Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley addresses the International Association of Firefighters delegates at IAFF Presidential Forum in Washington on Wednesday. Photograph: Joshua Roberts/Reuters
The former Maryland governor and liberal Democrat may be the pronounced underdog, but he has faced tough odds before and won
Like Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley – who said on Thursday he would make a decision on whether to run for president in 2016 “this spring” – has only lost an election to one opponent. But the former governor of Maryland and potential 2016 Democratic candidate for the White House was defeated by a far less well-known opponent than Barack Obama – he lost a bid for the Maryland state Senate in 1990 to an incumbent named John Pica.
Pica bragged in an interview last month that he “whupped [O’Malley’s] ass” in his north-east Baltimore district. The now long-retired state legislator then admitted “I like to think it was 44 votes, he says it was 43” before settling on 43½ as a fair compromise. Pica started the race as a huge favorite, an incumbent running against a relative unknown who only moved to the famously parochial city of Baltimore just a few years before. But then O’Malley came out of nowhere to almost beat him.
Pica said he didn’t even think “the election was tight until two days before – but he understood the momentum of the campaign. I kept thinking this guy has no chance and, then, all of the sudden, this guy is making progress.” In fact, O’Malley actually had a five-vote lead on election night and only lost after a recount and late absentee ballots came in.
The question is whether O’Malley, facing just as fearsome odds in the race for the 2016 Democratic nomination, can give Clinton the same run for her money.
‘This guy is making progress’
O’Malley is a mishmash of a stray Kennedy and the type of policy obsessive who even thinktanks keep locked away in a back office cubicle. A liberal Democrat, the former Baltimore mayor has a square jaw, bulging biceps, picture-perfect family and his own Irish folk rock band in which he plays guitar and sings lead – often in shirts that show off those biceps.
However, the longtime campaign staffer on former Colorado senator Gary Hart’s two presidential campaigns is also astonishingly nerdy. O’Malley is a War of 1812 obsessive whose passion in elected office was improved data-driven management.
The same inherent contradictions apply to O’Malley’s approach to retail politics. He isn’t Hillary Clinton, gritting painfully through every interaction with a voter or a reporter, but nor is he some sort of retail wunderkind like Bill Clinton who feeds off of human interaction. Instead, he deals with it like a normal person would – as normal as any human being who is willing to spend a career in elective politics and contemplate a run for the presidency. O’Malley doesn’t come across as a backslapper or a cold fish; just a guy who, but for the grace of God, would have been a lawyer trying to forge connections with jurors in a Baltimore courtroom, not voters in an Iowa coffee shop.
As Pica described it, while O’Malley certainly had some skills in retail politics – he reminisced that O’Malley “would go into nursing homes and sing Danny Boy and all the old ladies would love it” – his real advantage wasn’t “in shaking hands”. Instead, his gift was strategy. O’Malley’s opponent still marveled at how much he learned about mailings and about “never leaving any task partially completed” during the race.
O’Malley used that 1990 race for the Maryland state Senate as a jumping-off point. A year later, he won election to Baltimore’s city council. Then, in 1999, frustrated with the city council, O’Malley launched an underdog race for mayor of Baltimore. He got in the race with only three months to go before the Democratic primary as a white man running in a predominantly African American city. O’Malley ended up receiving a majority of the vote in the primary (tantamount to election in deep-blue Baltimore). He had a successful tenure as mayor – using his obsession with data to help bring crime down significantly in Baltimore – before running for governor of Maryland against incumbent Republican Bob Ehrlich, whom he defeated in 2006.
In his eight years as governor (O’Malley beat Ehrlich again in 2010), he achieved an impressive progressive policy record even by the standards of a liberal state like Maryland. During his tenure, extensive environmental legislation passed to protect the Chesapeake Bay, gay marriage was legalized, the minimum wage was raised, the death penalty was abolished and undocumented immigrants were allowed to receive driver’s licenses. However, there were a number of setbacks too. Maryland’s health exchange under the Affordable Care Act was an expensive disaster and O’Malley’s hand-picked successor, Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown, suffered a surprising loss in the 2014 general election – based partially on discontent over O’Malley’s tax increases. This meant that for all of O’Malley’s resume of success, he left office looking politically weak.
The Maryland Democrat has long been preparing for a presidential run. In fact, he has done more to reach out to local politicos in early states such as Iowa and New Hampshire than any other Democrat, and even many Republicans. In the 2014 mid-terms, O’Malley paid for 29 campaign staffers on races across the country. This included 11 in Iowa and four apiece in New Hampshire and South Carolina. He also ended up doling out more than $365,000 to Democratic campaigns across the country, including more than $25,000 to candidates in Iowa alone.
Aidan Gillan as Tommy Carcetti in The Wire.
For all of that, one recent poll in Iowa had O’Malley at 0%. Not at the margin of error, not a fraction of 1% – not a single respondent listed the former Maryland governor as their first choice. In national polls, O’Malley has done ever so slightly better, polling between 1% and 2%. On the rare occasions that he is recognized, it’s as likely for a character on the HBO show The Wire who may have been partially based on him than for his political accomplishments.
But for all his work on the hustings and struggles in the polls, O’Malley has resisted the opportunity to take a direct shot at Hillary Clinton. Even at an appearance at the Brookings Institute on Wednesday, the former Maryland governor declined to weigh in on the brewing controversy around her use of a private email address while at the State Department. Instead, he said he was “a little sick of the email drama” and joked with reporters that he hoped that they weren’t “going to ask about the emails”.
Instead, O’Malley has been going after Clinton in the most passive-aggressive way possible. The closest he has come to slamming the former secretary of state was a veiled shot at the rhetoric of the Clinton years in a recent South Carolina speech where he said: “Triangulation is not a strategy that will move America forward.” O’Malley has also been carefully taking positions to contrast his populist bona fides with Clinton’s. He has come out in favor of reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act (the New Deal-era banking regulations which were repealed under Bill Clinton) and granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, both of which Hillary Clinton opposes. O’Malley hasn’t been criticizing her directly on this but, as Dave Weigel from Bloomberg Politics put it, staking out his position and leaving it “up to the press to figure out who might be against such a thing”.
Don’t count him out
In an interview on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Thursday morning, the former Maryland governor remained cagey about a potential bid for the White House, saying: “I’ll make a decision this spring.” However, O’Malley has been stepping up his travel schedule in recent weeks and has several upcoming trips to both Iowa and New Hampshire. “Most years, there’s the inevitable frontrunner,” he said. “And that inevitable front-runner is inevitable right up until he or she is no longer inevitable. … People inside the Beltway are usually the last people to know when something is happening in Iowa or in New Hampshire … Stay tuned.”
Even if Clinton’s nascent campaign continues to implode, O’Malley is still a pronounced underdog – but he has faced tough odds before. Pica said that his old adversary “had a charmed political life and you can never count a guy like O’Malley out”. Plus, considering that during O’Malley’s first debate in his first run for office Pica’s sister got so incensed with him that she bum-rushed the stage and started to choke him, he likely will be able to avoid any further physical violence. But even if Clinton gets the nomination, his campaign could have a profound impact on the former first lady. It certainly did on Pica.
Pica remarked that O’Malley’s campaign against him made him “a better senator”. As he recalled, O’Malley “taught me to be more attentive … and responsive to the needs of Baltimore”. To the former Maryland state senator, elections were just like capitalism. “Competition gets you the best product,” he said.