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Martin O'Malley Flirted Very Hard With San Francisco Startups During Last Week's Visit

From the bottom of his heart (and the polls), the presidential candidate talked up his tech bona fides.

Noah Kulwin / Re/code

Last Wednesday night, Martin O’Malley began his stay in San Francisco by hosting a startup pitch contest for civic tech entrepreneurs. The event was held in The Hall, a trendy pop-up food court and bar in the mid-Market neighborhood of San Francisco.

The former governor of Maryland and mayor of Baltimore, dressed in a suit and shirt, quickly ditched his tie before giving the opening remarks. Just before this, a man standing not too far behind the governor wrote on a wall in chalk: “What’s the Wi-Fi password?”

From when the governor opened his mouth at around half past eight, it took him less than 15 seconds to say “innovation and technology.” As O’Malley began speaking, the background music continued on, making it somewhat difficult to hear.

The crowd, which skewed young and preprofessional, was in a forgiving mood. There was an open bar, and the speaker was happy to tell them what they wanted to hear.

Though you might not have heard, considering that he’s polling at around 2 percent, Governor O’Malley is running for the Democratic presidential nomination. He’s trailing behind Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders just as badly in fundraising dollars as he is in the polls.

O’Malley will probably not win, even though he’s putting in the legwork in Iowa and New Hampshire.

But unlike other presidential doubtfuls who’ve recently come to sell a candidacy to Silicon Valley, his experience and policy positions aren’t so different from the tech industry norms.

As governor and mayor, he introduced transparency initiatives and pushed through a bill legalizing gay marriage. He has a detailed plan for immigration reform and he loves net neutrality.

More controversially, as mayor and governor O’Malley also created CitiStat and StateStat, data-driven government performance monitoring programs that evolved from the NYPD’s CompStat program in the 1990s.

CitiStat is credited with reducing crime in Baltimore while dramatically increasing the number of arrests (in 2005, five years after it was implemented, more than one hundred thousand arrests were made in the city). David Simon, creator of the TV show “The Wire” and a former Baltimore Sun police reporter, has accused O’Malley of using the system to “juke the stats” to lower violent crime rates.

Even though the governor didn’t judge Wednesday’s startup competition, it was easy to see that he gravitated toward the startups whose ideas most resembled his own.

The contest structure was standard; seven entrepreneurs each had a few minutes to pitch their ideas. And like a standard pitch contest, the quality of the pitches varied widely.

Governor O’Malley sat in the middle of the front row with his legs crossed, brow furrowed as he paid close attention. When he saw something he liked, you could tell because his leg started shaking and he opened his mouth slightly, and smiled.

Long-Distance Voter, a nonprofit that registers people to vote using e-signatures, got a smile. So did NextRequest, a startup that aims to make it easier to access public government records. Lassy, a sort-of crowdsourced AMBER alert service, garnered both a smile and the first-place prize.

 Ex-Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley
Ex-Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley
Noah Kulwin / Re/code

After the competition ended, O’Malley took the stage to lay out his own pitch for the audience.

The governor condemned “this period of division, fear and loathing” while calling himself “an optimist.” He said he wanted to “restore the American Dream,” from which we’ve “taken a detour in recent years.”

He promised that he would increase opportunities for computer science and STEM education, and he worked in the phrases “open data,” “procurement process” and “innovation revolution” while doing it.

After he finished his remarks, a crowd formed around O’Malley and he was swallowed up before getting whisked off by handlers to get some sleep before a panel discussion the next morning. By 9:45, things had devolved into a full-blown networking event.

As it wound down, I asked Danny Gaynor, the O’Malley campaign’s director of policy development and the contest’s MC, about the point of hosting a startup competition.

“We wanted to come out here [Silicon Valley] with humility,” he said. “You can ask people for advice here. Government underestimates technology as a pathway for solutions.”

This “humility” was evident during the following day’s panel discussion, held at the SoMa offices of Brigade, the politics app backed by Sean Parker. The panel included industry figures like ex-Facebook exec Sam Lessin and Black Girls Code founder Kimberly Bryant.

In conversation, O’Malley made nods to rolling back the kinds of legislation that entrepreneurs don’t like and instituting the kinds of transparency and accountability they do. The talk avoided concrete details, and O’Malley avoided discussing any political challenges in Washington. Everyone seemed pleased.

When the panel wrapped up, Lessin said he liked O’Malley a lot, but the fundamental differences that remain between the worlds of policy and tech go beyond any one candidate.

“The issue is that in the consumer world, you do something good and there are lots more ways to give that to the world,” Lessin said. “Government is more complicated. It biases people to work elsewhere.”

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