Martin O'Malley Needs Black Votes to Win in 2016

A boy stands on stage before the arrival of Martin O'Malley, during the presidential hopeful's campaign kickoff event at Federal Hill Park in Baltimore, May 30, 2015. O’Malley made his name winning black votes in Baltimore, but the recent riots might have gutted his support. Gabriella Demczuk/The New York Times/Redux

The headline on the front page of The Washington Post's September 15, 1999, late edition was startlingly politically incorrect: "White Man Gets Mayoral Nomination in Baltimore." Martin O'Malley had defeated two African-American candidates, and thanks to Baltimore's heavily Democratic makeup (roughly 90 percent of registered voters), he went on to become the rare white mayor of a majority-black city.

The headline provoked an outcry, and the Post quickly rewrote it, apologizing for having "distorted the role of race in the election." Perhaps it did, but that headline continues to define O'Malley's career as a politician who knows how to get black votes. After all, he attracted nearly a third of Baltimore's black voters that year and a sizable majority of them four years later. After his two terms as mayor, O'Malley served two terms as governor of Maryland, beginning in 2007 and ending in January of this year. That state is a good proving ground for a candidate's ability to garner black support, since it is over 30 percent black, one of the highest concentrations of African-Americans in the country.

With O'Malley now running for president, his success in attracting significant black support might seem a threat to Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party's presidential front-runner. The former first lady's struggle thus far to generate much enthusiasm for her candidacy could provide an opening for a dark horse—in which case O'Malley, a former governor running to her left, would be arguably more likely to unify the party than Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Clinton saw what happened in 2008 when she lost the majority of the black vote to Barack Obama, and while the Irish-American, guitar-strumming former mayor's presidential bid is never going to inspire black voters in the same way as that of the first African-American president, she has to worry that O'Malley might cut into her support there. Clinton was the front-runner eight years ago and knows a stumble is possible.

But peer behind O'Malley's election numbers and there are hints his magic touch with black voters is gone. That's partly because O'Malley was never truly beloved by Maryland's African-American community, where he benefited from a lack of strong black opponents. And while he successfully fought for policies important to the black community, those victories have been overshadowed by his controversial approach to law enforcement in Baltimore, which lowered crime but ratcheted up tensions between black residents and the police. The rioting this spring that followed the death of a black man at the hands of Baltimore police put O'Malley on the defensive, as police brutality is now the civil rights cause of the moment. And that's not a discussion O'Malley appears eager to be drawn into. In the early days of his presidential campaign, he has all but ducked the issue of race and treated his city's rioting as a symptom of some national malaise, not part of his legacy.

Complaints of Brutality

O'Malley's traction with minority voters was often less than it seemed. In that first mayoral bid in 1999, O'Malley, then a city councilman, benefited from the implosion of his two main rivals, particularly the front-runner, City Council President Lawrence Bell, whose supporters made headlines with racially charged attacks on O'Malley. (Bell called on blacks to "vote for someone who looked like them.") With Bell and Councilman Carl Stokes courting the same base, O'Malley was able to win by pulling almost all of the white vote and roughly 30 percent of blacks.

O'Malley made tough crime-fighting policies the centerpiece of his campaign then—a savvy move, since that was the top issue for Baltimore voters, black or white. Running for re-election on the same tough-on-crime platform in 2003, O'Malley won the Democratic primary in 89 of the 125 precincts where African-Americans were 90 percent of the population or more, according to the The Baltimore Sun. Then, as now, O'Malley claimed the victory was an endorsement for his zero-tolerance policing.

Critics, however, say O'Malley's re-election as mayor overstates his support among African-Americans. "I wouldn't see it as an endorsement," says Stokes, who lost to O'Malley in 1999. "He didn't have much of a challenge in his second run." Stokes believes the benefits of incumbency and O'Malley's war chest kept him from drawing any real opposition. But longtime Maryland pollster Patrick Gonzales says O'Malley's lack of a credible opponent in his re-election for mayor suggests he was "well-enough liked by the black community" to scare off serious challengers. An April 2003 poll by Gonzales's firm put his approval rating at 69 percent. But Gonzales's poll also showed he would have lost black voters by a wide margin against popular former U.S. Representative Kweisi Mfume, who was then president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

O'Malley's police policies, once welcomed by blacks and whites alike, came under increased fire during his second term, as complaints of police harassment rose, all part and parcel of an approach aimed at cracking down on crimes, however innocuous. The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland filed a lawsuit against the Baltimore Police Department in June 2006, O'Malley's final year as mayor, alleging police were illegally arresting people in Baltimore's poor, predominantly black neighborhoods for things like loitering or public urination. The city settled the suit in 2010.

In 2006, even Republicans sensed O'Malley was vulnerable on the issue. GOP incumbent Bob Ehrlich went after him in the 2006 governor's race, lambasting the "mass arrests of innocent people" in Baltimore during one debate.

O'Malley didn't run away from his crime record in 2006, but he also talked up other policies that appealed to voters across the racial spectrum, such as improving public education. Black voters in Maryland also appreciated that O'Malley was "someone who was very accessible" to their community, says Mfume. That "didn't mean necessarily that they would always see eye to eye, but they were being heard," he adds. O'Malley won the governor's seat by 7 percent in 2006, and black turnout numbers suggest he didn't ride a black wave into the governorship. In a rematch with Ehrlich in 2010, O'Malley won by 14 percent statewide, and while he increased his support among all segments of the electorate, he made no significant gains with African-Americans.

Scourge of Hopelessness

It's hard to say how O'Malley, who launched his presidential campaign May 30, will do with black voters in 2016, since he's still nearly invisible outside Maryland, barely registering in Democratic surveys. In South Carolina, an early voting state with a large African-American population, a poll from the Democratic-leaning firm Public Policy Polling earlier this year pegged his support at just 3 percent, and he earned the backing of only 4 percent of black Democrats (versus 60 percent for Clinton).

And in these early days of the campaign, it's been Clinton who's making a direct appeal to the black community, primarily on criminal justice and voting rights. O'Malley has acknowledged the need for some criminal justice reforms, like requiring police to wear body cameras, but in his campaign launch speech last month, he denied that the riots in Baltimore were primarily about race. The "scourge of hopelessness that happened to ignite here that evening transcends race or geography," O'Malley insisted. Baltimore's woes, he seemed to imply, were the product of national currents, rather than a reflection of his eight years as mayor.

And therein lies the rub for O'Malley. Police brutality—the issue that has ignited a new generation of civil rights activists—is where his record will be most problematic for black voters. Critics now blame O'Malley's zero-tolerance policies for heightening tensions that led to Freddie Gray's death in police custody this spring, sparking days of protest. Even when O'Malley was mayor, it complicated his ties with the black community, creating whatThe Baltimore Sun described as a "sometimes-rocky relationship." Now that racist policing is in the spotlight, O'Malley's critics can hammer him in the pages of The Washington Post and nightly on MSNBC.

His defense was and continues to be that the policies were necessary to lower Baltimore's staggering crime rate, something black voters at the time said was a top priority. But the steep drop in crime in the U.S., to its lowest level in decades, has made that crime-fighting record far less salient and those tactics less defensible for today's black voters.

O'Malley backers point to other justice issues where he lined up with the black community, such as restoring voting rights for convicted felons and his effort as governor to abolish Maryland's death penalty, which Benjamin Jealous, the former president of the NAACP, calls "the institutional extension of lynching." Jealous says it was brave of O'Malley to take the stand: "Courage in defense of civil rights and human rights has resonance in the black community. Always has, always will."

The O'Malley campaign plans to unveil an urban agenda in the coming months that, judging by his emphasis thus far, will focus heavily on the economy and inequality. But given the near-constant video streams documenting police brutality from across the nation, black voters are going to expect him to address his role not only in lowering crime but also in promoting a type of policing now intertwined with the spate of black male deaths.

O'Malley's critics aren't keeping quiet. "I think the Baltimore citizens are going to be loud about their comments about his years in Baltimore," says Stokes. "It's going to just get louder if he was to advance beyond his 1 or 2 percent."

That said, O'Malley has his backers. Even one of his most strenuous critics, The Wire creator David Simon, says if the former Maryland governor were to win the Democratic nomination for president, he'd have Simon's vote, thanks to other liberal policies like abolishing the death penalty and legalizing gay marriage. And given the fidelity of African-Americans to the Democratic Party, O'Malley would no doubt win the majority of their votes versus a Republican opponent.

Correction: O'Malley won first race for Maryland governor in 2006 with a 7 percent margin of victory, not a 1 percent margin.