O’Malley Speaks: ‘Baltimore’s Reversals Break My Heart’

Former Gov. Martin O'Malley and his wife, Judge Catherine Curran O'Malley. Maryland Department of Agriculture photo

Twenty-one years after Martin O’Malley improbably became mayor of Baltimore, he is still reliving those days and preaching about the lessons he learned in his seven years as mayor and eight years as governor.

With the Iowa caucuses recently behind us, O’Malley would probably prefer not to relive his inglorious showing there in the 2016 Democratic presidential nominating contest. But he is back in the news with a book that is part memoir and part how-to manual for local government officials.

In 1999, O’Malley was a 36-year-old member of the Baltimore City Council who made a late entry into the mayoral election. The only white candidate in the Democratic primary, he scooped up 53% of the vote in a multi-candidate primary.

The victory triggered the classic “oh, shit” moment for O’Malley that many political winners face. He had to figure out how to take the reins of a city that was in the midst of a full-blown public safety crisis.

On his second day as mayor-elect, O’Malley tracked down Jack Maple, the guru behind the New York City Police Department’s groundbreaking CompStat program. Maple happened to be in Washington, D.C., for meetings, and the two men met for dinner at an Italian restaurant near Dupont Circle.

O’Malley pitched Maple on an idea. Why not take the data-driven approach that New York had used to reduce crime and apply it across municipal government, to improve the delivery of all services in Baltimore?

Though he was battling cancer at the time, Maple said yes. Over time O’Malley would become the first big-city mayor in the country to bring cold hard analytics to municipal governance.

In a recent interview, O’Malley said the mentoring he received from Maple, whom he described as “that genius,” laid the foundation for much of the progress Baltimore made in the 2000s.

CitiStat, the program the mayor and his team developed to try to tame urban bureaucracy and install a sense of accountability, would go on to receive the Innovations in Government Award from Harvard University.

“We didn’t do it to be clever,” O’Malley said of his belief in analytics. “Our city was bleeding to death.”

O’Malley said that while state and local governments are making great strides in how they deploy information technology to boost services, they have yet to fully exploit the treasure trove of data at their disposal.

Five years out of office, the executive-turned-consultant is trying to help them get there.

Esri Press, a Redlands, Calif.-based firm, just published O’Malley’s new book, “Smarter Government: How to Govern for Results in the Information Age.”

Beyond the autobiographical passages, the book is aimed at mayors and county executives, their administrators, and government IT people.

“The old wisdom in politics is that leaders hold information and do not share it,” O’Malley said during an hour-long chat recently in a Hyattsville coffee shop. “In fact, they share it only at their peril. The new wisdom is that leaders must share information.”

In one example, city leaders were able to improve garbage collection and save money by zeroing in on the nexus of days employees missed work, citizen complaints and the use of overtime.

“Separate departmental silos of information were all forced to land their base on the same map,” he writes.

“Thanks to GIS technology, we could see where the problems were and where our money and efforts were landing. We could see where our problems were clustered or concentrated. We could see which teams of city workers were really performing at a high level, and which were not; which neighborhoods were being well served, and which were not. We could identify patterns and get inside the turning radius of the problem.”

‘Numbers don’t always tell you the full story’

In the book, O’Malley provides examples of how other cities have taken the CitiStat concept and run with it, such as how Baton Rouge, La., made its 311 Dashboards public, so everyone could see the source of citizen requests for service.

O’Malley’s predecessor, former three-term mayor Kurt Schmoke (D), thinks the book will generate valuable discussion about governing. But he said his successor’s reliance on data was a mixed blessing for Baltimore.

“He did some very good things, like on sanitation and health stuff. Some of those statistics improved,” Schmoke said in an interview. “But by using a statistics-driven policy for the police, he ended up with a huge mass-incarceration problem, which hurt him a great deal when he ran for president.

“So, numbers don’t always tell you the full story,” Schmoke added. “They’re useful, but you’ve got to put other things in there when you make a policy.”

O’Malley vigorously disputes Schmoke’s claim regarding “mass incarceration.”

“Crime was driven down to record lows in Baltimore and then in Maryland during my service in office,” he said in an email.

“Arrests levels went up but then down during my time as Mayor. Maryland saw the 12th largest reduction in incarceration rates among the fifty states during my service as Governor.”

To support his position, he points to a raft of figures, including a study from the Brennan Center for Justice, which studied state prison rates from 2006 to 2014.

“It cannot be factually asserted that my time in office resulted in greater incarceration,” O’Malley added. “In fact, the opposite is true.”

An unrepentant government geek, O’Malley, who is 57 (and still ridiculously fit, still a talker, every salt-and-pepper hair in place) is now spreading the “Smart Cities” gospel.

His target audience depends on the day, but generally it’s a mix of corporate executives, newly-elected politicians, non-profit leaders and college students.

He’s a Senior Fellow at the MetroLab Network, which connects cities with universities that can have data-gathering expertise. He’s on the board of Project Drawdown, a global climate non-profit. And he does consulting for Grant Thornton, an accounting network.

In the interview with Maryland Matters, every name, every issue leads to story. He laments Baltimore’s crime crisis, he levels harsh accusations against his successor as governor, and there is some casual name-dropping. He not only answers questions, he poses the occasional follow-up, perhaps to save his interviewer the trouble.

As in: “What are Smart Cities? Smart cities take actions to make themselves more mobile, more connected, more healthy, more secure and more educated.”

He talks about this stuff the way former Gov. Parris N. Glendening riffs on Smart Growth or educator Alvin Thornton lectures on educational inequality — with a near-consuming passion.

O’Malley has kept a relatively low profile since his 2016 run for president.

He was a brief cable news sensation over Thanksgiving weekend when — according to some accounts — he chased Trump administration official Ken Cuccinelli out of an Irish bar in D.C., a brief but spirited clash over immigration policy, during which the Cuccinelli said little, observers said.

Last month he launched a Washington Post series on how to improve the presidential selection process with an attack on television’s preference for entertaining rather than informing.

Words of wisdom from ‘the old war horse’ 

When you hear “(insert politician’s name) wrote a book,” the natural tendency is to want to stay away. The genre is replete with banal, score-settling ghost-writes that are unworthy of the trees whose death made them possible.

O’Malley’s book, by contrast, is surprisingly readable, in part because of how it’s laid out. Though it clocks in at a bicep-building 312 pages, there are countless graphs, maps, vignettes, screen-grabs, photos and articles-within-chapters that are tailor-made for post-attention-span America.

Political types, especially those from Maryland, who start with the five-page acknowledgements section in the back will find it’s replete with recognizable names.

Much of the book reads exactly the way O’Malley talks, though he didn’t toil alone. There are 34 “contributors” listed in the back.

O’Malley said the book grew out of a series of courses he taught at the University of Maryland, Georgetown, Harvard and the Kelley School of Business, the top-ranked program at Indiana University.

He said teaching and being around young people helped him “nail down the vocabulary” needed to describe events of 10 or 20 years ago for a new generation of leaders, “rather than things that I just enjoy telling as an old war horse.”

Sales, he claimed, are strong. At a recent book-signing, the GIS chief of a mid-sized city purchased three copies — one for himself, one for his mayor and one for the deputy mayor.

O’Malley’s elevator speech is that executives must force their teams to set goals, make them public and release attainment data as a matter of course — even though doing so risks giving political opponents a club that can be used against them.

Maple had harsh advice for the newbie mayor: Follow the traditional ways of governing and get maybe 1% improvement per year, driven by the budget cycle. Or, convene a CitiStat meeting every two weeks, force real conversation about what’s working and what isn’t, and get 1% progress every 14 days.

O’Malley said his staff resisted this approach at first.

“I said no. I want you to show the people the red arrows and the orange arrows, not just the green fucking arrows. People need to know where we’re failing and where we’re falling short.”

“If you have this new habit of focusing people on that latest emerging truth — on the map — it has the effect of lifting up the 10% of the organization that are leaders, so that the 80% of us in the middle lean towards them, and not back towards the slackers.”

‘Baltimore’s reversals break my heart’

O’Malley and his wife, District Court Judge Catherine Curran O’Malley, still live in Baltimore, a city in the midst of a public safety crisis.

He refers to his City Hall successors as “three mayors whose tenures all ended badly.”

“Baltimore’s reversals break my heart,” he said softly. “You gotta police the police, man. They stopped policing the police.”

“You saw Stephanie [Rawlings-Blake] just lose total interest in driving that collaborative circle. Didn’t have a CitiStat meeting for eight months.”

As for this year’s mayoral election: “So far I haven’t seen a candidate in the mayor’s race who is willing to speak honestly about the balance that must be struck between our freedoms and our liberties,” he said. “It’s one of the key pieces that fell off the table in Baltimore, which very few people notice.”

Based on O’Malley’s experience and passion for service, and not the controversies that have clouded his legacy, it’s not hard to imagine him attempting a return to City Hall.

“Part of me would very much like to,” he allows.

But then reality sets in. The filing deadline for the April 28 primary has already passed.

‘Accelerating sprawl’

O’Malley’s feelings for his successor in Government House make his appraisals of Baltimore’s recent mayors look like rave endorsements.

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) killed the Red Line, a proposed subway line that had been approved for federal funds, out of animosity toward the city’s poorest residents, O’Malley charged.

“I think the rationale was that Larry Hogan believes that the state shouldn’t invest in transit in cities. He thinks that public transportation is a free ride for those people who live in Baltimore City. And it’s good politics for Larry Hogan to speak in coded terms about ‘those people’ in Baltimore.”

A developer before re-entering politics in 2014, Hogan’s suburban real estate development firm is operated by his brother under an ethics arrangement that has drawn increasing scrutiny of late.

O’Malley said that Hogan would “rather have the dollars to invest in accelerating sprawl. It’s better for his business, better for his personal bottom line, and it squares with his philosophy.”

Anger over the death of the Red Line lingers among many Baltimore-area leaders, three-plus years later.

“A lot of us worked very hard for years and years, including [the late congressman] Elijah Cummings, to bring mobility and transit options to people trapped in the poorest parts of our one major city. That project promised to be transformational for a lot of people and for the life of our city. And it was a horrible decision.”

It’s fair to say the two governors do not like each other. But Hogan used O’Malley and his record to great effect as he was first campaigning to succeed him.

Hogan’s campaign mantra — “43 consecutive tax hikes” under O’Malley — helped fuel his 2014 upset over then-Lt. Governor Anthony G. Brown (D).

O’Malley tartly notes that — when it comes to the hike in the gas tax that he championed — “those tax dollars were never refunded to people. They instead went to fund road projects outside of Smart Growth areas and in the suburbs to accelerate sprawl.”

Through a spokesman, Hogan declined to comment.

Empowering people during a ‘crisis in democracy’

While his book is geared toward people whose job it is to make government function, O’Malley hopes that regular people will give it a look.

There’s a “crisis of democracy” here and abroad, he said. A nagging set of doubts as to “whether government of, by and for the people can still tackle complex challenges and deliver the goods.”

Polls consistently show that — for all the anger directed toward Washington, D.C. — “there a rising level of trust in politics locally. So there is something happening here and it’s not all bad.”

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