Martin O’Malley’s Incredible Shrinking Legacy

The former Maryland governor could be an alternative to Hillary Clinton, if his accomplishments don’t disappear first.

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley speaks during the International Association of Fire Fighters Presidential Forum on Capitol Hill, March 10, 2015.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez Jaramillo. Photo by Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Martin O’Malley is having himself a bit of a moment—not really through any of his own doing, but because the swirl of anxiety about Hillary Clinton’s readiness for a presidential campaign has Democrats looking around for alternatives, and the only person standing there right now is, well, Martin O’Malley. The former Maryland governor and Baltimore mayor just passed up a run for his state’s open Senate seat, making it even clearer that he’s serious about a presidential run; he got national coverage for a wonky speech Wednesday at the Brookings Institution; and he turned up Thursday morning on Morning Joe.

But let’s not affix the rising-insurgent pin to O’Malley’s muscle-gripping black tank top just yet. As I argued two years ago, back when he was first making 2016 rumblings, it’s awfully hard to imagine O’Malley playing the liberal challenger, a role that has been occupied in Democratic presidential primaries by, among others, Gene McCarthy, George McGovern, Gary Hart, Bill Bradley, and Howard Dean. While O’Malley carried out a staunchly liberal agenda in Maryland—legalizing same-sex marriage, ending the death penalty, and much more—and while he has proven feisty at partisan sparring with Republicans, it is hard to envision him stirring liberal hearts and minds the way previous insurgents did. It’s not just that he’s a notoriously leaden public speaker; it’s that, as progressive as his governing record is, he’s oddly reluctant to champion liberal values in the terms many on the left crave. During the Obamacare debate, he chided Democrats who “immediately run to the values of caring and fairness” instead of focusing on the economic case for health care reform. His idea of visionary language is calling for America to be an “opportunity-expanding entity.” He’s more likely to quote Thomas Friedman than Thomas Frank. He is, by his own account, not a tribune but a technocrat, not an orator but a doer.

And that’s where O’Malley’s other, more recent, challenge comes in. He has a real record of accomplishment to point to as a governing executive—he played a key role in the ever-so-gradual turnaround of Baltimore, and, on any number of fronts, he made Maryland, already one of the more prosperous and well-educated states in the nation, a better place to live. But his legacy is now at distinct risk of being at least partially dismantled. His chosen successor and lieutenant governor, Anthony Brown, succumbed in what was surely the biggest Republican upset last November. In a state that Barack Obama won by 26 percentage points in both 2012 and 2008, Brown managed to lose by four points to Larry Hogan, a conservative businessman who’d never held elected office.

The responsibility for this debacle lies above all with Brown, but O’Malley bears some responsibility as well—he chose the underwhelming Brown as his successor, and then made himself scarce during the race, spending more time in Iowa and New Hampshire than Arbutus and Aspen Hill. Hogan is now hard at work seeking to undermine O’Malley’s legacy on any number of fronts—reversing his cleanup policies for the Chesapeake Bay, steering transportation money into highways instead of public transit, and, most of all, proposing deep cuts to the state’s K–12 schools, whose high performance O’Malley invoked in the very first line of his lackluster speech at the 2012 Democratic convention.

O’Malley’s legacy is also at risk in Baltimore in a more particular way. His proudest accomplishment there was the implementation of “CitiStat,” an attempt to bring to all municipal services the kind of data-heavy accountability that transformed policing in New York City and other cities, including Baltimore.  It was CitiStat—and the “StateStat” counterpart he later introduced in Annapolis—that O’Malley was touting at his Brookings speech this week: In the city, he said, the program featured “the 48-hour pothole guarantee. And our crews actually hit that guarantee, and they hit it 97 percent of the time, and each of the members of those crews got a thank-you note from the mayor when we did it.” At the state level, “We took measurable actions to reduce storm-water runoff and to expand the number of acres planted with winter cover crops, to upgrade clean technology at all of our sewer treatment plants. We reduced nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment levels by 14, 15, and 18 percent, respectively.”

Not the most scintillating stuff, but that’s not the problem. As the Baltimore Sun reported last weekend, CitiStat has seriously atrophied under the city’s current mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. She has had her own successes as mayor, and Baltimore is by many measures doing even better than it was under O’Malley, but CitiStat has not been a priority for her as it was under him—while he may have raised expectations for city services in a lasting way, his institutional transformation has been less durable.

Matt Gallagher, who ran CitiStat and served as O’Malley’s chief of staff in Annapolis, downplayed the devolution of the program when I asked him about it on Thursday. It was up to each administration to decide how to govern, he said, and that the fact remained that the CitiStat model was now being adopted in many other cities around the country. “Whether he’ll be in a position in the future to point back to Baltimore [CitiStat], he will be able to point to things he accomplished, and as for the model, there’s plenty of places to point to that have gotten success in this approach,” Gallagher said.

At both the state and city level, Gallagher said, one could distinguish between what O’Malley had achieved and what his successors had done with it. “It’s going to be up to successive mayors and governors to explain why there’s using [CitiStat and StateStat] the way they do,” he said. “If you’re transparent about the results you get, it’s going to be up to them to explain the results they got and why the approach they’re using is changing.”

That’s true, up to a point—O’Malley is hardly the first person to run for president when the state or city he once led is under a regime that is leading it in a different direction (Gov. Deval Patrick was running Massachusetts when Mitt Romney was on the ballot in 2012; Gov. Rick Scott, while of the same party as Jeb Bush, is challenging his legacy in Florida.) But the cost of the dismantled legacy is potentially greater for O’Malley, precisely because he is planning to run almost exclusively as a manager-who-gets-results. He won’t be pointing national campaign reporters to his dazzling speeches, his vision for the country, or his inspiring life story (he comes from a solidly middle-class background in the Washington suburbs); rather, he’ll be pointing them to his managerial legacy in the city and state that he led. And if those legacies take a hit—if, say, there is no bona fide CitiStat meeting for the national media to attend in Baltimore—that is a problem. If we shall know Martin O’Malley by his deeds and not his words, his deeds must remain visible.