It could have been a breakthrough moment for former Governor Martin O’Malley.
A former mayor/governor/turned potential presidential contender cuts short a series of paid speeches in Europe to return to the still-smoldering city he once governed and where he still lives.
“I just wanted to be present. There’s a lot of pain in our city right now, a lot of people feeling very sad,” O’Malley said Tuesday, according to The Washington Post. “Look, we’ve got to come through this together. We’re a people who’ve seen worse days, and we’ll come through this day.”
But as he hopped in and out of a black Suburban that ferried him from neighborhood to neighborhood torn apart by fire, looters, and poverty, he just became a joke. Worse, for some people, he revealed himself to be a root cause of Baltimore’s problem.
“There are a lot of cameras here in town and some people are looking for attention,” Governor Larry Hogan said Wednesday afternoon. “I’m just focused on the crisis. I’m here to answer your questions, but we’re really here trying to heal the community.”
O’Malley was even heckled, according to the Post, as he walked around the streets.
A Baltimore police veteran talking with MSNBC on Wednesday afternoon took it a step further.
“If he’s coming back to town, you may see a riot,” retired Baltimore police officer Neill Franklin said. “I would encourage him to not come to Baltimore.”
One former Maryland Democratic official, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about O’Malley, said his return to Baltimore only hurts his chances for 2016 because it reminds voters elsewhere how unpopular O’Malley was in the state when he left.
“If you look up the street to Philadelphia or you look down the street to Washington, D.C.—those cities have really turned the corner and Baltimore has not turned the corner. Going back there reminds everybody of that,” the official said. “If you are somebody in Iowa or New Hampshire and you are looking for the next president and you send a reminder that this was the city you were mayor of, and you are sitting in your living room in East Des Moines watching the city burning, and he says, ‘I can do for the country what I did for Baltimore’? I don’t think so.”
It became very clear that his staff’s insistence that his visit was not a photo-op was true. Or at least, the trip did not paint the picture that he had hoped.
O’Malley’s flirtation with the presidency and return to Charm City even sparked criticism from an old foe: David Simon.
In an interview with The Marshall Project, Simon—who created the Baltimore-based HBO drama The Wire—put the blame for the erosion of trust between police and the people firmly at O’Malley’s feet.
“Martin O’Malley’s logic was pretty basic: ‘If we clear the streets, they’ll stop shooting at each other. We’ll lower the murder rate because there will be no one on the corners,’” Simon said in the interview. The ACLU and NAACP sued Baltimore in 2006 over the so-called “zero-tolerance” policy. The city settled four years later. “But O’Malley defends the wholesale denigration of black civil rights to this day,” Simon said.
Now, not everyone hates O’Malley, of course.
Yvette Lewis, the former chairwoman of the Maryland Democratic Party, said O’Malley was doing the best he could and that the crime rate dropped considerably during his tenure.
“Decisions were made based on circumstances, decisions were made based on conditions, we are in a different era now,” she told The Daily Beast. “I think that the record speaks for itself because there was success in bringing down crime.”
She added, “He was re-elected. The people were pleased enough with what he did, with the decisions he made and with the way he led the city that he served two terms.”
It’s unlikely anyone noticed either way.
O’Malley has been in the margin of error in most polls—both nationally and early state-based.
He’s held 35 events—in 13 visits—in Iowa since November 2012, according to The Des Moines Register, and polls an average of 1.8 percent, according to Real Clear Politics. That means he’s added about 0.05 per visit. Former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee polls at 1.0 percent.
In New Hampshire, it’s not much better.
O’Malley has visited New Hampshire eight times, according to The Boston Globe, and polls at an average of 2 percent, according to Real Clear Politics.
Now, if O’Malley, like Chafee, had suddenly blurted out he was running for president after decades of obscurity, that would be one thing.
But the former Maryland governor was not only the former head of the Democratic Governor’s Association, he has spent years laying the foundation for a presidential run. During the last several months, he’s oh-so-gently poking at Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on everything from her age to the Clinton Foundation to her Wall Street ties.
And yet, for some reason, no one is listening.
But he’s still a serious contender for the White House. Because…he’s a Democrat who is thinking about running for president?
Is that really a reason?
Anything is possible, of course, when it comes to presidential races. The media love to build up unlikely contenders, at least for a little while. Long shots do rise to the top, from time to time. But after O’Malley’s less-than-warm welcome back to his hometown, this does not appear to be one of those occasions. Perhaps now we can all stop pretending he’s a real rival to Hillary Clinton.
O’Malley’s failure to take hold of this moment in the city he has staked so much of his reputation as an executive on is puzzling. But his failure to realize this Baltimore reunion would open up old, deep wounds in a community that has not quite forgiven him for tough policing policies—is politically tone deaf, at best.
O’Malley’s presence on the ground in Baltimore probably didn’t make the situation there any worse, but it sure didn’t make O’Malley’s presidential dreams any more real.