This story is part of NPR's series Journey Home. We're going to the places presidential candidates call home and finding out what those places tell us about how they see the world.
As Martin O'Malley neared the launch of his presidential campaign, the former Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor said he wouldn't think of announcing his bid "anyplace else," even as the city exploded with riots after the death of Freddie Gray, a young black man who was fatally injured while in police custody.
O'Malley's choice of venue, complete with the timing, showed the double-edged sword that the city has been in his political evolution. It is the launchpad that catapulted a young member of the city council to two terms in the mayor's office and then to the governor's mansion. But the city has also become a burden as critics are quick now to question his record as mayor, the "zero tolerance" policing that he introduced to the city and the effects it had on the relationship between law enforcement and local communities.
No matter whether Baltimore is a springboard or an anchor weight for O'Malley, a Democrat, he never would have arrived if it weren't for a handful of votes in a tight race for a Senate seat in 1990.
"Martin says he only lost by 43 votes, I say I beat him by 44. The fact is I won that election, but it seems to me he won the war because he's been successful ever since," says John Pica, the then-state senator whom O'Malley challenged in the primary.
The two men ran a tight race, and O'Malley's candidacy was always a long shot. His brothers and a high school classmate ran his campaign and they did their own opposition research. O'Malley claimed to have knocked on every door in the district.
But ultimately, he narrowly lost. The only person this surprised was O'Malley. He always thought he could win.
"So it was a hard loss, but in looking back now, it probably was the best thing that ever happened to me because it pointed me in a different direction," he said in an interview earlier this year.
Instead of the statehouse, O'Malley set his sights on a city council seat. Working at a law firm during the day, he made his case to Baltimore's voters at night. That race, O'Malley won. He went on to spend eight years on the Baltimore City Council before launching a campaign for mayor in 1999. He was the only white candidate of the three major contenders in a majority-black city.
O'Malley made the city's explosive crime rate the center of his campaign, much to the chagrin of one of his opponents.
"He basically ran a scare campaign," Baltimore City Councilman Carl Stokes told me in an interview at a restaurant in his district. "His campaign theme was that crime was the most important thing and we needed strong policing."
Ultimately, O'Malley was elected at a time where the city was routinely seeing more than 300 homicides a year. He's described the Baltimore he inherited in 1999 as the "most violent, the most addicted and the most abandoned city in America." In the next decade, it saw the steepest drop in violent crime in the country, a victory O'Malley boasts regularly. Critics though say what O'Malley's zero-tolerance approach really did was to sharply increase arrests, particularly of young black men.
"There's still a lot of anger, still a lot of distrust as a result of the O'Malley policies," says Marvin Cheatham, former president of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP.
O'Malley says though that he was doing what the voters who elected him as mayor — twice — wanted. In his campaign, he has sought to position himself as the candidate who can best champion the issues critical to cities around the country.
"Fundamental to the turnaround of Baltimore and getting her headed in a better direction was that the people of our city decided that we would no longer tolerate the fact that we had let ourselves become the most violent city in America," he said.
Despite that, Cheatham says that O'Malley is a consummate politician, always punching his way toward the next rung on the political ladder. Baltimore was just another step on his path to the next level.
"He's a very personable guy, very handsome guy, very articulate, but when you look at the harm that he did, you can't forget that you're still suffering as a result of the things he did not do."
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Democratic presidential hopeful Martin O'Malley was once the governor of Maryland and before that the mayor of Baltimore. Well, he didn't grow up there. He's embraced the city as he's built his political career. NPR's Juana Summers continues our series The Journey Home with Martin O'Malley's Baltimore.
JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Never been the Baltimore before? You might associate it with this.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HAIRSPRAY")
NIKKI BLONSKY: (As Tracy) (Singing) Good morning Baltimore. Every day's like an open door.
SUMMERS: That's from "Hairspray," the movie-musical a few steps removed from the John Waters cult classic. The Waters flick is rooted in Waters' interpretation of Baltimore - a quirky, offbeat kind of place full of strange but endearing people. And then there's "The Wire."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAY DOWN IN THE HOLE")
TOM WAITS: (Singing) You got to keep the devil down in the hole.
SUMMERS: The HBO show showed a different side of the city, one overrun with poverty, drugs, corruption and aggressive policing in poor black communities. O'Malley's Baltimore is somewhere between the two. At different times, it's been both a launch-pad for his political ambitions and an anchor weight dragging him down. But it all started with a tight race for a state Senate seat in 1990.
JOHN PICA: So Martin says he only lost by 43 votes. I say I beat him by 44. The fact is, I won that election, but it seems to me he won the war because he has been very successful ever since, and don't anyone count him out.
SUMMERS: That's John Pica, the incumbent O'Malley tried to unseat. It was a long-shot campaign. O'Malley says he knocked on every door in the district. Everyone around him, including his now wife Katie realized he didn't have a chance. But O'Malley always thought he could win.
O'MALLEY: So it was a hard loss, but in looking back now, it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me because it pointed me a different direction.
SUMMERS: Instead of the Statehouse, he set his sights on a city council seat. He worked at a law firm during the day and made his case to voters at night. O'Malley won that race and spent eight years on the Baltimore City Council before launching a campaign for mayor in 1999. He was the only white candidate of the three major contenders in a majority black city.
CARL STOKES: He basically ran a scared campaign.
SUMMERS: That's Carl Stokes, who also ran for mayor that same year. He's now serving as a Baltimore City Council member. Sitting in a booth at a restaurant in his district, Stokes told me how he viewed O'Malley's campaign.
STOKES: His campaign theme was that crime was the most important thing - that we needed strong policing.
SUMMERS: Marvin Cheatham's thoughts on O'Malley's time in Baltimore are a bit more measured. He's the former head of Baltimore's NAACP chapter. He says O'Malley's law enforcement policies eroded relationships between police and the community - a divide, he says, that still exists today.
MARVIN CHEATHAM: There's still a lot of anger, still a lot of distrust as a result of the O'Malley policy.
SUMMERS: O'Malley points out that crime went down, city management got better. He says he did what the voters who elected him twice wanted.
O'MALLEY: Fundamental to the turn-around of Baltimore was that the people of our city decided that we would no longer tolerate the fact that we had allowed ourselves to become the most violent city in America.
SUMMERS: Despite that, Cheatham says that O'Malley is a consummate politician, always punching his way toward the next rung on the political ladder. Baltimore was just another stepping stone.
CHEATHAM: He's a very personable guy. Very intelligent, very articulate. But when you look at the harm that he did, you know, you can't forget that you're still suffering as a result of the things that he did not do.
SUMMERS: O'Malley recently moved back to Baltimore after his stint in the governor's mansion. He says he feels more at home in Charm City than he has anywhere else. Juana Summers, NPR News Baltimore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.