BALTIMORE—For months, Martin O'Malley has been creeping leftward, shedding his image as a center-left technocrat and trying to present himself as a bold progressive, a man for Democrats disappointed that Elizabeth Warren isn't seeking the White House. Today in Federal Hill Park, as the former Baltimore mayor and former Maryland governor officially entered the presidential race, he tried hard to embrace that identity as a souped-up liberal insurgent. He spoke about economic stagnation and inequality. He preached about inclusion, even adding the word "transgender" to his rundown of American diversity. He worked hard to sound like Bobby Kennedy, though with his platitudinous speaking style he landed closer to John Edwards territory. He even ended his infamous reluctance to criticize Hillary Clinton by name, remarking that an executive at Goldman Sachs had said he'd "be just fine with either Bush or Clinton," then adding: "I'll bet he would!"
But on the outskirts of the crowd—and the outskirts weren't all that far from the speaker's platform—a noisy group of protesters punctured O'Malley's posture as the Great Left Hope. It began with a woman holding a "Stop Killer Cops" sign, shouting, "Black lives matter!" Another guy yelled, "We don't need zero tolerance policies, O'Malley!" and "700,000 arrests under your watch, O'Malley!" and "What about police brutality?" One group just started blowing whistles for a while, which in my corner of the park drowned the speaker out entirely. At one point, I'm pretty sure there were more cameras pointed at a group of demonstrators arguing with the cops than there were pointed at the candidate.
O'Malley carried on, listing his positions on college (make it cheaper), the minimum wage (make it higher), immigrants (treat 'em right), and so on. But the mayor whose wholesale disregard for the Fourth Amendment did so much to set the stage for Baltimore's recent riots, the man who made this announcement in Baltimore for the express purpose of pointing to his accomplishments here, didn't have much to say about the events that made his city the focus of world attention last month. The riots were a "heartbreaking night," he said, and there was "something to be learned from that night." But that lesson, he quickly added, was "not just about race" and "not just about policing." No, "it was about everything it is supposed to mean to be an American"—why just look at all the white people on heroin! And unemployment! And various other subjects with one thing in common: They had nothing to do with this ugly underside to O'Malley's record as mayor.
The demonstrators were only a small segment of the crowd, but they were a harsh reminder of a topic the candidate would rather not discuss. Coming at the end of a week that saw fellow candidate Bernie Sanders stealing O'Malley's thunder on the left's economic issues, it wasn't a very auspicious start for the campaign. But O'Malley kept his composure through it all, and he smiled broadly at the end of his speech, enjoying his supporters' cheers. Give the man his due. He may well be our next vice president.