A divided Baltimore watches Martin O’Malley’s presidential campaign

Updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat May 30, 2015
02:01 - Source: CNN
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Just days before announcing his campaign for president, Martin O’Malley placed a telephone call to Parris Glendening, the former Maryland governor. Their conversation turned at one point to the violent riots that engulfed Baltimore last month over the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man whose treatment in police custody intensified the national debate about police treatment of racial minorities.

Glendening said that O’Malley, a former Baltimore mayor, was aware that some critics blamed policing methods he put in place for tension in the city’s streets. O’Malley said he was convinced that larger, national issues of social and economic inequality were at work, Glendening recalled – issues that will be central to O’Malley’s campaign.

“He thought that this reinforced his basic point that we have a serious problem that’s getting worse,” Glendening told CNN.

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Now, O’Malley’s announcement that he will run for president is shining a spotlight on Baltimore, a city that was in many ways transformed during O’Malley’s tenure as mayor and governor.

Plenty of residents give him credit for economic development and a sharp drop in crime. But others – particularly nonwhite residents – remain upset about O’Malley’s zero tolerance policing strategy that they believe fueled discrimination. These law enforcement tactics, critics say, resulted in police officers aggressively pursuing individuals for minor offenses and even taking innocent bystanders into custody.

In conversations with CNN, five black Baltimore residents said Friday that they have experienced or witnessed police brutality against racial minorities. They don’t look kindly on O’Malley or his campaign for president.

Bryant Carr, a 30-year-old born and raised in Baltimore who works as a porter at The Belvedere, a luxury condominium building in Mt. Vernon, said he was walking through a “white neighborhood” on his way to visit his mom several years ago when he was stopped by a police officer and taken into the precinct.

“I don’t look dangerous. I’m a black man in a white area in the wrong area. They were looking for a guy in a blue shirt and I clearly had a white T-shirt,” he said. “I cried. I cried. I didn’t even do anything.”

Charles Swain, a 38-year-old man who was also raised in Baltimore and works at the Under Cut barber shop a few blocks south of Penn Station, claimed he was wrongfully accused of beating up a Hispanic person (“I was walking with a Caucasian woman,” he said), and taken to the police station.

“They took my phone, sent me to jail, I had to pay a bill for something that I didn’t do, you know?” Swain said. “And we went to the lawyer, we (were) like, well, what does it have to take – for them to start killing us? – for them to do something?”

O’Malley addressed the sensitive issue head-on in his campaign announcement speech Saturday morning, where protesters periodically tried to interrupt his remarks. The former governor said the riots that broke out in the streets of Baltimore last month were not just about race or policing, but “about everything it is supposed to mean to be an American.”

“There is something to be learned from that night, and there is something to be offered to our country from those flames,” O’Malley said. “The scourge of hopelessness that happened to ignite here that evening transcends race or geography.”

But if some of the city’s black residents say they’ve experienced over and over again discriminatory actions of police officers, others have a very different view of Baltimore’s police force.

Robert Mitchell, a 48-year-old Polish-Italian construction worker who lives in Baltimore County, billed O’Malley a successful mayor who made the city a safer place. Police brutality, Mitchell said, is a problem that’s always existed, but has recently come to the forefront because of several high-profile tragedies like Freddie Gray’s death.

“I think the police have to do what they have to do. If you’re not committing crimes, then you don’t have to worry about being abused or brutality coming at you,” Mitchell said.

Some of the city’s business owners also remember O’Malley’s election to the mayor’s office as a godsend.

Mary Ann Cricchio opened up Da Mimmo Restaurant in Baltimore’s Little Italy in 1984. Getting her business off the ground in an economically stagnant city felt impossibly difficult, she said.

“It was just terrible. But then this young man, fresh out of law school, serving on the City Council, started to run for mayor. When we heard what he had to say, we were really excited and energized,” said Cricchio, 53, who has been a years-long supporter of the former governor. “We believed in what he was telling us – that he could turn the city around. And he did.”

The numbers from O’Malley’s time in office are impressive.

Crime in Baltimore City dropped by 42% while O’Malley was mayor – a reduction that his website bills “the steepest reduction of any major metropolitan city over a decade.”

Today there are fewer people incarcerated in the state than at any point since 1995 and homicides have fallen some 30% since 2006 – though Baltimore has seen a sharp spike in recent months. (May was the city’s deadliest month since 1999, according to the Baltimore Sun.)

Craig Martin, the owner of a boutique grooming store near Baltimore’s Inner Harbor where O’Malley frequents to get his hair cut, said the city’s transformation since he opened his store in 2005 has helped local businesses flourish.

“When I told people I was opening a store in Baltimore, I was not getting: ‘Wow, that’s an awesome idea,’” Martin said. But 10 years later, his company has expanded and the Baltimore transplant now considers this city home. “I truly believe in the future of our city and what’s going on here.”

O’Malley’s political viability hinges greatly on the contrast he can draw between himself and Hillary Clinton, who is the clear frontrunner among declared and potential Democratic candidates.

RELATED: Once a Clinton backer, O’Malley now a top foe

He is looking to do this in several ways, including by emphasizing his youth (the former secretary of state will be 68 by inauguration day in 2017), and making an appeal to a subset of the Democratic base itching for a more populist alternative to Clinton.

Many of the progressive policies he’s expected push as a national candidate will draw from his time as mayor and governor here. As governor, he helped enact same-sex marriage and a state version of the DREAM Act, ended the death penalty and passed strict gun control legislation into law.

Jim Johnston, a 58-year-old federal government employee who lives in Mt. Vernon, said while he doesn’t believe O’Malley can beat Clinton, the former governor was nevertheless a “groundbreaking” public servant in Maryland.

“He did a good job of standing up and saying, ‘I’m sorry, but we’re not going to be about homicide, we’re not going to be about “The Wire” anymore,’” Johnston said, in reference to the popular HBO TV show based on crime, drugs and law enforcement in Baltimore.

Johnston added: “He actually did a very, very good job of saying, ‘I stand for something different. I want peace in Baltimore.’”