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Monday, December 5, 2016

“Jamie Stiehm, my long-lost friend,” said Martin O’Malley’s voice on the phone.

A native son of Maryland, O’Malley was the state’s liberal-leaning Democratic governor for eight years. But to me and many, he will always be the young, hard-charging mayor of Baltimore. He is 52 now.

Our chat was a brief interview about President Obama, but it was nice to hear a happy note from city days. They say the personal is political. And it’s true; the best politicians have that talent over time and distance.

As a rookie reporter at the Baltimore Sun, I observed O’Malley’s rise in City Hall. He was on the city council then, a lawyer in his spare time, with a keen interest in New York’s “zero tolerance” policing. He went up there see firsthand what New York was doing right because Baltimore’s bloody murders were ridiculously high. There were more than 300 homicides a year in the late 1990s.

Yes. Ugh. We kept a kept close tab in the Sun newsroom. I had to go out to the morgue or the scene a couple of times. I saw detectives search for a murder weapon. Almost always, the victim was a young black man gunned down.

Therein lies the paradox and central question of O’Malley’s campaign for president, which launches in Baltimore Saturday. The violent death of a young black man, Freddie Gray, in city police custody will surely be present. As the nation knows, it was the catalyst for riots this spring.

I remember O’Malley as being desperately concerned about the city’s crime rate years ago. He took it personally, as an outrage. That’s what struck people as different from business as usual. However, the Baltimore city police have since crossed the line in making massive numbers of arrests, according to a 2010 court agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union.

Few will forget the sight of Baltimore’s poverty and life on the streets erupting in April. You can be sure that O’Malley has some explaining to do as the public wonders whether to lay that at his door. The scenes were “heartbreaking,” O’Malley said, when he rushed home from Ireland.

Defying skeptics in his 30s, O’Malley ran an unflagging campaign for mayor in 1999, focused like a laser beam on bringing the murder rate down. Nobody thought his dreams could be done — first, that a white man would be elected mayor in a majority black city. Nor did people believe the homicide rate could be driven down. It was a given.

“Believe” was a mantra with O’Malley. Even his wife Catherine “Katie” O’Malley (now a judge) was dubious about his run for mayor. In the end, he won over a black city councilman, carrying black precincts as well as white. He proved old-fashioned Irish Catholic flair still has a place in the world.

The personal is political, especially in Baltimore, which is full of people who have lived there forever, both black and white. They call you “hon,” and they want to place you, by high school and neighborhood, before telling you anything.

Moving quickly as mayor, O’Malley fired the old police commissioner and brought in fresh talent and intense energy to crime-fighting. The drama was something to watch. Sure enough, the streets of Baltimore were getting safer by the month, by the year. Scores of lives were saved as the murder rate fell to the lower 200s.

That is the hard calculus the Democratic candidate will have to weigh in front of supporters and critics alike. My guess is that he’s done some soul-searching and will confront the Freddie Gray tragedy head-on.

Baltimore liked O’Malley for being out and about, not just sticking to the city hall script. Reporters got scoops talking to him at the Downtown Athletic Club, where he was seen daily. He sang Happy Birthday to the city’s aging patriarch, Samuel Hopkins, (a relative of Johns Hopkins). He knew people’s names.

Just wearing a black leather jacket out to the gigs of his Irish rock band made the mayor look like a lad and helped the old city feel younger. Rejuvenation is what happened on his watch. Last, O’Malley’s March is the name of the band — and a good one for a campaign.

To find out more about Jamie Stiehm and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit Creators.com. 

Photo: Chesapeake Bay Program via Flickr