Why Martin O'Malley Could Be the Future of the Democratic Party

He's trailing in the polls and low on money, but when he rolls up his sleeves and pulls out his guitar you see the leader he could be

Martin O'Malley at a campaign event in New Hampshire this year. Credit: Jon Hill/Redux

The trees are on fire in New Hampshire when Martin O'Malley says the first batshit-crazy thing that makes me want to turn my Chevy Cruze around and head for the state liquor store and then some late-October leaf-peeping. Speaking before 200 or so kids at Dartmouth College — who may or may not be getting class credit for attending — O'Malley, a buff man with bright-blue eyes, rolls up his sleeves in a vague RFK way and prowls the room with a microphone before uttering a chestnut that receives some titters: "I have a confession to make. I actually like politicians."

Later, he proudly tells me he wrote the line himself. This statement, just six weeks after the end of what O'Malley calls a political Summer of Repudiation, is why many detractors have written off his seemingly plausible — good-looking, better record — candidacy for president 100 days before the Iowa caucus. The people don't want a technocrat, someone who has built bridges, both literally and metaphorically — they want someone who is going to burn the mother to the ground. The chattering class says he's boring. And it's true he has a wonky side that can lead him down a road of dryness best characterized by a deadly speech at the 2012 Democratic Convention. The Associated Press recently described the Democratic race as a two-person contest. The irony is that on the personal side, O'Malley can be more entertaining than Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders combined. He tries to hide it, but he's done some things. His band opened for the Pogues. He and his wife do a version of "Fairytale of New York." He sometimes travels with his guitar, which, depending on your dating history, is either excellent or a deal-breaker. On a recent swing through New York, he munched a grotty Penn Station sandwich and remarked with a puckish smile, "I give my best speeches as eulogies." Which makes sense because, in person, O'Malley comes across as a cockeyed optimist filtered through Irish fatalism.

But alas, Martin O'Malley is still languishing somewhere between asterisk and three percent in Iowa. So why should we care? Well, first, it's not impossible that the handsome man with a guitar could be a nice gender and generational counterpoint for Hillary. O'Malley endorsed her in 2008, and in the cavalcade of e-mails Clinton was recently forced to release, there was one about O'Malley from 2010 to a mutual friend, Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski: "How's our friend, Martin, doing? I know he has a rematch when he should be reelected by acclamation for steering the ship of state so well. Pls give him my best wishes."

The other reason is O'Malley has actually governed for 15 years, running a city and then a state. Baltimore's violent-crime rate drastically declined under O'Malley, and as Maryland's governor, he eliminated the death penalty, passed significant gun-control legislation and signed gay marriage into law in a Southern border state. Sanders and Clinton talk a good game on these issues, but their actual executive experience is limited to Sanders' term as mayor of Burlington, Vermont. Before Obama, experience was something that mattered. And there's O'Malley's age (the Democratic bench runs old and not deep): At 52, he is 15 years younger for a party that has always depended on young voters to counteract the GOP geriatrics.

That's the happy spin. But there are problems. Sure, it's not great he has $800,000 in the bank, but, more important, there's a battle being waged inside the man's head: Is he a wonk or a man of the people? There are moments when he comes across as a human-head version of the FiveThirtyEight website. It's only when he rolls up the sleeves and pulls out the six-string that you see the leader he could be. O'Malley concedes the point somewhere in a car going from Nowhere, New Hampshire, to Even More Nowhere, New Hampshire. "I'm gonna just let it rip," he says, "and see what happens."

On the stump, O'Malley breezes over his creation story not because he isn't proud of it, but because it's just so goddamned normal. There's no absentee father in Kenya, no Hugh Rodham belittling his daughter. He's the third child of Thomas, a World War II bombardier who went to college on the GI Bill before becoming a lawyer, and his now-87-year-old mother, Barbara, who still works as a receptionist for Sen. Mikulski. He grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, home of government bigwigs and scallywag lobbyists, just outside D.C.

O'Malley was his eighth-grade class president, but his athletic career was less successful. "I like to tell my son I mostly played 'left out,' " he says with a smile on a train from New York to Baltimore later in the week. But as the waterways of Maryland pass by — many that O'Malley cleaned up as governor — he remembers his other less-publicly-varnished side. Martin's father would take him down to the Eastern Shore, where he raced through the high grass and watched the cranes fly by. "Who's the nerd with the binoculars?" he says of himself while showing off family photos on his iPad.

His parents instilled in him a Catholic sense of right and wrong and charity that his longtime friend and future chief of staff Michael Enright saw when they first met at a bus stop, where O'Malley was sharing his after-school snack with a homeless man. (OK, the guy already had his hand in the bag, but O'Malley let him munch away.) "Injustice still fires my engines," O'Malley says. He went to Gonzaga College High School and then on to Catholic University, both in the District.

He wasn't the greatest student. In his sophomore year, he began volunteering for a little-known presidential candidate named Gary Hart. O'Malley ended up taking a semester off to work on the campaign, and it changed his life.

"I came into the office one day, and we had this large filing closet that had a car seat in it, and there was a kid passed out on it," says Phil Noble, a Hart research director and now a South Carolina campaign supporter. "Someone said, 'That's O'Malley. He's been up working for three days; let him sleep.'" A couple of months later, O'Malley was dispatched to work the Columbus, Ohio, area for Hart. When Noble and another staffer hadn't heard from him for a few days, they jumped onto a plane and went looking for the 20-year-old O'Malley. "We found him playing guitar, and he had a couple of good-looking girls with him signing up volunteers," Noble recalls. "He told us when he got 500, he was going to knock off for the night."

These days, O'Malley often references Hart's early low-standing in the Iowa polls — Hart eventually finished second — as a marker that he still has a chance despite his poll numbers. "I've been most surprised about the size of the crowds we've got," O'Malley says. "They're much larger than anything Hart got until the last week."

But there is something else that mirrors O'Malley to Hart. The Colorado senator was running a campaign against an establishment figure, former Vice President Walter Mondale, and the cards were stacked against the insurgent much like they're stacked against O'Malley, with the DNC not having had the party's first debate until October — unlike in 2008, when it'd already had nine. (The lack of debates is the one thing O'Malley didn't see coming.) Even when Hart flamed out in 1988 over an alleged extramarital affair, O'Malley wasn't angry with him.

"It was like a death at the time," he says. Hart called to say he was sorry he let him down, but O'Malley told him he'd sent him a letter that, he recalls, said, "You've given me a gift that a lot of people never ever receive, and over the course of a whole life, you've shown me that one person can make a difference." 

Back in New Hampshire, O'Malley has moved on to Plymouth, a small hamlet on the Vermont border. His campaign is a generational one; days before Joe Biden declined to run, O'Malley said the Biden generation was already well-represented with Clinton and Sanders. The problem is that voters are old. Before a collection of 20 or 25 mostly senior citizens, he starts talking about one of his pet projects: his plan to move the United States to a clean-energy electric grid by 2050, a time when most of the attendees will be dust in the wind.

"In every generation, we have sown forth new leadership that occurs from within to square our shoulders to the great challenge of our times," says O'Malley. "What am I talking about? I'm talking about climate change. The greatest business opportunity to come to the United States in a hundred years!"

It sounds a little snake-oily, but there's extensive writing on his campaign website about tax credits for wind energy and other inducements. There's a Hart-esque futuristic thinking to many of O'Malley's campaign proposals, including one that would make the senior year of high school more proactive by helping students achieve college credit or learn a modern skill, like coding. "They often call senior year 'the wasted year,'" O'Malley says at a later event. Then he grins. "Wasted in different ways for different people."

He ends the night having beers at a local dive with campaign staffers and college students from Plymouth State. He likes playing the generation card with the kids, much like Hart might have. "Do you remember the last time the Democratic Party nominated a nonincumbent challenger in their sixties?" O'Malley asks. "1856. James Buchanan." He smiles. "That didn't work out that great."

The next day, O'Malley begins his morning with a town-hall meeting at Wayfarer Coffee Roaster, a coffee shop in Laconia. (After leaving, he excitedly mentions "The Wayfarer" is one of his favorite poems by writer and Irish revolutionary Padraic Pearse. He clears his throat and recites the first lines: "The beauty of the world hath made me sad/This beauty that will pass.") He spends the afternoon with recovering addicts at a rehab center in Manchester — addiction-recovery programs are one of O'Malley's campaign platforms. Later, he works a town hall in a Nashua pub, a beer near his side. Most of the drunken crowd is getting ready for Michigan to punt the game away to Michigan State, but O'Malley talks about the burgeoning wind economy and his position as the first candidate to call for the United States to accept 65,000 Syrian immigrants. There's applause, but the unvarnished O'Malley — political crusader, hale guitarist well met — remains on a shelf during his public remarks. Sure, he goes after the NRA, shouting, "I'm not going to cower from the NRA, regardless of what state I'm in. We've buried far too many of our sons and daughters from gun violence. We're the only advanced nation in the world who has this problem. I intend to campaign on it." But his fiery self, an Irish-American cliché but true, only comes out after the canned remarks end and he's mingling with a beer in hand. One punter asks him about urban unemployment, and O'Malley eagerly nods. "If we don't get the city jobs," he says, "we can't be surprised when they pick up stones and start throwing them."

But presidential candidates don't live on policy platforms alone. Humiliations must be endured. On a recent Monday in New York, O'Malley goes on The View and sings about 40 seconds of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood." The women of The View join in, and it is a hefty slice of cute and cringe. Suddenly, the campaign has become an unproduced Aaron Sorkin movie. Afterward, in a car moving downtown toward Penn Station, O'Malley doesn't immediately mention his possible pop-culture war crime, but instead, apropos of nothing, discloses that it's the ninth anniversary of a close friend's death: "He was a good man; he helped me a lot." For a man of 52, he often talks of friends past and how quickly time gets away from all of us. Then he shifts back into the now. "Hey, I met Kevin Costner backstage — he told me to keep doing what I'm doing," O'Malley says, before finally bringing up the song. "What do you think? Was that a good idea?"

Haley Morris, his effervescent press secretary, assures him that it was awesome. (His wife is less enthusiastic: "I think Taylor Swift and Ryan Adams have really done that song justice, and it needs nobody else.") He makes a fundraising call and then jumps out onto Eighth Avenue, and I can see one of his shoes has a hole in it, like Adlai Stevenson's in the famous political photo.

Until a week or so ago, O'Malley had largely put his guitar away, which was a considerable sacrifice since he's been playing in his band, O'Malley's March, for more than 20 years. He played on the weekends throughout college and after he began law school in Baltimore. It was there that he met his future wife, Katie Curran, who is now a state judge and is the daughter of J. Joseph Curran, Maryland's former attorney general. But in 2005, opponents began spreading rumors that O'Malley had been unfaithful, rumors that were never proved and eventually traced back to an aide of Gov. Bob Ehrlich, the man O'Malley would unseat in 2006. O'Malley grew older, and now, with four kids, the novelty of the guitar-playing executive began to wear thin. He started to act more like a grown-up, to the detriment of his public image. "The one guy who told me I should never stop playing music was Katie's father," O'Malley says.

But stop he did, for the most part. The placing of the Yamaha acoustic in the back closet marked a line of demarcation in O'Malley's reputation as a politician. Before, he was the boy mayor fighting crime on the drug corners of Baltimore. Then he became the policy-obsessed governor worried about polluted oyster beds and equal pay for women. The thing is, both sides existed before and after the rumors — they just became accentuated, and the man who was once seen as a bright young up-and-comer in American politics began to be dismissed as a stiff in a blue suit.

"There's always been a battle between the Martin I know and the dry, clinical policy guy he can often be," says Steve Kearney, a longtime friend and political aide. "We've had many, many discussions about it." Kearney pauses and laughs. "The thing about him running for president is this is the real Martin. He's having more fun than anyone else." 

Shortly after Martin O'Malley was elected to the Baltimore City Council, in 1991, at the age of 27 — his father-in-law being a Maryland power broker didn't hurt — he met a father of four named Robert Nowlin in the drug-ravaged neighborhood of Pen Lucy in North Baltimore. He talked of his row house being riddled with machine-gun fire and the elderly not being able to go outside because of drug trafficking on their stoops. Nowlin had started a neighborhood-watch association that was particularly notable because Nowlin is blind. O'Malley attended block meetings, sometimes with the drug dealers slinging bottles at him, but couldn't get then-Mayor Kurt Schmoke to redirect police resources to neighborhoods like Nowlin's. By 1999, O'Malley had enough and was ready to quit the council and go into private practice. But then Kweisi Mfume, Schmoke's presumed successor, opted not to run. O'Malley was thinking of jumping into the race, but in a 60 percent black city, his aides told him, it would be political suicide. O'Malley ended up running anyway. "I realized that saying I wouldn't run because I'm white is like saying the electorate couldn't fairly consider the candidacy because they are black," he recalls. "And I became repulsed and ashamed that I had let myself think like that."

According to Kearney, O'Malley got in at seven percent, but 88 days later, he was elected mayor. The year before his election, Baltimore saw 315 murders, comparable to 3,500 in a year in New York City. He went through a string of police commissioners and relied on consultants like Jack Maple, one of the architects of Rudy Giuliani's broken-windows crime policy earlier in the decade, and began arresting everyone who was breaking the law. And when I say everyone, I mean 100,000 arrests in a city of 673,000 in 1999. But crime dropped. Under O'Malley, Baltimore's decade-long string of 300-plus murders a year ended. Violent crime plummeted 41 percent. It's a stat O'Malley's campaign trumpets, but his opponents claim it was because his administration cooked the numbers, an allegation never proved.

(O'Malley's policing critics — and they are legion — would say there were other factors, including an uptick in the economy, that dropped the crime rate, but it was a net positive for O'Malley as he prepared his gubernatorial bid.)

As governor, O'Malley moved to other issues. He banned the death penalty and passed a gun-registration law that even the NRA didn't challenge. He redistributed education money, leading to Maryland having the top public schools in the country for five years. He remained hugely popular with black voters. In short, he was well-positioned for a 2016 run.

And then Freddie Gray died after being taken for a "rough ride" by Baltimore cops last April. There were riots and calls that the inherent brutality of the Baltimore Police Department could be directly tied to O'Malley's draconian policies. Despite not holding any office, O'Malley flew back from a planned trip to Ireland, where he was going to give paid speeches, and walked the streets of Baltimore. He said it was the least he could do.

"I walked into this big crowd of people, and I heard this young voice shout at me, 'Hey, O'Malley,'" he recalls. "I look up at this guy in a tank-top T-shirt, and he points at me, and the crowd looks over like, 'Uh-oh.' For the first time in 15 years, I didn't have any executive protection, and he shouts, 'You know what I've always liked about you? Your heart — you never lost it.'" (Others recall the O'Malley walk differently, citing heckling and the sense that he was not eager to linger on the city's streets.)

At the first Democratic debate, Anderson Cooper cited the arrest numbers and wondered aloud why Americans would choose to elect such a man as their president. O'Malley responded that the Baltimore he inherited was "the most violent, addicted and abandoned city in America." But it was his campaign's first introduction on the national stage, and O'Malley admits the question was "a kick in the teeth."

Some long-term residents like Nowlin, who spoke at O'Malley's campaign announcement, have no time for the Anderson Coopers of the world. "They're using revisionist history," Nowlin said. "They don't have any idea how horrible it was in Baltimore. Anderson Cooper wasn't here back then." He let out a sad laugh. "But Martin O'Malley was." 

A few days after Nashua, O'Malley sits in Lily's Diner, a Baltimore politico haunt. His aide says he was at Mass, but O'Malley corrects that upon arrival: "I was catching up with my wife. If I was at Mass, I'd have been on time."

Recently, Forbes named O'Malley the poorest of the presidential candidates, and he admits that with four kids' tuition costs and no Jeb Bush years in the private sector, the family has more in common with the middle-class worries of Americans than most candidates. He excuses himself to go make four hours of fundraising calls that got slightly easier when Biden announced he was not running. "The calls got more interesting after that," O'Malley tells me.

Later, after a rousing speech at a campaign stop in D.C., I feel semibad, as we pop beers on the train ride home, to tell him what former Baltimore Sun reporter and Wire creator David Simon had to say about his policing. I slide my phone across the table so he can read Simon's words:

"His claims of 40 percent reduction in crime in Baltimore or to having saved 1,500 lives are ridiculous, planet-sized fabrications," Simon wrote. "He destroyed any real police deterrent in Baltimore and wrecked community-department relations. And now he's plucking out claimed numbers like Joe McCarthy counting communists in order to justify the mass abuse of black citizens."

O'Malley's shoulders sag momentarily, but then he juts out his chin as if daring someone to take a swing.

"Every day, we worked to improve police and community relations," he says. "And if we hadn't, I would not have been re-elected with over 88 percent of the vote, nor would I have received such strong support from Baltimore city when I ran for governor, especially in the parts of Baltimore that saw the biggest changes in terms of open-air drug markets and open-air drug dealing."

The issue rankles his judge wife just as much. "It's just a lack of facts," says Katie O'Malley. "People voted for him twice. He got re-elected in a majority African-American city two times, because people wanted him to crack down on crime. And any kind of crime — crime leading to violent crime. Whether they were just smoking marijuana, or whether they were on the streets with an open container. The crime was happening in these majority African-American neighborhoods, and people voted for him because they said, 'We want our neighborhoods back.'"

Martin O'Malley tries to keep his temper in check, but also wants you to know it's there. "It never ceases to surprise me how readily dismissive white liberal people can be of the opinions of black people, when they express it in their vote," he says, taking a long pull on his beer.

Less than an hour later, we disembark in Baltimore, and O'Malley bumps into former VP candidate and Democrat outcast Joseph Lieberman, who says in passing, "Keep doing what you're doing." As O'Malley walks to get a dinner consisting of meatballs and a cheeseburger, he wrinkles his brow. "Is that good?"

About 10 hours later, O'Malley boards a flight from BWI to Charleston, South Carolina. There is a noon event to talk about gun control, but he disappears for an hour after landing. Only after his sparsely attended event does he tell me where he went. About 18 months ago, he'd come to the Emanuel AME Baptist Church in Charleston and met in the basement with the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a state senator, on the issues of criminal-justice reform and inner-city violence. In June, Pinckney and eight others were gunned down in the basement by Dylann Roof, a man O'Malley maintains should never have been able to buy a weapon. I ask him what it felt like to be back in the same space.

"There are some things that are impossible to make any sense of — all you can do is be present and trust that which others intended for evil, God can pull some good out of it if we work with him," O'Malley says. "You can be present for your neighbors and with your neighbors, and somehow, that does make things better." He pauses for a moment. "Especially if we resolve to take action in the wake of this tragedy and not simply shake our heads." 

For all his talk of Democrat civility and hope contrasted with the Trumps and Cruzes of the world, O'Malley must go on the attack if he wants any Democratic voters to give him a look. His people would say Democratic voters had to meet him before he could start attacking their icons. But O'Malley needs to push — after all, he's held issues longer and stronger and actually got things done.

He starts the shift on October 24th, when he speaks at the Jefferson Jackson Dinner in Des Moines, before thousands of Democratic activists, with the Iowa caucus now only 100 days away. Clinton brought Katy Perry, and Sanders brought buses full of students. O'Malley? He's sandwiched in the middle, his supporters loud but in the cheap seats. He appears jacketless and starts dry in his dreaded wonk voice and can't seem to decide whether to roll up his sleeves or let them dangle. But he speaks with anger about taking America back from the NRA and ending the carnage of gun violence. The most important plea is for the country to step forward and leave the Clinton age behind. At the same time, O'Malley gets in a dig at Sanders' evolving gun-control position and Clinton's own policy realignments:

"In 100 days, the people of Iowa will decide. New leadership, or the same old battles? Actions, or words? ... A weather vane shifts in the wind, effective leaders do not."

I notice, for the first time in a week, he'd left out the "I like politicians" line. O'Malley leaves the stage to thunderous applause, much of it from supporters of his opponents. On Monday, he goes on the offensive, saying Clinton has changed her position on everything except coddling bankers. The wonk is letting it rip and has a smile on his face. Afterward, one hopeful poll shows a slight uptick in his numbers, from three to five percent, but his chances remain smaller than the font you're reading.

But maybe it doesn't matter. People are listening to Martin O'Malley's song. And they are not bored.