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Editors' Picks Government Officials Interviews

An Interview with Martin O’Malley, Former Governor of Maryland

Before running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, Martin O’Malley served as the Mayor of Baltimore and Governor of Maryland. He was Chair of the Democratic Governors Association from 2011 to 2013. Following his departure from public office and his later presidential bid, O’Malley has been a visiting professor at several universities and campaigned on behalf of Democratic candidates in state and local elections across the country with his political action committee, Win Back Your State.

The Politic: You’ve been doing a lot of traveling in the last year to help elect down-ballot Democrats. What in particular do you think is driving you to do this?

Martin O’Malley: Where to begin? How far back do you want to go?

I was raised in a house where we were taught the only thing wrong with politics is not enough good people try. Not enough good people get involved. So after Donald Trump’s election, I think many of us have been asking, “What is the next good thing we can do to be more involved in the life of our country, and not less involved?” And it’s been a really great honor and joy really to be able to campaign for men and women that are out there putting it all on the line, suspending their own fears and inhibitions and becoming candidates to win back their states.

As Democrats, we have in the recent past suffered from a couple of dual afflictions. One is believing that everything below the office of President or U.S. Senate is, air-quotes, “down-ballot,” as if it’s somehow beneath us to become involved in such races. The second affliction we have suffered from is that we haven’t acted like a party. We have not been as supportive of one another in running for important offices, especially at the state level. I think that’s changing.

My sense is that a lot of people are realizing that in order to save the United States, we have to win back our own states, even when it comes to something as basic as having House of Representatives that’s representative. States and governors affect those congressional borders. And there’s a lot of policies that play out at the state level—on issues of energy, immigration, an economy where everyone can succeed and get ahead, education, equity—all of these are things that states very directly affect. So states matter. And that’s why I do what I do. This year, 2018, is one of those years where 36 different governors’ offices and state legislatures are up for election. That happens only once every four years, so this is a big, big year. This is a year, I think, when voters will demonstrate a pretty clear shift in emotion, from anger, rage, and retribution, to fixing our republic.

Is that what you hope to see for the year ahead?

I do. And I’m already seeing it playing out. My wife asked me, “Why do you keep going out there for people you’ve never met in your life?” I said, “Because I feel a lot better doing something and taking action.” Last calendar year, 2017, I probably traveled to 23, 24 states on behalf of men and women running for office, and especially in state legislative special elections. And what I’ve been seeing is that they’re doing, on average, about 15 points better than their own family members and spouses think they’re going to do on the eve of the election. And that’s in some of the most unlikely of places. I believe in Oklahoma—which had [one of the highest margins for] Donald Trump—I think we have flipped five of seven seats there.

One of the people I campaigned for there was a woman named Allison Ikley-Freeman, who until three years ago was homeless. Never had run for office in her life. She’s now a mental health counselor in a clinic, a lesbian mother of three, her wife is African-American—and in a district that Donald Trump won by forty percentage points, she won by 44 votes.

Kevin Cavanaugh in New Hampshire. Manka Dhingra, who ran for state senate in Washington state, and her single victory, given the thin margin, was enough to flip their state senate from Republican to Democratic, and they’re getting a lot of good things done that were all bottled up before in Washington state. So these are the stories I’m seeing, and I believe you’re going to continue to see those stories take shape all across the country.

The Democratic Party is rebuilding itself, regenerating itself in a very distributed, spread-out sort of way. It’s not following a centralized memo from the DNC headquarters. It’s much more akin to a lot of green sprouts after a bad forest fire. But out of that organic transformation of grief and protest into political action, I think you’re going to see a really positive group of people being swept into office for the first time and bringing the fresh perspective that our country needs from time to time.

When you were governor of Maryland, you made the decision to close the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup, which was a notoriously violent maximum-security prison, as you know…

I think we had two correctional officers murdered there in two separate incidents the year before [it was closed].

In this year’s State of the Union address and then later at a retreat with congressional Republicans, President Trump expressed interest in prison reform and giving inmates “a second chance at life.” How would you like to see this issue addressed going forward, and do you think it’s possible to find a bipartisan solution?

Yes, I do. In fact, a lot of governors are doing things that work to reduce recidivism, to restore voting rights, improve the process of re-entry, which is so critically important in making sure people having served their sentences, that they don’t come back. In our own state, we cut recidivism by 20% during my time as governor. We reduced our incarceration rate to a twenty-year low. We restored voting rights to 75,000 people, decriminalized marijuana, but some of the most important work we did was on re-entry. Bringing people inside, oftentimes faith-based groups, to manage the process of reconciliation with family members on the outside, so that people at the end of their sentences had a better shot at successfully re-entering society and having a place to go.

In my experience with the National Governors Association, there were a lot of governors learning from one another about these things. Also, we have far better tools now that some states are pioneering in terms of better predictive analytics when it comes to assessing the true risk for violence posed by any individual based on what we’ve learned in the past. So yeah, I think there’s a lot of room for criminal justice reform and prison reform. And a lot of the governors are sharing best practices on that score.

This is another area where states matter, because the truth is, the majority of people incarcerated in the United States are not incarcerated in federal prison. They’re incarcerated in state prison, and the majority of them are there not for drug crimes, but for crimes of violence.

Another high profile issue lately has been gerrymandering. I’m from Pennsylvania, so I’ve been paying particular attention to this. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court did recently strike down Pennsylvania’s congressional map, which heavily favors Republicans, as a violation of the state constitution. According to calculations published in The New York Times, at least 11 other states feature congressional maps that favor Republicans disproportionately, while your state, Maryland, is the only state that has been singled out for having a pro-Democrat gerrymander…

We did our very best to push back within the parameters of the law and the Constitution—we did our very best to push back against that tide. But we were one state.

Do you think that, given the prevalence of maps that favor Republicans, it’s appropriate for some states to draw districts that disproportionately favor Democrats to kind of act as a counterweight? And how would you like to see the issue of partisan gerrymandering addressed at this point?

Let me answer the second part of that first. I would like to see the whole issue of partisan gerrymandering resolved. I would like to see it become a part of our country’s past. I would like for our country to find a way to do redistricting in a nonpartisan way, because I think that’s best for our democracy. I think that part of the solution to the polarization and our politics—part of the solution—is reining in the way that we have done redistricting in the past. I’d like to see us get to a point where we do nonpartisan redistricting commissions.

Answering the first part of your question: at the time when I was governor, I certainly felt—and the voters who approved the map with 69 percent of the vote certainly felt—that it was part of our responsibility in a system of checks and balances to push back against the rank gerrymandering that was occurring in many heavily Democratic states that ended up like your own in Pennsylvania, returning lopsided Republican majorities.

Might we have changed, might we have been a more effective force as one state by saying we’re just not playing this game anymore, we’re going to go for nonpartisan redistricting? Perhaps, in hindsight. At the time, I did not have the votes to do that as governor. There were a lot of things I was able to do: restoring voting rights, repealing the death penalty, marriage equality. Moving Maryland to a nonpartisan form of redistricting was not something I could have pulled off during my time as governor. Perhaps another governor will, and perhaps a legislature might be more amenable now than they would have been during my time.

And I hope, maybe the fact that they took both of those two cases, both a Republican [case] and ours as a Democratic case, in the end will give the Supreme Court the cover they need to craft a new legal theory for why it is that you cannot allow for a partisan motive anymore. Perhaps. I was deposed in our case, and they asked me how hard I worked to draw the map in a way that would favor the election of a more Democratic congressional delegation. I answered truthfully and honestly: as hard as I possibly could, within legal and constitutional limits. In fact, I even offered to sign an affidavit so we wouldn’t have to waste time on the deposition.

Akin to that issue, I’m in favor of publicly-financed election campaigns too; but I hope that men and women of goodwill will continue to go out and run for office with the very imperfect system we have, you know? But I’d like to see us get a better system.

Last spring, you taught at Boston College Law School. What did you teach there, and how was that experience for you?

I taught a law version of the class that I’ve now done at three levels: I’ve done it as a graduate public policy course, I’ve done it as a law course, and last semester I did it as an undergrad course for about 187 students at University of Maryland, College Park.

The course is a course on leadership and performance management in the information age. It is a course that lays out the way that the information age has changed not only the nature of public administration, but also the nature of political leadership. The big ship being this: in the information age, everyone knows everything at the same time. Whatever positional advantage leaders used to have, that they would be able to hold the information or hold it tight, they no longer have. So to be effective as a leader, public administrator, in the information age requires a radical commitment to openness and transparency. And the good news is that we’ve never had better technology to do it.

People in your generation take for granted that we were always able to pull up our phones and look and see where the Uber car was coming or going or how it missed us on the corner. But the ability to actually model complex systems—and that case of an Uber car coming on the corner might not seem all that complex, but that same, now-common technology has only recently been harnessed by our government in order to more effectively deliver the things that we pay [for with] our taxes and expect our government to deliver—safer streets, better schools, cleaner air, water and land. So that’s what the course is about. And it’s a lot of case studies from my time as mayor and my time as governor.

How did you like working with college students?

I enjoyed it. Part of what has kept me hopeful and optimistic, even in really challenging political times, is the goodness I see in the hearts and minds of young people across the United States. You’ll rarely find among people under 25 on college campuses many climate deniers, or people that want to scapegoat or lock up immigrant people, or deny rights to gay couples or their kids. There’s a Native American proverb that how we treat one another is reflected in how we treat the earth, and I think the truth of that proverb is very much alive and well among young people in the United States. And if you want to know where our country is headed, that’s who you need to talk to. Talk to our young people under 25—they’ll tell you where our country is going, notwithstanding the occasional speed wobble or bad detour that every long-lived republic has to endure and withstand.

So this is a little bit of a different question. I noticed a video of you performing at an Irish pub surfaced on the internet a couple weeks ago.

My natural habitat.

[laughs] Does your band, O’Malley’s March, still perform?

Yeah, we still perform sometimes. We’re going to be doing an event in Baltimore on March 18, St. Patrick’s weekend, to benefit my leadership efforts around the country, to benefit Win Back Your State. We have a seven-piece band, humbly entitled “O’Malley’s March.” Electric guitars, drums, electric bass, bagpipe, fiddle, et cetera. We don’t play as regularly as we once did, but I enjoy music—always have—and hope to develop a better discipline for sticking with it. Actually, that’s one of my New Year’s resolutions, to play more music.

How important is it to you to have music in your life as a creative outlet?

You know, I think we all need something to do. I think we all need a good left-brain activity, whether it’s art, or music, or fishing—just something to keep us fresh and creative for the more pressing tasks at hand. Music’s important to me. I enjoy it. And hopefully I’ll always have friends that I can pull together on a moment’s notice to play.

At the end of one of your songs in that video, someone in the crowd shouted, “O’Malley for president!” So, any plans there?

Look, the only thing I know for sure right now is that the next good thing for me to do is to help other people win back their states. Someone said to me, “Oh, is this just what you’re doing to prepare to run again for president?” I said, “No, I think by running the first time, I’m prepared to run again.” [laughs] Questions about whether there would be a path, what that path is, and all of that are not questions that can be intelligently answered right now. The only thing that I know for sure is that the next good thing for me to do is to help other people, and to continue to speak up. To speak out on issues of importance to our whole nation. This country belongs more to my kids now than it does to me. And the issues of immigration that I’m here to talk about at Yale, issues of climate, the issues that determine whether or not our economy works for people or whether people become cogs in the machine of an economy—these are all the issues that matter, right? So that’s what I’m focused on in this year.

As part of all of our interviews, we finish off with a couple of rapid-fire questions. Are you ready?

I’m ready.

Okay. First one. Where do you get your news?

Oooh. From a variety of sources. New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and social media. Skim. And other posts. I have a young man who works in our PAC, Sam Taylor, who keeps me pretty news-fed.

Next one. Which place would you most like to visit?

Could I mention Vox, also? Vox is another one I really like.

What place would I most like to visit? In the world?

Yeah. Anywhere. In the universe.

I’d like to visit Africa. It’s one continent that I haven’t visited yet.

If you weren’t in your current job, what would you be doing?

My current jobs—underline the “s.” I would probably be lawyering and trying cases.

Which living person do you most admire?

My wife.

Aww. What keeps you up at night?

[laughs softly] What keeps me up at night? [pause] Concern for my country.

What is your advice for college students?

My advice for college students is to listen to your heart in terms of where your passion and curiosity is, and follow it in whatever discipline you choose. You guys are lucky—you’re allowed to have two or three disciplines. When I was going to college, if we had more than one major, old people talked about us like we were flaky.


But now, I think that it’s pretty cool that your generation knows where their passions lie, and they kind of mix-and-match disciplines and majors in line with their passions.

In a movie about your life—this is the last one, by the way—who should play you?

Colin Farrell. I once played music with Jeff Bridges, who did that movie with Colin Farrell—Crazy Heart—and we did a song from it. Together we practiced up a song for the DNC convention down in North Carolina, and I said to him: “You: Jeff Bridges. Me: Colin Farrell.”