Former Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor Martin O'Malley, announcing his decision to run for the democratic nomination for the presidency, during his announcement at Federal Hill.

Until Saturday morning, Martin O'Malley was a centrist Democrat who made his bones as a tough-on-crime Baltimore mayor and as a competent Maryland governor who led from behind on issues that would have marked him as liberal before he saw any political advantage to it.

Now, in offering to "rebuild the American dream," he offers a rebuilt O'Malley, in full embrace of a populist and progressive agenda as way to distinguish himself from Hillary Clinton in a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.


I think that makes him a former Clinton Democrat.

The O'Malley who announced his candidacy Saturday on Federal Hill was not the blah, cautious technocrat who served two terms in Annapolis. With pops of fiery rhetoric about the corrupt excesses of Wall Street, the stagnant wages of American workers, income inequality and entrenched poverty, O'Malley sounded at times like a New Deal, union-hall liberal, sleeves rolled up, ready for a fight.

He made some great points, rolled off some good lines. (The one about the CEO of Goldman Sachs saying he'd be happy with either a Bush or a Clinton in the White House had zing.) But, as always, O'Malley's passion sounded contrived, overwrought. His problem remains that authenticity thing.

People who call O'Malley a liberal have missed both the highlights and the nuances of his record, going back to when he was mayor. He was elected on anti-crime promises that law-and-order Republicans admired. He pushed a zero-tolerance law enforcement strategy like the one executed by New York City police while Rudy Giuliani, a Republican, was mayor there. Starting in the early 2000s, Baltimore police made thousands of arrests for "quality of life" offenses; many of the charges were later dropped by prosecutors.

Though violent crime fell in the city, as it did across the country generally, Baltimore taxpayers had to pay $870,000 to settle a lawsuit brought on behalf of men who had been arrested for dubious reasons during the O'Malley years. The city agreed to officially reject zero tolerance, a stunning repudiation of the mass arrest strategy.

O'Malley's response? He said the lawsuit had been brought by "ideologues of the left."

And, of course, he wanted no part of the left.

That was just five years ago.

By then, two police commissioners, Leonard Hamm and Fred Bealefeld, had spoken of the consequences of O'Malley's ArrestFest — my term for that era — and the war on drugs.

"You just can't arrest your way out of a problem," said Hamm. Bealefeld, his successor, called the mass arrests "mind-boggling," and questioned what the O'Malley-era strategy had accomplished. Bealefeld changed the department's crime-prevention strategy to one of targeted enforcement ("Bad guys with guns"). Arrests dropped, as did homicides — to a low of 197 in 2011, five years after O'Malley had left for Annapolis.

So there's that — a record O'Malley has to live with as Baltimore struggles through a crisis stemming from long-standing tensions between police and citizens.

And there are a couple of other things worth noting as a reconstructed O'Malley offers to lead a reconstruction of the American dream for a new generation.

Don't let anyone get too carried away when they start crowing about his progressive leadership in Annapolis. O'Malley took a cautious approach on a lot of issues — even as the Democratic governor of one of the nation's bluest states, with Democratic majorities in both houses of the General Assembly.

He made an effort at abolishing capital punishment in 2009, but abolition did not come until 2013, and O'Malley did not commute the sentences of the last four death row inmates until shortly before he left office this year.


He also refused to parole dozens of lifers who had been approved for release by the Maryland Parole Commission, and he never acknowledged the University of Maryland School of Law's credible finding of a wrongful conviction of Mark Farley Grant, a Baltimore man sentenced to life for murder when he was a boy of 15. (O'Malley eventually allowed Grant to be paroled, but Grant has never been compensated for the 28 years he spent in prison.)

O'Malley fully supported the war on drugs, opposing modest reforms in mandatory sentencing that would have provided alternatives for people convicted of low-level, nonviolent drug offenses.

On extending marriage rights to same-sex couples, O'Malley supported "civil unions" before promising to sign a gay marriage law should one gain passage. One finally did, in 2012, O'Malley's fifth year as governor.

His embrace of marriage equality is one of the things O'Malley and his supporters crow about when they tell America what a progressive fellow he is.

Same with his support of raising the minimum wage in one of the wealthiest states in the country from $7.25 an hour. However, that raise takes place over four years, and does not reach $10.10 until 2018.

So, for someone now offering himself as a progressive to the left of Hillary Clinton, O'Malley's is at best an uneven record.

But maybe he's evolving. Maybe he'll finally get that authenticity thing down.