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Martin O’Malley returns to a Baltimore he barely recognizes

“On this corner,” Martin O’Malley told me, “was where one of our early line-of-duty deaths happened.”

O’Malley, who has just started driving himself again after 15 years of being chauffeured as Baltimore’s mayor and then Maryland’s governor, navigated his black Explorer slowly along Harford Avenue, on the city’s weathered East Side. He pointed out the window to the intersection of Harford and Cliftview.

“His name was Michael Cowdery. His father was a Philadelphia police detective. He got into a running battle with a drug dealer here. He took a bullet to his knee, and as he fell, he dropped his gun. And the drug dealer walked up to him, on the street a block away from our district court, and put a bullet through his head.”

O’Malley paused for a long moment. He looked like a man who hadn’t slept much.

“He was one of 10 police officers I buried in my time as mayor,” he said. His voice cracked slightly, and to my surprise his eyes welled with tears. “That was the most we ever buried in a 10-year period.” Pause. “And half of them were black, and half of them were white. And each one became harder.”

O’Malley is an exceptionally composed politician — maybe too composed. He normally speaks in a flat cadence that can feel rehearsed, and in oddly formal language. (He likes to talk about these United States, as if possessed by the ghost of Abraham Lincoln.) The New York Times’s Jason Horowitzdescribed O’Malley earlier this week as wearing his smile like a shield.

But that was not the O’Malley who invited me Thursday on a two-hour drive through some of Baltimore’s poorer neighborhoods and grimmest landmarks. Mayors sometimes like to take reporters around their cities so they can show them all the cranes raising up gleaming new office towers and condominiums; O’Malley had in mind a tour through the tragic past, so I could understand what life had been like in this anguished city before he got there, and after.

This O’Malley was shaken. He had canceled his scheduled speeches in Ireland and flown back to Baltimore Tuesday, after news of the rioting and looting reached the world. It wasn’t clear what exactly he was supposed to be doing, so he walked the streets and reassured old friends.

“I had to be here,” he told me in a thick voice. “I couldn’t be away. I mean, I was so sad. I just needed to be home. I’m talking to my kids, and they’re holding the phone up as I’m listening to the mayor talk about what’s going on, and I — I just needed to be home.”

The political landscape to which he returned seemed changed and more treacherous. Before the riots, O’Malley was widely considered the only credible challenger to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, even if voters didn’t yet seem aware of him. (Barack Obama joked at last weekend’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, with O’Malley in attendance, that O’Malley had begun his campaign by going unrecognized at his own rally.)

O’Malley at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in Washington. (Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters) 

But even before he set foot back on American soil, O’Malley’s legend as a popular and successful mayor was under attack, with critics suggesting that his “zero tolerance” police policies had led inexorably to the death of Freddie Gray and the riots that kept downtown Baltimore shuttered for much of the week.

Clinton, meanwhile, was off giving a speech in New York about reforming criminal justice and treating drug offenders more humanely — a coincidence that seemed to underscore O’Malley’s sudden disadvantage (as if he needed another).

But none of that was what seemed to be fueling his emotions as he veered, sometimes erratically, through the hollowed-out streets of his city. (“It’s OK, I’ve driven before, it’s fine,” he assured me at one point, after his press aide, Lis Smith, whimpered audibly in the back seat.)

Those of us who follow politicians for a living can begin to regard them as caricatures of ambition — people whose every waking thought revolves around electoral calculus and gamesmanship. Sometimes, I have to say, we’re not far off.

But more often, politicians are much like the rest of us; they have a story they tell about themselves, a self-image that defines and sustains them. And O’Malley’s story is about a 36-year-old white councilman in a majority-black city who gets elected mayor by promising to slash crime in one of the country’s most dangerous cities, and who becomes a local hero for getting it done. It means more to him than any campaign.

Protesters march from Baltimore’s Sandtown neighborhood to City Hall. (Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty)

“The events of this week have been totally heartbreaking,” O’Malley told me quietly at one point. “I don’t know any other way to express it.” I wondered which he found more painful — that the city he loved had come unglued, or that others might think he should shoulder the blame.


It’s hard to remember now, as we talk about alleviating prison overcrowding and mull new kinds of alternative drug sentencing, how large crime loomed as an issue during the crack epidemic of the late ’80s and throughout the ’90s. When I worked as a night-shift reporter in Boston in the mid-’90s, covering drug shootings was a twice-weekly occurrence, at least; if the victim didn’t die, it barely rated a mention in the paper.

Nowhere was the issue more pressing than in Baltimore, which by 2001 had the highest violent-crime rate of any big city in America. As in other cities, the vast majority of victims were poor and black.

As a councilman, O’Malley had closely studied the examples of New York and Philadelphia, where so-called zero-tolerance policies had dramatically reduced violence on the streets. Those cities subscribed to the “broken windows” theory of George Kelling, an influential criminologist, who argued that allowing even a small amount of crime to go unpunished was like leaving broken windows unfixed; it sent a signal of neglect and disorder that invited more deterioration.

O’Malley announced his candidacy in 1999 in an East Side neighborhood that had been designated a “drug-free zone” but that everyone knew was rife with dealers. As he drove me past the corner where he announced, he recalled how the night before, he and his brother had come to scout the location, and a dealer had immediately approached the car. “What do you want?” the menacing kid demanded.

Speaking at his announcement the next day, O’Malley said the city had to ask itself the same question. “Six months after I take office,” he said brashly, “the open-air drug market of this corner and nine others will be things of our city’s past. In the second year, 20 more open-air drug markets will likewise be shut down, and thus will the people of this city easily measure our success and failure.”

Campaigning that summer, O’Malley would ask every audience the same question, which had become a kind of mantra in the city: “If I can see it, and you can see it, how come the police can see it and don’t do anything about it?” He won 53 percent of Democrats in the primary vote and swept into office with 91 percent of the vote.

Running through a succession of police chiefs, O’Malley set about instituting the same single-minded focus on metrics that had worked for Rudy Giuliani in New York. A critical test came less than two years into his mayoralty, when seven members of the Dawson family — the parents and five children — were murdered after complaining to police about drug activity on their corner.

Protesters clash with police in Philadelphia after days of unrest in Baltimore in response to Freddie Gray’s police-custody death. (Photo: Matt Rourke/AP)

Shattered, O’Malley responded with a campaign he called “Believe,” urging Baltimore’s beleaguered citizens not to give up on fighting crime. Driving around, we could still spot that logo on bumper stickers and garbage cans around the city.

The results were undeniably impressive. Under O’Malley, according to data compiled by the FBI and provided by his aides, violent crime in Baltimore decreased 41 percent — the largest single reduction of any major American city during that time. Homicides fell to under 300 annually — and stayed there — for the first time in a decade.

Metrics-driven policing, however, was always controversial. The main criticism, in effect, is the same as the one leveled at test-driven school curricula. Just as “teaching to the test” creates an incentive for teachers to focus on test-prep rather than actual learning, so too does zero-tolerance policing create an environment in which police commanders are rewarded for taking more people off the streets, whether they deserve it or not.

You can see how this would lead to more bogus arrests, harassment and a kind of wartime mentality on the streets. All of which we have recently been glimpsing in some of America’s troubled cities, in part thanks to the proliferation of cheap camera phones.

David E. Simon, a chronicler of Baltimore who created the brilliant drama “The Wire” for HBO, gave an interview to Bill Keller of the Marshall Project this week in which he charged that O’Malley “destroyed police work” in the city. (The two men have a long history of antipathy, stemming from O’Malley’s concern that “The Wire” was recklessly tarnishing Baltimore’s reputation even as he was cleaning up the city.)

Essentially, Simon argued that, under O’Malley, cops were pressured to manipulate police data by arresting every black guy they could find, no matter how small or unprovable the offense, and by underreporting violent crimes that weren’t lethal.

When I asked O’Malley about Simon’s interview from my perch in the passenger seat, he said he hadn’t read it. “I kind of know his opinion,” O’Malley said. I summarized the argument for him anyway, while he stared hard out the windshield.

“Some people see Baltimore as a hopeless place,” he said. “Some have even made a lot of money on it.”

O’Malley went on to tell me that, in addition to emphasizing more arrests, he had always talked about “policing the police,” too, and had given out the number for the city’s civilian review board at every community meeting. He also opened the first new drug-treatment facility in Baltimore in 30 years and a series of community centers for kids, including one in the house where the Dawsons had been killed.

O’Malley points out that shootings in which police were involved also fell, under his watch, to their lowest point in more than a decade.

Protesters in New York after the death of Freddie Gray. (Photo: Craig Ruttle/AP)

“From the day I announced, and every day after that, there’s never been a time when I wasn’t being accused of engaging in brutal, racist, mass-arrest policing,” O’Malley said. “Even a broken clock is right for one minute.”

You can pretty easily see how both of these arguments could have some merit. Yes, metrics-based policing probably contributed to the tension in a lot of cities. Kelling’s theory may ultimately have led urban policing, at this moment of widening inequality and racial resentment, to a dark and dangerous place.

But it’s also true that crime reductions like those O’Malley achieved in Baltimore aren’t just numbers on a page; they represent a vast difference for poor families whose neighborhoods had become overrun with corner dealers and drive-bys, to the point where their children couldn’t go outside. If you’re going to indict the excesses of policing that victimize minority populations, then you also have to acknowledge how that same policing made it possible for a lot of citizens to go about their daily lives.

O’Malley estimates that something like 1,000 African-American men are alive in Baltimore today who wouldn’t be had the crime rate remained where it was before his election, and it’s not an unreasonable contention.

And O’Malley is right when he points out that the current crisis in Baltimore — as in Ferguson and Charlotte — is only partly about the deplorable policing that sparked it. It’s also largely about entrenched poverty that leaves people feeling desperate, overlooked and ready to explode.

“We’ve allowed our economy to become brutal and disregarding of the needs of the human beings we’re supposed to construct an economy for,” he told me at one point. “We’ve created this atmosphere in cities across the country of very angry African-American men who feel like their country wants them to go away, who feel like their country does not care about them, wants them to be unheard and unseen. And extreme poverty can be extremely violent.”


Some reporters who caught up with O’Malley Tuesday, when he went immediately from the airport to the riot-torn neighborhood of Penn North, talked about the few angry citizens who heckled him on his walk. There was none of that Thursday. Several passersby who recognized the former mayor and governor on the streets seemed eager for a hug or a handshake.

O’Malley at the 2015 South Carolina Democratic Party state convention. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty)

Downtown and near the touristy harbor, the streets were unusually empty, as if Baltimore didn’t quite trust the calm to hold.

The current mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, is the daughter of one of O’Malley’s earliest political patrons, and I asked him if he agreed with her decision to give rioters the space they needed to vent, rather than forcibly restoring order.

“I don’t know,” he said with a sigh. “She has a job to do tactically on the ground, and I’m not in a position to second-guess her on that. No one, knock on wood, has lost their life in this, and that’s no small accomplishment.”

O’Malley’s political life, on the other hand, remains imperiled, and it may be a few weeks before anyone can really assess the damage to his presidential aspirations. He told me he’s not thinking about any of that right now, and I believed him, at least to the extent that he seemed too emotionally exhausted to contemplate much beyond the weekend.

I came away thinking, though, that in some strange way the events of this past week had the potential to make O’Malley a more compelling candidate, rather than less. For the past few months, as he has striven to introduce himself to liberal voters in Iowa and New Hampshire who might entertain some alternative to Clinton, O’Malley has mostly been channeling Elizabeth Warren populism. He’s called for expanding Social Security, killing the free-trade pact with Asian countries and making college debt-free for everyone.

Which is all fine, except it has the feel of a guy who’s voicing someone else’s passionate pitch. Combined with the less accessible style that seems to be O’Malley’s fallback, his positions may land as just that — a checklist of positions, rather than something more personal and authentic.

The O’Malley who drove me through the streets of Baltimore Thursday, though, seemed more like the young guy who shocked Baltimore when he won over its desperate African-American voters in 1999. He was a mayor hurting for his people. He had a story about turning around a city that he was burning to tell.

That O’Malley might actually surprise some skeptics in the primary states. The question is whether he still believes he can get a hearing.

At the end of our drive, we stopped into a Subway downtown, where O’Malley ate a roast beef sandwich, pausing every few minutes to wave to some well-wisher through the window. A Puerto Rican man who walked into the shop spoke to O’Malley in halting English.

“You are a candidate, yes?” the man asked hopefully.

“We’ll see,” was all he got back.

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