Martin O’Malley returns to a Baltimore he barely recognizes

Martin O’Malley returns to a Baltimore he barely recognizes

“On this corner,” Martin O’Malley told me, “was where one of our early line-of-duty deaths happened.”

O’Malley, who has just started driving himself again after 15 years of being chauffeured as Baltimore’s mayor and then Maryland’s governor, navigated his black Explorer slowly along Harford Avenue, on the city’s weathered East Side. He pointed out the window to the intersection of Harford and Cliftview.

“His name was Michael Cowdery. His father was a Philadelphia police detective. He got into a running battle with a drug dealer here. He took a bullet to his knee, and as he fell, he dropped his gun. And the drug dealer walked up to him, on the street a block away from our district court, and put a bullet through his head.”

O’Malley paused for a long moment. He looked like a man who hadn’t slept much.

“He was one of 10 police officers I buried in my time as mayor,” he said. His voice cracked slightly, and to my surprise his eyes welled with tears. “That was the most we ever buried in a 10-year period.” Pause. “And half of them were black, and half of them were white. And each one became harder.”

O’Malley is an exceptionally composed politician — maybe too composed. He normally speaks in a flat cadence that can feel rehearsed, and in oddly formal language. (He likes to talk about these United States, as if possessed by the ghost of Abraham Lincoln.) The New York Times’s Jason Horowitz described O’Malley earlier this week as wearing his smile like a shield.

But that was not the O’Malley who invited me Thursday on a two-hour drive through some of Baltimore’s poorer neighborhoods and grimmest landmarks. Mayors sometimes like to take reporters around their cities so they can show them all the cranes raising up gleaming new office towers and condominiums; O’Malley had in mind a tour through the tragic past, so I could understand what life had been like in this anguished city before he got there, and after.

This O’Malley was shaken. He had canceled his scheduled speeches in Ireland and flown back to Baltimore Tuesday, after news of the rioting and looting reached the world. It wasn’t clear what exactly he was supposed to be doing, so he walked the streets and reassured old friends.

“I had to be here,” he told me in a thick voice. “I couldn’t be away. I mean, I was so sad. I just needed to be home. I’m talking to my kids, and they’re holding the phone up as I’m listening to the mayor talk about what’s going on, and I — I just needed to be home.”

The political landscape to which he returned seemed changed and more treacherous. Before the riots, O’Malley was widely considered the only credible challenger to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, even if voters didn’t yet seem aware of him. (Barack Obama joked at last weekend’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, with O’Malley in attendance, that O’Malley had begun his campaign by going unrecognized at his own rally.)
But even before he set foot back on American soil, O’Malley’s legend as a popular and successful mayor was under attack, with critics suggesting that his “zero tolerance” police policies had led inexorably to the death of Freddie Gray and the riots that kept downtown Baltimore shuttered for much of the week.

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