BALTIMORE — Martin O’Malley launched his presidential campaign Saturday with an appeal to the party’s progressive base that he hopes will upend the conventional wisdom that Hillary Clinton is destined to clinch the Democratic nomination.
The former Maryland governor unveiled his campaign in Baltimore, the city where he was once mayor — a role that is central to his political persona. But his Baltimore credentials could become more of a challenge than he initially thought after a riot erupted in the city in April.
Speaking in rolled-up sleeves, O’Malley began with a call for economic fairness and closing the gap between rich and poor in America.
“This is the urgent work calling us forward today: to rebuild the truth of the American Dream for all Americans,” O’Malley said. “And to begin right now.”
He touched upon last month’s unrest in Baltimore, saying the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death was about more than race or policing in America, but about “the scourge of hopelessness” in the nation’s cities.
“There is something to be learned from that night, and there is something to be offered to our country from those flames,” he said.
O’Malley also took a shot at Clinton and Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, using an attack on Goldman Sachs to suggest they were too close to Wall Street to be advocates for the less fortunate in America.
“Recently, the CEO of Goldman Saches let his employees know that he’d be just fine with either Bush or Clinton. I bet he would,” O’Malley said. “Well, I’ve got news for the bullies of Wall Street: The presidency is not a crown to be passed back and forth by you between two royal families. It is a sacred trust to be earned from the people of the United States, and exercised on behalf of the people of the United States.”
Taking on Hillary
Perhaps O’Malley’s biggest challenge is finding a way to dent the Clinton political machine while also proving that he’s a competitive candidate in his own right — not just a backup for progressives who would rather see Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts in the White House. A Quinnipiac University poll released this week places Clinton 56 percentage points ahead of O’Malley.
Saturday’s announcement was not a surprise. Over the past year, the 52-year-old traveled repeatedly to the early nominating states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina to spark voters’ attention to his likely bid.
On the road, O’Malley touts a string of progressive actions he oversaw as governor of Maryland. Under his leadership, the state tightened gun laws, implemented a progressive tax code and legalized same-sex marriage. He also expanded the state’s health care rolls, championed Obamacare and signed a bill raising the state’s minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.
Yet O’Malley found himself defending that Maryland record recently when riots broke out in Baltimore over the death of a 25-year-old African-American man under police custody.
The treatment of Freddie Gray, which sparked a national dialogue about police conduct toward racial minorities, drew renewed scrutiny to the controversial zero-tolerance policing strategy that O’Malley advocated for as mayor — part of an aggressive strategy to crack down on crime.
In an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper last month, O’Malley declared that Baltimore saw a “record reduction in violent crime” under his watch.
There are “probably now 1,000 mostly young, poor African-American men who did not die violent deaths in our city” because of these policies, O’Malley said.
O’Malley may also face questions about his popularity in his home state. His standing took a hit last year when Maryland voters rejected his handpicked successor in the governor’s race, Democrat Anthony Brown. Brown lost the statehouse to Republican Larry Hogan.
“I can tell you my feelings were hurt,” O’Malley said about the loss. “We had done a lot of really good things in Maryland, and in the end you did not hear much about it during the campaign.”
But he added, “I was not on the ballot.”
A fresh voice for the party
O’Malley is aiming to present himself as a fresh voice for the party — one who speaks for a different generation than Washington heavy hitters such as the 67-year-old Clinton. The former governor plays guitar in his Celtic rock band O’Malley’s March, and at some gigs he has occasionally bared his biceps in sleeveless shirts.
Beyond Clinton and O’Malley, Bernie Sanders is the only other Democrat who has announced a 2016 presidential bid. Sanders is also popular among liberals and garnered 15% in the Quinnipiac poll.
O’Malley has remained optimistic about his own prospects, telling CNN in March he could turn around his low numbers by outworking the competition.
“When you start off as potential candidate for president and your name recognition is low, you have to just go from county to county, from town to town and engage people in order to change that around,” O’Malley said then. “I guess another way to say it is this: Look, it is not unusual for there to be an inevitable frontrunner early in a contest who has fantastic name recognition, and is therefore inevitable right up until he or she is no longer inevitable.”
CNN’s Dan Merica contributed to this report.