Martin O’Malley: Democrats are the brake in Trump’s ‘careering car’
‘I came to Baltimore and saw nothing but opportunity to heal and save a lot of lives’
Irish-American Democrat politician Martin O’Malley
When Martin O’Malley was being inaugurated as governor of Maryland, the music for the ceremony was provided by Tuam’s finest, The Sawdoctors.
Later that night, O’Malley’s wife, Katie, asked him was his highlight of the day the moment he became governor, or singing The Green and Red of Mayo with Leo Moran and Davy Carton.
“That’s not a fair question!” he protested.
It tells you a little bit how important music and his Irish heritage is to O’Malley, who forged his reputation as a crusading young mayor of Baltimore, and later as governor of Maryland.
If you want to discover another bit about O’Malley the politician, you will find it in a not altogether flattering profile from Rolling Stone magazine during his failed attempt to become the Democratic candidate for the 2016 US presidential election.
“Is he a wonk or a man of the people?” it asked.
And the answer to that is probably both. Now in his mid-50s, he is a tall, slim grey-haired man with an incredibly calm persona. In interview, his passion for political ideas emerges, especially when it involves injustice. At the same time he is comfortable when discussing the detail and minutiae of policy.
He was in Dublin this week to speak at the conference of the Urban Land Institution about cities in the future, how they will be governed and how technology will make them smarter. The roots of this most metropolitan of politicians could not be more contrasting - his people originally came from the Maam Valley in Connemara; as eerily remote as it is eerily beautiful. Growing up in an Irish-American family there were two certainties - Mass on Sunday and membership of the Democratic Party.
As a young law student, O’Malley’s interest in politics was stoked his opposition to Ronald Regan’s presidency. He found a charismatic inspiration in the shape of Democrat, Gary Hart, who challenged Walter Mondale for the presidency nomination in the 1980s. For O’Malley, Hart was way ahead of his time.
“At the time he was saying if we don’t get energy-independent as a nation, soon our sons will be getting bogged down in a series of desert wars.”
As one of Hart’s key campaign team members , O’Malley made a profound discovery: “I saw that one person can make a difference. It demystified the process of running for office.”
Hart’s campaign ended in failure and scandal following revelations of an alleged affair, but something clicked in O’Malley. “It ignited in me a desire to offer myself as a candidate.”
He ran for the council in Baltimore and subsequently stood for mayor. He was discouraged to so so because the city’s population was 60 per cent black. But O’Malley flipped the argument, asking should an African-American candidate be dissuaded from running in a city that was 60 per cent white?
Harry McGee speaks to Martin O'Malley
An so he ran, and he won. What he inherited was “the most addicted violent and abandoned city in America,” with a murder rate of 350 per annum despite having a population of only 650,000.
O’Malley’s tenure was impressive in terms of headline figures, bringing the murder rate down, and cleaning up many of the drug corners in Baltimore.
“During my time as mayor and governor we saved hundreds of lives by putting more money into drug addition programmes. We reduced overdose deaths, we made our city a lot safer and we made our public schools the number one in America.”
Some of the methods later became controversial. There was a high arrest rate, and a huge reliance on data. He defends the policies stoutly. “We arrested 10,000 people time and time again until they got the message that they were not going to make life miserable for our people in the poorest neighbourhoods.
“I would not have been re-elected with 88 per cent of the vote after a four year term by a majority African-American city if the myth and the cartoon was true that I had people running around locking around everyone for spitting on the sidewalk or throwing away bubble gum wrapper.”
Any narrative on O’Malley’s time in Baltimore usually revolves around the TV series, The Wire, a fictional portrayal of the city with a mayor who was not unlike him. Is it a bit of a stray dog for him?
“There are aspects of Baltimore that The Wire portrays in a very accurate way, the all-pervasive violent crime and drug addiction in some neighbourhoods.”
There are parts that are accurate but there are parts that are inaccurate. The creator of The Wire, David Simon, was a local reporter who had a “symbiotic relationship” with O’Malley.
He says parts of the portrayal were “entirely manufactured and sometimes in a kind of vicious ways, often times with a political ulterior motive.”
You sense O’Malley is not a fan.
“David Simon came to Baltimore and saw nothing but hopelessness and despair and made a lot of money portraying it nationally and internationally.
“I came to Baltimore and saw nothing but opportunity to heal and save a lot of lives and that’s what I did with my creative energies.”
O’Malley is a practicing Catholic but also a public politician who has supported liberal laws on abortion and same-sex marriage. How does he square it?
“I consider myself to be pro-choice. The best public public policy is to trust the conscience of women to make that decision.
“There are some decisions that government is poorly equipped to make on behalf of other people and this is one of them.”
His views on Donald Trump are unsurprising but they are expressed with fierce vehemence.
“I am diametrically opposed to everything that Donald Trump stands for.
“I have said time and again. This is an aberration for us as a country. Usually the two (big) parties were strong enough to keep the fringe neofascist appeal from every getting as far as Trump has got.
“Great republics sometimes make great mistakes. They made a big one in electing this man.
“A lot of us who were in a mode of anger and retribution have moved back to corrective mode.
“People might not love the Democratic Party but we are the only brake in this careering car right now.”
He himself put his name forward for the Democrat primaries but did not make it past Iowa, finishing a distant third in the contest. Primetime TV dominated the early race and while the Republicans were jousting in debate after debate, Hillary Clinton was, he says, successfully suppressing any live debates from happening. By the time they happened it was too late. The Democrats were in binary mode - it was either Clinton or Bernie Sanders. He was squeezed out.
Was that the end of that ambition? Not necessarily.
“A couple of things will have to change in the course of the next year for me to say that is something that I should and must do,” he says.
But, he adds: “I might run again for president of the United States.”