Martin O'Malley and Bernie Sanders Face Challenges Addressing Racial Issues

This presidential campaign's surprisingly missing-in-action issue (so far).

Potential Presidential Candidate Martin O'Malley Speaks At Scott County Democratic Dinner

Martin O'Malley, former governor of Maryland and potential Democratic presidential candidate, pauses while speaking during the Scott County Democratic Party dinner in Davenport, Iowa, U.S., on Friday, March 20, 2015. O'Malley has ruled out a bid for the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Senator Barbara Mikulski and continues to weigh his options for getting into the Democratic presidential race.

Photographer: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

When Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont made his presidential campaign official this week, he talked about income inequality, jobs, and climate change, but not criminal justice.

That sparked some surprise and, from the right, a bit of concern trolling. Byron York at the Washington Examiner called Sanders’s decision not to discuss race and policing a “startling omission,” and quoted MSNBC’s Chris Hayes calling it a “missed opportunity” to outline his policies. Charles C.W. Cooke at The National Review argued Sanders doesn’t talk about race because his “role in this game is to make Hillary more fiscally socialistic.” To NBC’s First Read, the omissions underscored that Sanders’ constituency is “upscale, affluent Democratic whites.” The story asked whether Sanders’s announcement left “a potential opening for Martin O’Malley, when he announces on Saturday.”

Criminal justice issues have become a national flashpoint in the wake of national protests and riots prompted by the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police. And given that Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, has made a major speech outlining her criminal justice proposals, there's an expectation that those running to her left will also discuss, or at least mention, the issue.

O’Malley’s announcement in Baltimore seems more likely to focus on criminal justice and policing, almost by necessity. In the wake of riots over police tactics, O’Malley is still dealing with criticism of his “zero-tolerance”-style police reformsunder which the police department cracked down on smaller crimes to prevent more serious one. But even before this week, there was a difference in the way the two Democratic presidential underdogs discuss issues that specifically affect minorities. 

Sanders’s focus is on income inequality, and even when he’s discussing events such as protests over policing, he’s more likely to talk about unemployment than the role race plays in the criminal justice system, as his reactions to the protests in Ferguson and Baltimore show. 

“As I’ve observed [Sanders] over the years, I haven’t heard him speak very much about these issues,” said Mark Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice reform group, adding that in some ways it wasn’t surprising.

“He’s obviously focused much more on economic populism, inequality, social welfare programs,” he said. “We can guess how he’ll come out on this, but he doesn’t seem to play a very active role one way or the other.”

In a statement to Bloomberg, Sanders’s communication director Michael Briggs said that Sanders cut some parts of his address, and you “can’t talk about everything in every speech.” At the same time, he said, that doesn’t mean that Sanders isn’t concerned about criminal justice issues.

“The senator’s speech at Burlington was definitely focused on income inequality, and that’s what he cares a lot about, and has proposals to do something about,” Briggs said. “But that certainly doesn’t mean that he isn’t interested in criminal justice and has talked about that a lot.”

Specifically, Briggs said Sanders has talked about the high U.S. incarceration rate, and how high black unemployment rates have contributed to the recent unrest. 

At the end of April, while discussing the Baltimore protests on CNN, Sanders talked about the need for police to be held accountable, then pointed to the neighborhood’s high unemployment rate. “What we’ve got to do as a nation is understand that we have got to create millions of jobs to put people back to work, to make sure kids are in schools, not in jails,” Sanders said.

But a few days later, O’Malley took a more direct aim at racial inequities on NBC’s Meet the Press. “We need to stop ignoring people of color and acting like they’re disposable citizens in this nation,” he said. On social media O’Malley also made a point of marking the police shootings of Freddie Gray in Baltimore and, before that, Walter Scott in South Carolina. 

https://twitter.com/GovernorOMalley/status/585877007067701248

As for whether discussing criminal justice issues will be a “potential opening” for O’Malley, it depends on how he handles the issue.

O’Malley’s appearance on Meet the Press was to address the criticism that the “zero tolerance” style policing tactics he oversaw as Baltimore's mayor in the early 2000s helped create the conditions that resulted in the recent unrest. 

“He’s challenged to ... put down some context now,” Mauer said, including whether he still supports “zero tolerance” style policing, and, moving forward, what policies criminal justice and law enforcement strategies should be put in place in urban areas.

“I think it would be very obvious if he doesn’t address these kinds of things, and it’ll be intriguing to see how he evaluates the experience when he was mayor of Baltimore,” he added. 

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