The governor of Maryland is a long shot for the White House—and the best manager in government today.
Student council aside, O’Malley’s first foray into politics was as an undergraduate, when he took a semester off from school to work for Gary Hart’s 1984 presidential campaign. He eventually worked his way up the organization, leading the effort in five states. “I felt like I’d gotten ten years older, but when I came back, I was still in college,” he says of the experience. A couple years later, as a law student at the University of Maryland, O’Malley threw himself into another race: then Congresswoman Barbara Mikulski’s 1986 bid for the U.S. Senate. It was over the course of that campaign that O’Malley met the woman who would later be his wife. Catherine (Katie) Curran, a fellow law student, was working on her father J. Joseph Curran Jr.’s successful bid for state attorney general. O’Malley and Curran were married in 1990 and now have two daughters, Grace and Tara, and two sons, Jack and William. For the last twelve years, Curran O’Malley has served as an associate judge on the District Court of Maryland.
After Mikulski joined the Senate in 1987, O’Malley went to work in her office as a legislative fellow, then finished up law school and passed the bar. Around the same time, Barbara O’Malley, who had spent the past thirty-three years at home raising kids, landed a job in Mikulski’s office too. Twenty-six years later, she’s still at it, answering phones for the senator.
O’Malley himself didn’t linger long in Mikulski’s office, however. After a stint with the state attorney for the city of Baltimore, O’Malley again threw himself into a race—this time, as the candidate. In 1990, he challenged incumbent Maryland State Senator John A. Pica for his seat, launching a dogged grassroots campaign and losing by a crushingly slim margin: just forty-four votes. A year later, at twenty-eight years old, he won a seat on the Baltimore City Council, a post he would hold for the next nine years.
It’s not for nothing that O’Malley’s political coming of age happened during one of the bloodier periods in Baltimore history. For most of the ’90s, “Bodymore, Murdaland” had a murder rate nine times the national average, clocking in at roughly one body every thirty-six hours for a decade straight. Baltimore was, perhaps unsurprisingly, also hemorrhaging its population at the same time, losing nearly 85,000 residents to the suburbs and neighboring states in the ’90s alone.
It was during this period that O’Malley, like a lot of elected officials and policy wonks around the country, desperate for a solution for the inner-city war zones, became fascinated with new crime-fighting techniques. At the top of the list was the New York Police Department’s innovative new experiment, CompStat. Led by NYPD Chief William Bratton and his deputy, Jack Maple, the idea was twofold. First, you’d collect data on all the crime that was happening in the city, map it, and then deploy police officers directly to those trouble spots. (In Maple’s shorthand, you’d “put cops on the dots.”) Second, and more fundamentally, you’d hold precinct commanders accountable by making them report the weekly crime data from their precincts, and then attend regular group meetings, where they’d be cross-examined on them: Why are these numbers going up? What can you do about it? Between 1993 and 1998, New York’s homicide rate dropped by 67 percent.
In the mid-’90s, O’Malley and a small team of city officials traveled up to New York with notepads and cameras to observe a CompStat meeting, and by the time O’Malley returned home, he was “a true believer,” to borrow his own words. He spent the last few years of his time on the city council trying to get then Police Commissioner Thomas Frazier to implement the program in Baltimore, too. (When Frazier resisted the young councilman’s entreaties, O’Malley accused him of shirking his duties, sparking a public feud that lasted for years.) O’Malley’s total belief in the CompStat model would define his political career.
In 1999, O’Malley stood at an intersection in Northwest Baltimore, a known drug-selling corner, and announced his intention to run for Baltimore city mayor. His platform? A single, resounding, and highly unlikely promise: to reduce the city’s crime rate by 50 percent. In a city riven by racial politics, the cards were stacked against the young, white councilman, but in August, in the nick of time, he got lucky. Former State General Assembly Delegate Howard P. Rawlings, who is black, endorsed him, and in September, O’Malley walked away with the Democratic primary—the equivalent, in Baltimore, of victory. (Twelve years later, O’Malley would return the favor, endorsing Rawlings’s daughter, the current mayor of Baltimore, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.) O’Malley took the general election in a landslide.
Two days after election night, months before he’d even taken the oath of office, O’Malley recruited Jack Maple, the guru of CompStat, and his business partner, John Linder. Their task? Bring CompStat to Baltimore, stat. Almost immediately, the duo launched a comprehensive review of the Baltimore Police Department (BPD), and in early 2000 they delivered eighty-seven suggestions of reform to both O’Malley and his brand-new police commissioner, Ronald L. Daniel. That’s when the trouble began.
In March, Daniel rejected half of Maple and Linder’s suggestions out of hand and, after a series of closed-door meetings, unexpectedly quit. The city was rocked. Daniel, who was a well-respected, longtime member of the BPD, and black, had seemed like a good bet, and here he was leaving after just
fifty-seven days on the job. What was this new mayor up to? To make matters worse, O’Malley replaced Daniel with a former NYPD official and old CompStat hand, Edward T. Norris, who is white. In the mostly black city, hackles went up. CompStat’s model of “zero tolerance” policing had by that point already been associated with civil rights abuses and higher police brutality rates. (During the election, one of O’Malley’s opponents had circulated postcards with an image of the Rodney King beating and the words “Are you ready for zero tolerance?” On the back was a photo of O’Malley.) Meanwhile, Maple and Linder—“O’Malley’s New York consultants,” as they were invariably described by the media—and their $2,000-a-day consulting fee, were staying on.
The Baltimore Sun, betting against the young mayor, launched a new feature. Every day, it would run a chalk outline of a dead person, the kind you see at a crime scene, next to two figures: the number of homicides that had occurred the previous year on this date and the number of homicides that had occurred so far this year. It seemed to be intended to throw down the gauntlet: So you say you’ll reduce crime by 50 percent? We’d like to see you try.
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