Small groups of young people, in clusters of two and three, could be found at every turn in Federal Hill Park in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor on Saturday morning. They were holding signs: “Fuck the police,” “Stop killer cops,” “NOMALLEY.” And they were shouting loudly: “You only care about money, O’Malley, you don’t care about the people! You lie!” and “700,000 arrests under your watch, O’Malley!”
But this was not a protest. Saturday’s event was, in fact, intended as a celebration of Martin O’Malley, who took to the stage beneath the unmerciful sun to formally declare his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president.
Things didn’t go as smoothly as the campaign might’ve hoped.
O’Malley, 52, is a former Baltimore councilman, mayor, and, for two terms, the governor of Maryland. He is a proud liberal—under his watch, Maryland ended the death penalty, legalized same-sex marriage and passed the Dream Act. But despite his record and his sociopathically charming demeanor (he plays in an Irish band, too), he is not a star in the Democratic Party, for whom Hillary Clinton remains the obvious favorite for the nomination. O’Malley, who was a fervent supporter of Clinton’s 2008 campaign, has been publicly “considering” running for president for two years, traveling the country and fundraising for other Democrats, and is still barely at 3 percent.
To hear O’Malley tell it, this fact doesn’t much concern him.
His philosophy, as he explained it to me back in March over several Coronas, is that in every campaign, there comes a time when the front-runner falters and the public gains an appetite for an alternative voice. He believes he will be that alternative voice, and that once the public hears what he has to say, they will be sold.
“There’s a lot of examples where, in our party, there was an inevitable front-runner right up until the first contest,” he told me. “And then, suddenly, the country says, ‘Oh my goodness, the front-runner wasn’t inevitable,’ and there’s a challenger that none of us has ever heard of.”
A few hundred people, at least, have heard of Martin O’Malley, and they dutifully filed into Federal Hill Park on Saturday morning. The park is historic for serving as a lookout post during the War of 1812, which O’Malley is obsessed with.
Jake Polce and Mallory Donaghue, both 18, told me they came because “it has to do with Maryland pride.” Donaghue said she liked what O’Malley stands for, but when asked to elaborate said, “I don’t know,” and asked Polce to intervene. Polce said ending the death penalty and passing the Dream Act were his main reasons for supporting O’Malley, but he admitted he knew little about the other Democratic candidates.
Mike McQuestion, 63, told me “I know Martin O’Malley from my neighborhood and I like the guy.” He said on occasion they’ve talked over beers. He added that he always footed the bill for the candidate.
Eve Bolton said, “My view is anybody but Hillary because of the scandals,” but Bernie Sanders is “too much to the left.” O’Malley, she said, “has experienced being a mayor and governor.” But beyond that, he’s “electable.”
With that in mind O’Malley took to the stage, clad in a white shirt and blue, striped tie, for a wide-ranging speech wherein he called for immigration reform, equal rights for the LGBT community (even, notably, using the word “transgender”—a first, to my knowledge, in a presidential announcement speech) and a leveling of the economic playing field.
Supporters climbed onto a jungle gym, complete with swings and a slide, to get a good view as O’Malley spoke.
“This generation of Americans still has time to become great,” he said. “We must save our country now, and we will do that by rebuilding the dream.”
But as O’Malley delivered his remarks, a small group of others made their voices heard, too—and called to mind the criticisms of O’Malley’s record on crime and police brutality which came under scrutiny during the Baltimore riots earlier this month.
A woman charged through the crowd holding a sign reading “Stop killer cops” and “say her name.” She shouted, “Black lives matter!” Someone else yelled, “We don’t need zero tolerance policies, O’Malley!” and “What about police brutality?” The protesters blew whistles, which drowned out O’Malley.
Police and press surrounded them, and O’Malley just carried on as if it was not happening.
As I was exiting the park, I came across Andrew Fair, 30, who held a sign almost as large as his body, which read “NOMALLEY.” He told me about six or seven people had stopped him to discuss the sign. “I think O’Malley’s not concerned with people’s needs. He just wants to advance his career,” he said.
Of course, you could say that about any politician, I countered. “I think he’s particularly bad,” Fair said. “I think he’s immoral, I think he will just do whatever it takes to get power and he doesn’t care who he’s hurting.”
A few feet from Andrew, three protesters, wielding megaphones and a “Fuck the police” sign, shouted that they wanted to prevent the next murder of a young black man by a police officer. An O’Malley supporter exiting the park could be heard mumbling, “Well, tell them to stop killing each other.”