, calling it “a heartbreaking night in the life of our city.”

“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,” he said, arguing that extreme and growing poverty “create conditions for extreme violence.”

“Our economic and political system is upside down and backwards and it is time to turn it around,” he said.

Among the modest crowd at O'Malley’s kickoff were protesters, one shouting “black lives matter” and another repeatedly and loudly criticizing the former mayor for “zero-tolerance” police policies.

What has seemed to excite O’Malley most in his career, though, may not be something that fires up Democratic primary voters, namely, a data-driven, analytical approach to governing. In a 2013 interview, O’Malley reflected on how his experience as a mayor shaped him.

“The great thing about the job of mayor is it’s self-evident whether or not you’re getting results,” he said. “I think that what the public is crying out for is much more accountability, much more openness, and much more transparency in the working of their government.”

But the 52-year-old O’Malley does have the potential advantage of his youth relative to the other Democratic contenders, one his campaign will be highlighting going forward. The former frontman of O’Malley’s March, an Irish rock group, he often breaks out his guitar on political travels and, on the eve of his announcement, his campaign released a short video of him strumming “Hail to the Chief.”

The former governor said in his speech that the nation needed “new leadership, new perspectives and new approaches.”

O’Malley is a new face to most Americans, particularly Democrats. A new Quinnipiac University poll, conducted May 19-26, found O’Malley polling at just 1% among registered Democratic voters, with Clinton well ahead with 57% support. Sanders’ support had spiked to 15%, up from 8% a month earlier. Four-in-five registered voters said they didn’t know enough about O’Malley to form an opinion of him.

O’Malley’s advisors argue that Sanders has demonstrated an appetite among Democrats for a robust primary, excitement that O’Malley can tap into as he becomes more familiar to voters over the course of the campaign.

Raymond Buckley, chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, said Sanders has generated a lot of energy among voters in the state, which has the nation’s first presidential primary, but that O’Malley already has a “good, solid following” by building on relationships he’s cultivated since he worked on Gary Hart’s presidential campaign in the mid-1980s.

“This is about a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes — voter-by-voter, town-by-town work. And Gov. O’Malley certainly understands that, and I think that he is committed to doing that,” said Buckley, who is neutral in the race.

Buckley also said that governors like O’Malley who “roll up their sleeves and get into the solutions” have had success before.

“He understands this isn’t a sprint. He certainly has examples of candidates that started out under the radar and built themselves up,” Buckley said.

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