WASHINGTON — Former Gov. Martin O'Malley, who is considering a run for president next year, tried last week to put some distance between himself and rival Hillary Clinton.
A Clinton campaign aide had announced days earlier that the former Secretary of State and first lady, who once opposed gay marriage, now viewed it as a constitutional right.
"I'm glad Secretary Clinton's come around to the right positions on these issues," O'Malley told reporters, taking the latest in a series of shots at the presumptive front-runner for the Democratic nomination. "Leadership is about making the right decision and the best decision before sometimes it becomes entirely popular."
The zing made news — another example of O'Malley attacking Clinton from the left. But it also glossed over the nuance of the former governor's own record on gay marriage — an issue on which he also evolved, and relatively recently.
Yes, O'Malley ushered in same-sex marriage in Maryland in 2012. But that was his sixth year as governor, and he had frustrated advocates by letting that issue founder in the General Assembly only a year before. Maryland became the eighth state to recognize same-sex marriage at the time the bill was signed.
As he looks ahead to a possible presidential campaign, O'Malley is telling a national audience that his record as mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland prepared him for the White House.
But campaign sound bites tell an incomplete story, and an examination of O'Malley's stump speech shows that his words sometimes lack the shades of gray that are more common in governing than in politics. Here's a deeper look at some of the broad claims O'Malley is making, and the context behind them.
From O'Malley's stump speech: "Together, we made Maryland one of the top states for upward economic mobility.… And since the depths of the recession, Maryland actually created jobs faster than our neighbors to the north or south of us."
Governors, like presidents, get blamed when the economy tanks. So it's natural for them to claim credit when times are good. For much of O'Malley's tenure in Annapolis, the state's economy was in good shape when compared with the rest of the nation.
An underlying question, though, is how much of the growth in Maryland had to do with O'Malley and how much was the result of federal money flowing from Washington, which had an outsized influence in the state. As federal budgets have tightened, Maryland's gross state product flattened, leaving the state's annual growth ranked 49th in the nation in 2013, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Prior to those cuts, "Maryland's performance was solid relative to the balance of the nation," said economist Anirban Basu, who runs the Baltimore-based consulting firm Sage Policy Group. "As soon as the federal dollars began to expand more slowly, Maryland's poor economic diversification became apparent."
Basu worked on Republican Gov. Larry Hogan's transition team this year, but he has also been hired by many Democrats — including for O'Malley's mayoral campaign.
O'Malley aides correctly note that Maryland's gross state product grew faster than the national average since 2006. But that only underscores the role federal spending may have played here. From 2011 to 2013, as spending from Washington slowed, Maryland's gross state product significantly under-performed the national average.
It's true that the Pew Charitable Trusts gave Maryland, New Jersey and New York high marks in 2012 for upward economic mobility, which is defined as the ease with which families can increase their earnings.
But Pew looked at decades of data up to and including 2007, O'Malley's first year in office. In other words, most of the data in the study comes from before O'Malley was sworn in.
O'Malley aides point out that the state has performed well in other reports, such as a ranking of "economic opportunity" by the States Project. Putting aside that the report relies in part on the Pew study, it is a different measure than O'Malley's specific claim.
O'Malley says the state "created jobs faster than our neighbors." It is true that Maryland's employment grew by 4.6 percent between June 2009 and December of last year, compared with 4 percent for Virginia and 3.9 percent for Pennsylvania. (O'Malley considers February 2010 the trough of the recession, which makes the contrast with other states look even better).
But here's a metric O'Malley doesn't tout: The state has higher unemployment than most other states in the region: Maryland has 5.5 percent unemployment, compared with 5.2 percent in Pennsylvania and 4.7 percent in Virginia.
And Hogan defeated O'Malley's lieutenant governor, Anthony G. Brown, in last year's gubernatorial election in part with a campaign message of a state economy in crisis, high taxes and a climate that is driving employers away.
From O'Malley's stump speech: "Over the next 10 years, Baltimore went on to achieve the biggest reduction in crime of any major city in America."
As a city councilman running for mayor in 1999, O'Malley promised to instill zero-tolerance crime-fighting. Today he compares the city's efforts against crime under his leadership to the way Baltimoreans rallied to beat back the British during the War of 1812.
As mayor from December 1999 through January 2007, he did lead the charge to revise policing techniques.
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.
The overall crime rate — the number of all crimes per 100,000 residents — also fell in Baltimore during that time. But the city's crime rate reduction of 40 percent was not the nation's biggest; Baltimore and Los Angeles tied for second, behind El Paso, Texas.
In 2000, Baltimore was the nation's most violent city. In 2010 it ranked third, behind Detroit and Memphis, Tenn.
Such trends also generally held true from 2000 to 2006, the period that closely overlapped O'Malley's time as mayor.
The number of killings in Baltimore increased during O'Malley's tenure, from 261 in 2000 to 276 in 2006. Both numbers were lower than they had been in the decade before he became mayor, when the city registered more than 300 murders every year.
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.
Baltimore's homicide rate reached a 30-year low of 197 in 2011, five years after O'Malley left office and after the Police Department had implemented an entirely different strategy.
"Demography has more to do with crime increasing or decreasing than any one policy," said Michael Maltz, an emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "A politician is always looking to embellish his own record to the best that he can. If there's something that gets better during his administration he'll take credit for it."
Schools and wages
From O'Malley's stump speech: "We passed a living wage. We raised the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour ... we made our public schools … the best in the country for five years in a row."
For years, O'Malley has been touting Maryland's No. 1 finish in Education Week's annual rankings of public schools. It is true that the Bethesda-based publication put Maryland at the top of the list from 2009 through 2013.
What O'Malley doesn't note is that Education Week changed its methodology for the rankings in 2015, leaving Maryland in third place for the 2014-2015 school year. Had that methodology been applied previously, the state would also have come in third in 2012, 2013 and 2014.
Third place isn't bad — but it's not "the best." It's also fair to ask how much O'Malley's policies contributed to Maryland's good grades. The answer is complicated by the fact that Education Week did not consistently grade state school systems prior to his inauguration.
O'Malley aides stressed that the reduction in ranking doesn't represent a drop in quality, which mirrors what Education Week researchers have said. But the fact that the state's ranking can change when one reputable methodology is exchanged for another illustrates the danger in reading too much into a first-place finish.
Regardless, education analysts give O'Malley credit for maintaining funding while other states were making cuts — which is at the heart of O'Malley's message on the campaign trail.
"From all I have seen over the years, Maryland is working hard at improving its schools and has stuck with that task for a long time," said Jack Jennings, former president of the Center on Education Policy. "But Maryland, like every state, has a way to go to be able to say its public schools are excellent."
O'Malley received national attention in 2007 for pushing a "living wage" bill through the General Assembly, the first of its kind in the nation. The law applies only to employees of some state service contractors. A 2008 report by the Department of Legislative Services found that about 34 percent of the state's service contracts — or half, by dollar value — were exempt from the requirements.
The current living wage in the Baltimore-Washington corridor is $13.39 an hour.
O'Malley got behind the minimum wage increase, which applies to broader pool of workers, during his last legislative session in 2014 and helped push the measure through. The increases are phased in through 2018.
From O'Malley's stump speech: "Together, we brought back the health of the waters of the Chesapeake Bay." [Iowa, 4/10/2015]. "We took action to restore the health of the waters of the Chesapeake Bay." [Iowa, 3/20/2015].
Environmental issues, so far, haven't played a prominent role in the early jockeying for the Democratic nomination. That could change, and environmentalists in Maryland say O'Malley has plenty to crow about on this front.
When on script, O'Malley's statement on his Chesapeake Bay efforts are on solid ground — he "took action" on the bay. But when he veers off message, as he did recently with a group in Iowa, to suggest he finished the job, he overstates the case.
Analysts point to the aggressive plan Maryland submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency in 2010 for meeting federally imposed pollution targets. They note the governor's personal interest in restoring the oyster population — and that the harvest has quadrupled over the past five years. And they applaud his administration's effort in 2012 to double the state's so-called flush tax, the $5 a month average fee that pays for improvements to sewer and water systems.
Still, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation graded the health of the estuary last year at "D-plus," generally consistent with the "D" grade it delivered in 2006. The foundation's measure of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution — which ultimately lead to dead zones in the bay — as well as the level of toxic chemicals remained mostly unchanged. Other metrics, notably dissolved oxygen, improved.
"We're very happy with many actions that the O'Malley administration took," said Karla Raettig, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters. "We were sometimes frustrated."
The biggest frustration, several environmentalist say: the O'Malley administration's delay of rules to limit phosphorous runoff. The rules were intended to limit how much chicken manure farmers may use as fertilizer. When it rains, the runoff washes phosphorus into the bay.
After years of considering the rules, which are opposed by farmers, O'Malley waited until after November's election to begin the process of implementing them.
Governor Hogan, in one of his first acts in office, suspended the rules days before they took effect. He then reached a deal with Democratic legislators that would keep much of O'Malley's proposal in place, while delaying the implementation for some farmers.