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Martin O'Malley kicks off presidential campaign in Baltimore

The former Maryland governor presented himself as a fresh progressive leader with experience as an effective executive.

BALTIMORE — In front of the skyline of the city where he was once mayor, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley threw his hat into the 2016 Democratic presidential race Saturday, presenting himself as a fresh progressive leader with experience as an effective executive. 

With two terms each as governor and mayor under his belt, O’Malley has for years been laying the groundwork for a presidential campaign. He remains unknown to most Americans, and is languishing in the single digits in national polls, but supporters think that once Democrats tune into the election, he will emerge as the credible alternative to frontrunner Hillary Clinton.

“I’m running for you,” O’Malley said as U2’s “In the Name of Love” swelled and several hundred friends and supporters cheered at Baltimore’s Federal Hill Park. He was joined by his wife, a local judge, and children, along with some local officials and longtime supporters.

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O’Malley came out swinging at the former secretary of state, suggesting she’s part of a ruling elite that needs to be overthrown.

“True story, Goldman Sachs is one of the biggest repeat-offending investment banks in America. Recently, the CEO of Goldman Sachs let his employees know that he’d be just fine with either Bush or Clinton,” O’Malley said, adding that Americans need to “retake control of our own American government!"

He went on to call for reinstating Glass-Steagall, the Depression-era financial law, and prosecuting Wall Street banks involved in the 2008 meltdown. “Tell me how it is that you can get pulled over for a broken tail light in our country, but if you wreck the nation’s economy you are untouchable,” he said of the banks. 

While he mostly stuck to well-tread policy, O’Malley championed progressive positions on climate change, immigration, LGBT rights, income inequality and more. 

Supporters who were helped by his tenure in government spoke first, including one young woman who nearly broke into tears as she thanked the former governor for making her college education possible. 

Like the actions of most who have come before him, O’Malley's announcement was no surprise. He’s been telegraphing the move for months and filed his official paperwork with the Federal Election Commission Friday. Signs declaring “O’Malley for President 2016: New Leadership” were circulated a couple of hours before the speech.

His staff moved to new campaign headquarters in Baltimore this month from their old offices in a high rise in downtown Washington, D.C. 

Even as he seeks to play up his Maryland roots, O’Malley have difficulty on the home front. In the wake of riots and protests following the death of unarmed black man Freddie Gray at the hands of Baltimore police, many blamed O’Malley’s tough-on-crime policies as mayor. Only 31% of Marylanders think O’Malley should run for president, according to a recent statewide Goucher poll.

About a dozen protesters interrupted his otherwise carefully choreographed announcement Saturday, shouting that O’Malley was to blame for many of the things he said he was campaigning against in his speech. 

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Security was tight, with metal barricades and bomb sniffing dogs. One protester was grabbed by two large private security guards when she starting chanting “black lives matter.” Others carried on peacefully. Some blew whistles.

O’Malley spoke directly to the riots in his remarks. “For all of us who have given so much of our energies to making our city a safer, fairer, more just and more prosperous place, it was a heartbreaking night in the life of our city,” he said.

But O’Malley continued that “there is something to be learned from that night,” saying the events showed how politics has been hijacked by wealthy interests with little regard for serving the poor or fixing poverty.

With his young family on stage and a message of “new leadership” on his banners, he clearly aimed to present a generational argument that subtly contrasts with Clinton. It also means, in the campaign's view, a new way of governing — O’Malley was famous for his reliance on governance — and a focus on younger voters in the Democratic primary and caucuses. 

Al Martin is a registered Republican from Hagerston, Maryland, but has voted for O’Malley and came out Saturday to support the governor’s presidential bid. “He’s a fresh voice, a fresh face,” Martin said. 

O’Malley’s campaign is squarely focused on the early primary state of Iowa, where he cut his teeth as an organizer for the insurgent Gary Hart campaigns in 1980 and 1984. Hart, who also ran against strong Democratic frontrunners, is O’Malley’s mentor and a model for his 2016 campaign.

RELATED: O’Malley stands by record as mayor of Baltimore

His campaign notes that 70% of Iowa caucus-goers supported someone other than Clinton in 2008, which creates an opening him. O’Malley headed straight for the Hawkeye state after his rally Saturday and has plans to hold two events there later in the day.

One supporter, Howard Park, has fond memories of working with O’Malley on Gary Hart’s 1984 presidential campaign. “Even then, he was kind of the golden boy. But not a jerk, like a lot of golden boys are,” said Park, who now lives in Washington, D.C. “He’s the real deal."

But it's unclear where O'Malley fits in the Democratic field, which now includes Sen. Bernie Sanders on the left and is soon to include former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chaffee on the right. There's not much room to the left of Clinton, who continues moving in that direction to shore up her progressive flank.

Even supporters here were unsure about O’Malley’s electoral prospects. Asked if he thought O’Malley could win, Joe Vogel, an 18-year-old from Rockville who will be voting in his first election paused to consider the question.  “I’m a big fan of underdogs,” he said.