In just a few weeks’ time, Martin O’Malley is expected to officially announce his campaign for President, with Baltimore as his kick-off location. Last night that city was engulfed by violence, chaos, fires and clashes between rioters and police, the latest major American city to struggle with fallout from an African American man’s death after an encounter with police. For a man who’s built his reputation on his effective governing of Baltimore and Maryland, this is certainly not how O’Malley envisioned the backdrop of his presidential launch to look.

This was supposed to be an enjoyable week for the former Governor. He had just flown across the pond to deliver paid speeches in London and Dublin, looking to fill his personal coffers before embarking on a year or more of a full-time job of running for President. He spent barely any time in Europe before turning around and getting back on a plane to return to the city he loves, now suddenly featured on every cable news channel as scenes of lawlessness overtake several neighborhoods.

“I’m saddened that the City I love is in such pain this night,” O’Malley said in a statement before returning home. “All of us share a profound feeling of grief for Freddie Gray and his family. We must come together as one City to transform this moment of loss and pain into a safer and more just future for all of Baltimore’s people.”

How O’Malley will deal with this crisis will be fascinating to watch, and could majorly impact his presidential campaign before it’s even official. Reducing Baltimore’s crime is a centerpiece of his legacy. “When I decided to run for mayor [in 1999], my city had become the most violent, most addicted, most abandoned city in America,” O’Malley says in his stump speech. “We saw open air drug markets, and we began to relentlessly close them down. And when the people of Baltimore saw their government working again, the people started to rally too.”

And he did achieve considerable success in combating his city’s crime, which the Baltimore Sun noted in their fact-check of his claims a week ago:

Baltimore’s total incidents of crime — measured by the FBI as violent and property crimes — declined 43 percent from 2000 to 2010. That was the largest reduction of any major city, according to an analysis of FBI data for 28 cities with populations over 580,000. It far outpaced the 11 percent nationwide decline over the same period.

However, the results were not uniformly positive, and many may now start to wonder if some of the heavy-handed tactics encouraged long-simmering frustrations that helped lead to outbursts we’ve seen this week. The Sun also highlighted O’Malley’s approach’s short-comings:

Meanwhile, the mass arrests that were part of O’Malley’s “zero-tolerance” policing strategy became controversial.

In 2005, the Police Department made more than 100,000 arrests in a city of 640,000 people. The following year, the NAACP and the ACLU sued the city on behalf of 14 people, alleging that their arrests indicated a broad pattern of abuse in which thousands of people were routinely arrested without probable cause. The city settled the lawsuit in 2010 for $870,000, agreed to retrain officers and publicly rejected zero-tolerance policing. O’Malley’s supporters have long noted that his crime strategy has been subjected to three elections in which he received overwhelming support in African-American communities often affected by zero-tolerance policing.

The Washington Post recently reported on this sense in the community as well:

Yet some civic leaders and community activists in Baltimore portray O’Malley’s policing policies in troubling terms. They say the “zero-tolerance” approach mistreated young black men even as it helped dramatically reduce crime, fueling a deep mistrust of law enforcement that flared anew last week when Gray died after suffering a spinal injury while in police custody.

O’Malley has presented his record as Mayor of Baltimore to Democrats around the country as a success that turned around the deeply troubled city. And in many cases, that is verifiably true. But any potential mistakes and unintended consequences that came with it will now face intense scrutiny as the national press descends upon the city.

That could shift the campaign narrative that, until now, O’Malley has largely been able to control for himself. He’s appealed to the party’s left on gay marriage and TPP, working hard to claim the progressive banner in the primary. But a closer focus on his crime-fighting policies could distract from that effort. In 2012 the Washington Post characterized his hard stance approach this way: “Democrat or Republican, O’Malley can be counted among the most conservative of his contemporaries on crime.”

Most of all, it could strike at one of his central rationales for running: that he’s a performance-based problem-solver who used data and measurable goals to make government work again. He’ll face a lot more questions now on his use of the CitiStat program in Baltimore, and whether a focus on quantity and numbers overlooked the quality of the efforts, which may have caused long-term underlying problems to fester. Was there a better way to go about it in the early 2000s? Or was O’Malley’s the best approach to take in a city suffering from massive amounts of crime at that point in time? Is that the same method cities should take now?

Even before the Freddie Gray situation exploded in Baltimore, O’Malley had been addressing racial strife and mistrust of law enforcement on the campaign trail, beyond just his own record. He expanded on the topic in an interview with CNN while in South Carolina:

“There’s probably very few issues quite as intertwined to the really painful racial legacy in our country than the issue of law enforcement and public safety,” he said. “We have to be able to talk to one another, we have to be able to acknowledge our fears and our shortcomings, and we have to make all of our institutions, including our police departments, more open and transparent.”

So while the chaos in Baltimore poses a serious challenge to O’Malley’s campaign, it could also present a huge opportunity. If America is going to continue to experience urban unrest brought on by racial tensions between African American communities and police, perhaps it’s best to have someone who’s been on the front lines of the issue. Critics may disagree with some aspects of O’Malley’s policing strategies, but is there anyone else in the country who could legitimately run for president right now that has more experience with managing crime and racial strife in major cities? If handled well, the violence and chaos in Baltimore could serve as an opportunity for O’Malley to present himself as an expert on solving the problem besetting so many American cities. Handled poorly, and it could derail his campaign in its infancy. Either way, it’s now a much larger part of O’Malley’s presidential run.

 

by Pat Rynard
Posted 4/28/15

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