O'Malley's record in Baltimore under scrutiny after riots

(CNN)For Martin O'Malley, the revival of Baltimore is at the core of his political biography. In a speech to Iowa Democrats last year, the former Maryland governor said that during his seven years as Baltimore mayor, he transformed what was once "the most violent, most addicted, most abandoned city in America."

On Monday, that city went up in flames.
What started as peaceful protests over the treatment of Freddie Gray — a 25-year-old African-American man who died while in police custody this month — erupted into full-blown violence. Racial tensions around the issue of police brutality bubbled to a full boil, as chaotic images of store lootings, destruction of property and buildings engulfed in flames captured the nation.
The violence in Maryland, which led the governor to declare a state of emergency, was clearly troubling for O'Malley. On Monday, he announced that he was cutting short a trip giving paid speeches in Ireland and returning home. "I'm saddened that the city I love is in such pain this night," he said in a statement.
    But this week's unrest in Baltimore could also have broader political consequences for the former governor as he mulls a presidential campaign. The events will likely bring greater scrutiny to O'Malley's time as mayor — including his zero tolerance policing strategy, in which even minor offenses are vigorously prosecuted — while providing an opening for the former governor to inject himself into the national conversation about problems like crime, racial tensions and economic inequality that roil American cities.
    Even if the events in Baltimore raise his profile, however, O'Malley's candidacy would be a long shot. He currently is registering in the single digits in national polls of possible Democratic presidential candidates.
    Former Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening said Gray's death — and the outrage surrounding it — calls for a "national awakening" on law enforcement and the treatment of racial minorities, and that O'Malley has "tremendous credentials" to lead a national dialogue on these issues.
    "He understands what it is like to be the top elected official in a really challenging urban area, including the area of law enforcement," Glendening, a Democrat, said in an interview. "What you've got here is a powder keg in the sense that the community doesn't trust the police and the police doesn't trust the community, amidst a growing sense of poverty and inequity and hopelessness."
    It's unclear just how prominent a public role O'Malley will seek in the coming days, as current Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan try to bring stability to a city in disarray. O'Malley spokeswoman Lis Smith said Tuesday that O'Malley has reached out to community leaders, including the mayor, to offer his help and that he's ready to participate in the "healing process with the people of Baltimore."
    But the unrest in Baltimore could also hinder O'Malley's ability to talk about the city as a success story. Though he left the mayor's office in 2007, he has in some ways staked his reputation on the idea of Baltimore and Maryland as examples to the nation.
    Former Maryland attorney general Doug Gansler said some of the anger and resentment over Gray's death might be traced back years to O'Malley's time as mayor.
    Some believe that O'Malley's policing tactics, in particular, "worsened the problem and that minorities were targeted and there was this friction and distrust that grew," said Gansler, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2014.
    O'Malley rose to prominence as a tough-on-crime mayor who used data and analytics to tackle everything from drugs and murder to basic city services. And in recent public speeches, O'Malley has confronted head-on events that have reignited debates about racial discrimination and law enforcement tactics.
    Speaking at the National Action Network summit in New York earlier this year, O'Malley discussed the killing of Walter Scott, an African-American man shot at eight times in the back by a South Carolina police officer.
    "It's very, very hard, I think, for white people, any white people, to understand just what that loss of a precious life does to the constant state of random vulnerability that Americans of color feel," he said.
    O'Malley also said that his tenure as mayor was not simply about cracking down on crime or the prevalence of drugs in the city but addressing a broader issue of justice for racial minorities.
    "We vowed together that we would not only improve policing, not only raise the standard of justice in a colorblind way that valued every life in our city and every neighborhood equally," he said, "but we would also intervene earlier in the lives of young people, expand drug treatment, and do one other very, very important thing -- and that is to do a better job of policing the police."
    O'Malley has made his aggressive and data-focused management of city agencies a central part of his political story. But as mayor, his zero-tolerance policing strategy faced criticism from some activists even as the city saw a drop in crime.
    Former Republican Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich, whom O'Malley defeated in 2006 and again in 2010, said he simply thought it was "bad policy."
    "A lot of innocent people were arrested for nothing, for walking down the street, and that gets people angry," he said.
    O'Malley's allies insist, however, that the former governor's time as mayor will help distinguish him from the rest of the presidential field if he were to launch a White House campaign.
    Democratic strategist Doug Thornell, who has worked for the Congressional Black Caucus and as a top adviser to Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, said O'Malley's background as a big city mayor would bring a valuable dimension to the dialogue within the Democratic Party about inequality.
    "Hopefully it's a conversation that he can inject into the larger presidential conversation," Thornell said. "You don't really hear a lot of people talking about urban America. You hear the conversation pop up when there's something like what's happened in Baltimore or Ferguson, but then the conversation stops."