Martin O'Malley, the former Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor who ushered in an era of tech-savvy management and a new brand of progressive politics during more than two decades in public office announced his long-expected campaign for president on Saturday.
With Baltimore's skyline as his backdrop, the 52-year-old Democrat framed the election next year in dire economic terms, arguing that income inequality is making it harder for Americans to save for retirement and send children to college, that corporate interests are winning out over small businesses.
"We are allowing our land of opportunity to become a land of inequality," O'Malley told several hundred people gathered at Federal Hill Park to hear his announcement. "Main Street struggles, while Wall Street soars."
Despite a long career in state and local office — and a deep inventory of liberal accomplishments in Annapolis — O'Malley starts as a decided long shot, forced to campaign in the shadow of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a onetime ally.
O'Malley used his speech to repeat themes he has long sounded in early primary states: That his executive experience sets him apart from both Clinton and Sanders, and that he represents a new generation of leadership. He did not mention Clinton by name, but repeated a veiled jab he has used against her before.
"The presidency is not a crown to be passed back and forth by you between two royal families," he said, in reference to the Clinton and Bush families.
O'Malley, who got his start in politics on Gary Hart's 1984 presidential campaign, left Maryland on Saturday for a two-day swing through Iowa and New Hampshire. He phoned Clinton ahead of his announcement to personally inform her of his plans to run against her.
Early in his speech, O'Malley touched on the riots in Baltimore in April — sparked by the death of Freddie Gray, who sustained his fatal injuries while in police custody. He said the experience was about more than policing and race. It was, he said, "about everything it is supposed to mean to be an American."
"For all of us who have given so much of our energies to making our city a safer, fairer, and more prosperous place, that was a heartbreaking night for all of us," O'Malley said. "For us, Baltimore is our country and our country is Baltimore."
But the line did not appease some protesters who yelled and blew police whistles from within the park. O'Malley has faced criticism for his tough-on-crime policing policies as mayor, which some critics have argued drove a wedge between law enforcement and the communities they patrolled.
"What about Freddie Gray?" one man shouted in the back.
The former governor is the third candidate to enter the race for the Democratic nomination. On the Republican side, there are already eight candidates in and least a half dozen more who likely to run. One of those Republicans, retired Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon Ben Carson, lived for years in Maryland.
O'Malley may be best known as the young, brash, guitar-playing councilman who was improbably elected in 1999 to lead a majority-African-American city beset by poverty, abandonment and violent crime. He embraced a new way of thinking about management — relying on data to measure the time it took to fill potholes and fix streetlights — and a tough policing strategy that remains controversial today.
Confronting a city paralyzed by violence and 300-plus homicides a year O'Malley arrived at City Hall in 1999 with a zero-tolerance police strategy imported from New York. As he wrestled with top brass at police headquarters, officers cleared open drug markets and arrests soared. Over the next decade, Baltimore experienced the largest reduction in crime of any large city in the country.
But the strategy was controversial then, and recent police brutality cases like Gray's have brought new scrutiny of his record. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration issued a report claiming O'Malley had harmed the relationship between communities and police.
Still, O'Malley remained popular with voters, especially Democrats. He received national praise for his energy and commitment to the city, and cruised to reelection in 2003. Three years later, he ran for governor and unseated incumbent Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
During his tenure as governor, O'Malley signed laws that recognized gay marriage, raised the minimum wage, tightened gun restrictions and repealed the death penalty. He took several steps to help immigrants who entered the country illegally. His administration guided the state through the Great Recession, which hit Maryland with less force than the rest of the nation.
Republican Larry Hogan tied Brown to O'Malley's policies, including tax increases on income, gas, and sales. In deep blue Maryland, many Democrats stayed home rather than support Brown. O'Malley's approval ratings sank.
Speculation about his national ambitions began more than a decade ago, and increased in recent years as he traveled to early primary states to build relationships with out-of-state Democrats and donors.
Alan Keyes, who lives in Montgomery County, ran for the GOP nomination in 1996, 2000 and 2008. The last Maryland governor to seek the presidency was Albert C. Ritchie, who lost the Democratic nomination to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932.
Underscoring O'Malley's challenge: he received support from just 3 percent of likely Iowa caucus participants in a recent Quinnipiac University poll. Clinton had 60 percent.
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"The only way he's going to have a path, is if she stumbles," said Stuart Rothenberg, publisher of the non-partisan Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report. "Right now, it's not about O'Malley and I don't believe it ever will be about O'Malley."
But because the state doesn't hold its primary until late April, what Marylanders remember about O'Malley — good or bad — will likely have limited impact on next year's contest. Outside of the state, plenty of supporters see O'Malley's executive experience as a major selling point against Clinton and Sanders.
"He just needs to do what he's always done, which is be a leader," said Boyd Brown, a former South Carolina state lawmaker who is supporting O'Malley. "He'll show his vision for America and for the next generation. I think he's the only one capable of doing that."
Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.