open menu

Online Exclusives

‘I Am a Leader, and I Sweat the Details’

A possible future president, Martin O'Malley challenges, amuses as a visiting lecturer.

Photograph by Tony Luong

It was late at night in Des Moines, Iowa, on February 1, 2016, when Martin O’Malley, flanked by his family, took to the stage and hung up his boots, announcing that he was suspending his campaign for President of the United States. You might not have known it if you tuned in at the wrong time, since he was all smiles and full of optimism.

“We have driven this debate…” he told a room full of volunteers and supporters, reflecting on his experiences shaping the Democratic presidential race. That the next sentence would contain such bad news came as a surprise, as he hedged on his optimism and lamented: “Tonight I have to tell you, I am suspending this presidential bid. But I am not ending this fight, because the fight that you and I are engaged in is a tough fight.”

Despite this motif of oratory or ideological pugilism, O’Malley’s defeat seemed to be a glimpse of things to come for his competitors, first Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders at the hands of Hillary Clinton, and then Clinton and the Democratic Party at the mercy of a Trumpian tidal wave.

Now, O’Malley, 2016 presidential candidate and former Governor of Maryland and Mayor of Baltimore, finds himself in an unusual position: private citizen. This, at a time one year removed from his presidential bid, which struggled to gain traction or eclipse 1 percent in national polls, and when the Democratic Party is reeling from electoral defeat and locked out of power all across the country.

As he left the stage that night, there’s no saying what he was thinking. He had barnstormed all across the state for weeks, only to receive a fraction of a percent of votes. As the results flowed in that night, they must have been maddeningly disappointing. But for the most part, it just didn’t seem to show, and still doesn’t.

As a candidate, he cast himself as “new leadership.” At just 54, he is what Rolling Stone dubbed a “generational counterpoint for Hillary,” while The Atlantic chimed that he “looks perfectly presidential on paper.” Of the numerous pieces written about him, you won’t find a shortage of shout-outs to his toned abs, his guitar abilities, or O’Malley’s March, the rock band that he is a member of. But to focus on this is to miss the point. Though the country might not have given him a chance in 2016, O’Malley is positive and engaged, and he has a lot to say. And he just wants to be heard.

“I think facts and truth are gonna make a comeback. If you leave your ties in the closet long enough, they’ll come back in fashion.”

I found myself waiting in O’Malley’s office as he sauntered in, tapping away at his trusty iPad. As the distinguished visiting professor of the Boston College Law School’s Rappaport Center for Law and Public Policy, O’Malley is settled in a sparsely decorated and cavernous room, the kind that might echo if you listened close enough. I figured he didn’t spend much time here, which was quickly confirmed: Within minutes we were off, leaving the room to walk-and-talk around campus, grab coffee, and post up in the cafeteria.

“I am a leader, and I sweat the details,” O’Malley tells me. One part entrepreneurial executive and another part mercurial manager, dashed with the poise and polish of a politician and the wonky chops of a data guru, and you’ve got O’Malley. He quotes Lincoln extempore, before circling back to the bread-and-butter political issues. Words such as “alchemy” manage to come naturally in conversation, and at one point he turns to his iPad to show me a detailed cartogram of where the Democratic Party must rebuild. At another point, he stops to take a selfie with an admiring student. Then we get back to discussion of geographic information systems (GIS), for which he is using his coffee, my coffee, and salt and pepper shakers to visually illustrate his point. It’s a whirlwind trying to keep up.

The same could be said about his ascent from Baltimore City Councilor to U.S. presidential candidate. He first won the mayor’s race as an underdog by campaigning on crime reduction, and then, as Baltimore Mayor, implemented CitiStat, “a small performance-based management group responsible for continually improving the quality of services provided to the citizens of Baltimore City.” He did the same as Maryland Governor with StateStat, a data-driven tool he used statewide and across multiple agencies. With these tools, he helped save money, created accountability, and garnered national attention, even winning Harvard University’s “Innovations in American Government” award.

And he didn’t stop there. He charted a progressive path as governor, one that would make liberals even in the Sanders-Warren camp gush. And slowly but surely, he laid the framework for a presidential campaign, where he would bring a “new way of governing,” one that was “goal-oriented,” to the “larger body politic,” he says. And though his campaign message and tried-and-true political experience didn’t resonate, it might be worth listening to what he’s got to say.


“I think facts and truth are gonna make a comeback. If you leave your ties in the closet long enough, they’ll come back in fashion,” he says defiantly when asked about the rise of fake news and echo chambers. It’s sort of ironic to hear this from him, since his messaging was a tad offbeat in 2016, but he seems genuine in what he might call the throes of the Trump era.

“There’s a new song,” he tells me, making a metaphor for a resurgent liberalism that he detects brewing, “and however quiet this new song is, it’s getting louder.” For all of his vitality, there are some questions that he doesn’t have the answer for: Who will fill the void in leadership of the Democratic Party? Down the road, does the party stick to its guns or veer left to a Warren-Sanders type of liberalism?

One thing that’s certain is that O’Malley hasn’t stopped talking since the campaign trail. At BC Law, he lectures aspiring lawyers on data-driven governance, on which he cut his teeth early in his political career. He posts his ruminations weekly on a personal Medium account, discussing everything from climate change to Syrian refugees. On Twitter, you can catch him thrashing Donald Trump at almost a predictably regular rate, and on campus, he chairs panels on everything from the Affordable Care Act to Trump’s immigration executive orders.

At the latter event, just less than a month into Trump’s presidency, O’Malley offered introductory remarks about the essential contributions of immigrants and refugees, explained the exceptionality of the recent events, and shared his own experiences on the campaign trail meeting families fearing deportation. He closed by telling the crowd of mostly aspiring lawyers, ominously: “These are real repercussions that we’re dealing with.”

And though he’s not pessimistic, he’s not all sunshine. He’s quick to chide the DNC for “circling the wagons” around Clinton to protect her during the primaries, and quipped to me that the Clinton campaign kept him from generating any sort of impressive fundraising sums. The Democratic Party coopted many of O’Malley’s positions only after he announced them as political priorities, something he still frets over. “Only after I moved the ball on immigration, the death penalty, refugees, and the clean electricity grid” did they follow suit, he says. And just weeks after he declared his intent to run for president, Baltimore plunged into riots following the death of Freddie Gray in the hands of police custody. Some critics even attributed O’Malley’s tough policing policies as the reason Gray was killed.

Aside from the personal, for O’Malley and the Democratic Party writ large, political problems are manifest. Since O’Malley declared defeat in the Hawkeye State, Democrats have continued to suffer a string of defeats.

But O’Malley, unfazed, still belts out some sort of harmony, full of optimism, patriotism, and inadvertently savory sound clips about rebuilding his party, “principled opposition to Trumpism,” “restoring the integrity in our democracy,” and “invading the public square.” He’s hopeful because he’s a Christian, he says, and therefore less “fear-riven and more life-giving.”

What exactly O’Malley’s song is at this point is something only he seems to know. However soft it might have been, through his actions, words, and deeds, it’s evident that the melody is getting louder and that that he thinks there’s an audience that wants to hear it.

Video: Can We Recapture the Genius of Our Nation?
Martin O’Malley and Dean Vincent Rougeau