Pittsburgh roots shape former Md. governor’s outlook in run for president
A work ethic and values learned from his father's blue-collar Pittsburgh upbringing will bolster former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley in his run for the presidency, he told the Tribune-Review.
“It is that notion that you can create a better life for your children and for your grandchildren. … My father raised six of us to love our fathers, to love our country, love God, and to work and to never give up. My father was the kind of guy who taught us that sometimes the toughest fights are the only ones worth fighting,” said O'Malley, who is set to announce his campaign Saturday in Baltimore, where he once was a city councilman and two-term mayor.
Polls show he has low name recognition nationally and tough competition in the 2016 Democratic primary against Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
But he is a pragmatic problem-solver, said O'Malley, a progressive politician whose second term as governor ended last year. He began laying the foundation for a White House run in 2012 while chairing the Democratic Governors Association. And at 52 — considerably younger than Clinton, 68, and Sanders, 73 — O'Malley has energy to campaign.
“My approach is to get things done,” he said. “I think most people in our country, especially younger people, believe you should be able to demonstrate whether something is working or not. It is part of the phrases I hear around the country — ‘new leadership' and ‘getting things done.'
“We need to figure how to get things done again as a country, and we won't do that by resorting to the old ways. Times change; circumstances change.”
With 15 years of experience in running a city and a state, he said, he offers “a proven executive method that has been emulated by other executives and is becoming, in other cities, the new way of governing.”
“I want to be president of the United States because our country is facing big challenges. These challenges are not going to solve themselves.”
O'Malley teased the political world Friday on social media, releasing a 23-second video of him humming as he tuned his guitar to a song traditionally played for presidents as they walk to a podium. Since 1988, he has been lead guitarist for O'Malley's March, a Celtic rock band.
The guitar will accompany him on the campaign trail, he said.
O'Malley's father, Thomas, grew up in Pittsburgh's Manchester neighborhood and graduated from North Catholic High School in 1942. After serving as an airman in World War II, he settled near Washington and met O'Malley's mother, Barbara, a congressional staffer.
His father and grandfather were active in the Democratic Party, and O'Malley headed to Iowa while in college to become a field worker for former Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado, who shot to the top of polls in a primary race for president in 1988 before falling equally fast because of an extramarital affair.
Rick Ridder, a Democratic strategist in Denver, said O'Malley “tends to gravitate toward people who force him to think differently,” such as Hart. O'Malley's tough-on-crime stance in Maryland “was a different approach to policing than most Democrats” take, Ridder said.
But that no-tolerance program came under scrutiny with Freddie Gray's fatal ride in a police van last month. Arrests since have dropped, and Baltimore's homicides soared to 38 in May, the city's deadliest month in 15 years.
O'Malley, said Ridder, “is not looking for the common orthodoxy. Instead, you'll find him looking for something with some salience — not a left or right idea, but the correct idea.”
O'Malley has appealed to white blue-collar voters, many of whom have streamed away from the Democratic Party for decades, Ridder said. “That ability to connect with folks is going to be helpful to him.”
Former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy met O'Malley when Hart's campaign brought him to Pennsylvania and Murphy was a young legislator in Harrisburg.
“I think the whole work ethic thing he is rooting for is where our country wants to go,” Murphy said. “There is this growing separation: people who are highly educated versus the more traditional vocations, and he understands how to bridge that gulf.
“His challenge is that he is facing the most formidable primary candidate in the last 50 years for either party.”
Clinton's campaign set a fundraising goal of as much as $2.5 billion.
Early polling of Democratic voters shows Clinton dominating O'Malley, 63.6 percent to his 0.8 percent, according to national averages compiled by RealClearPolitics.
“You need a grass-roots activist movement to take on someone so formidable,” said Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University presidential historian. He does not foresee O'Malley generating “that kind of enthusiasm.”
If voters want someone radically different from Clinton, “Sanders is the real thing,” Zelizer said. “O'Malley needs to find the space in between.”
Salena Zito is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at [email protected].