Martin O’Malley announced Saturday that he will challenge Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination — arguing he is the progressive alternative on issues like economic inequality, trade, unauthorized immigration, and same-sex marriage rights. On several of these issues, the former Maryland governor and mayor of Baltimore has big achievements that he can tout.
O’Malley is known for taking a zero-tolerance approach to policing. That record became part of the national conversation this spring when protests erupted in Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray, a young black man who died in police custody. The demonstrations were rooted in the deep mistrust between police and inner-city communities — a dynamic that O'Malley's critics say is a direct result of his policies.
So at a moment when police reform is emerging as a top liberal issue, O'Malley's big challenge will be to show Democratic voters that he has a real record of progressive achievements, despite the storyline that has unfolded in Baltimore.
Rebalance our economy so it doesn't just help the wealthy
O’Malley has harshly criticized increasing inequality in the US and has embraced progressive economic positions. "Concentrated wealth and capital have been put into the hands of the very few as never before in our country's history, at least not since the Gilded Age," he told NPR in April. So, he said, there should be a "sensible rebalancing" that allows "our middle class to grow, that expands opportunities and allows workers to earn more when they’re working harder."
This would include an increase of the national minimum wage — O’Malley’s said he could support raising it up to $15 an hour, after having raised Maryland’s to $10.10. He also says he wants to increase Social Security benefits, paying for it in part by raising payroll taxes on the wealthy.
He's been unafraid of using tax increases to fund progressive priorities
While many Democrats shrink from tax increases, Governor O'Malley made the case for several tax hikes — particularly on the wealthy — to help fund liberal priorities and close a structural deficit he inherited. "He increased sales taxes, income taxes on high-income earners and created new taxes on services. He also raised the gas tax for the first time in more than two decades and increased the corporate tax rate," the Baltimore Sun's Erin Cox wrote.
Some of the new revenue went toward funding education, and the gas tax increase paid for more infrastructure. O'Malley also created a new fee on impervious surfaces like driveways, because rainwater running off them was polluting the Chesapeake Bay (this was dubbed a "rain tax" by his opponents).
Despite all this, the Baltimore Sun pointed out that at the end of O'Malley's governorship, Marylanders were paying the same percentage of their per capita income in state and local taxes as they were at the beginning. He also cut the size of the state workforce.
Improve government’s performance with stat collection and analysis
For a decade and a half, O’Malley has been known for his attempts to use data to try and make government agencies work better. These include collection and analysis of data to help better inform his team about what the agencies are actually doing, as well as incentives aimed at improving performance. He started by adopting New York’s CompStat system to try to reduce crime in Baltimore, then launched similar efforts covering city and state agencies (CitiStat and StateStat).
In 2013, O’Malley suggested to Haley Sweetland Edwards of the Washington Monthly that if he was elected president, he'd implement a similar system, perhaps to be called FedStat. "I think the truth is we need FedStat," he said. "At a time when people are so very cynical about what our public institutions are capable of delivering, the power of openness and transparency and the willingness of leaders to make themselves vulnerable by declaring goals could well restore that essential trust that we need in order to bring forth a new era of progress."
However, critics have argued that this approach won’t actually improve things if governments are given poorly chosen metrics to chase that make their performance worse, or if the data used is manipulated in various ways. And some have lodged both of these criticisms against O’Malley, particularly regarding his approach to policing Baltimore.
Zero-tolerance policing in Baltimore
At the heart of the controversy over O’Malley’s record are his claims that he achieved "the biggest reduction in crime of any major city in America" while he was mayor of Baltimore — and that he did it through zero-tolerance policing.
When O'Malley took office, more than 300 murders a year were regularly committed in the city. He promised big crime reductions, implementing the CompStat system. And the Baltimore police began arresting more and more people — including for minor infractions like loitering. In 2013, O'Malley criticized the city’s new administration for abandoning his approach, arguing that only "half as many offenders were being arrested now" compared with 10 years ago.
However, O'Malley's critics — including national civil rights groups and David Simon, the former Baltimore Sun reporter and creator of HBO’s The Wire — tell a different story. They argue that the detentions and arrests of vast numbers of people for minor offenses (there were more than 100,000 arrests made in Baltimore, a city of about 640,000 residents, in 2005) violated residents' civil rights, that the statistics showing a decline in crime may be untrustworthy, and that the zero-tolerance approach mainly served to fuel mistrust of the police among black communities. The city later settled a lawsuit from the NAACP and ACLU over an alleged pattern of abuse.
Repealed the death penalty
One major criminal justice reform O’Malley signed into law as governor was repeal of the death penalty. He said at the time that we have "a moral responsibility to stop doing the things that are wasteful, and that are expensive, and that do not work [in reducing crime]." He said recently that "the nations responsible for the vast majority of public executions include North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, China and the United States of America. Our country does not belong in that company."
Opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership
O’Malley has staked out a strong stance against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal President Obama is pursuing. He’s said the deal is being "urged by big corporations," and would lead to "chasing of lower wages abroad" without making our domestic economy stronger. "We should enter into trade deals that actually protect workers, that actually protect our environment and that allow us to trade with like-minded people in larger markets around the world."
Signed same-sex marriage into law in Maryland
Back in 2012, O’Malley signed same-sex marriage into law in Maryland. "The way forward is always found through greater respect for the equal rights of all," he said. This year, he's taken some shots at Hillary Clinton for her later movement on the issue. "I'm glad Secretary Clinton's come around to the right positions on these issues," he said. "Leadership is about making the right decision and the best decision before sometimes it becomes entirely popular."
However, O'Malley had his own "evolution" on the issue, as Kevin Naff of the Washington Blade writes. For most of his career, O'Malley only supported civil unions, not full marriage. It was only in 2011, after he had won reelection as governor, that O'Malley announced he'd sign a same-sex marriage bill moving through the legislature. "I have concluded that discriminating against individuals based on their sexual orientation in the context of civil marital rights is unjust," he said.
Not illegal immigrants but "new Americans"
As governor of Maryland, O’Malley has taken many stances aimed at helping unauthorized immigrants, whom he calls "new Americans." One new law let unauthorized immigrants get driver’s licenses; another made in-state tuition at Maryland colleges and universities available for them.
Nationally, O'Malley wants to pass immigration reform for both moral and economic reasons, he says, and to bring "the 11 million people who are right now denied a path to citizenship into the full light of our society." During the 2014 child migrant crisis, he criticized the White House for sending Central American children back to "the death squads from which they fled."
"On my desk, as I sit here, is a sign from Baltimore that says, ‘No Irish need apply,’" O'Malley told BuzzFeed's Adrian Carrasquillo in 2014. "My great-grandparents didn’t speak English but I think America is made better by people who come from elsewhere."
Climate change "threatens life on this Earth"
O'Malley has called for strong measures to fight climate change, which he's said "threatens life on this Earth." In Maryland, he signed a 2009 law that called for cutting the state's greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2020. Ben Adler of the environmental website Grist dubbed him "a real climate hawk," and chronicled his implementation of quarterly "ClimateStat" meetings aimed at meeting those emissions targets. "This work is hard," he said in 2013. "It is life-and-death hard."