By Scott Dance

Sixteen years ago, then-City Councilman Martin O'Malley chose the intersection of Harford Road and The Alameda in Clifton Park to announce his candidacy for mayor of Baltimore.

The former prosecutor told the small crowd that he would rid the area of its open-air drug markets.

Sitting on a bench at the intersection on Saturday, 55-year-old Pat Jones said little has changed in the years since. The blocks nearby hold nearly 200 vacant properties; three people have been killed this year.

"Drugs ain't never going away," Jones said as she waited for a bus to work.

But while some of her neighbors blame O'Malley for the stagnation or deterioration in their quality of life, Jones said she supports the former Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor as he seeks the presidency of the United States.

"He's all right. He's a good person," she said. "He's done a lot of good things for the city."

As O'Malley, a Democrat, launched his campaign for the nation's highest office -- this time, from Federal Hill -- his earliest constituents have mixed opinions of his tenure in the city and state.

While supporters at his announcement Saturday chanted his name, residents on Harford Road expressed frustration over problems that they said predated O'Malley's arrival in public office but persisted through his tenure on the City Council, at City Hall and in the governor's mansion -- problems they said stem from a lack of opportunities for young people and investment in their neighborhoods.

Some say the two mayors who succeeded him, Sheila Dixon and Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, reversed progress he made against poverty, blight and crime. Others said they could not support his presidential campaign.

Demetrius Blackledge, 50, was active with the community group Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development early in O'Malley's career.

"All of what he's saying sounds very good, but look at the city," he said. "It's falling apart."

O'Malley chose the corner in Northeast Baltimore, a mile and a half down Harford Road from his home, to launch his mayoral campaign as a symbol of the problems facing his council district and the city.

He stood under a faded "Drug Free Zone," sign but told a Baltimore Sun columnist that when he was scouting the location the night before, a young man had offered to sell him drugs.

"I believe I can turn this city around by making it a safer place," he told supporters at the time.

Some say he did.

Lynette Evans said she was homeless and living in a shelter as a child while O'Malley was mayor. She credited him with providing the resources that helped her family get back on its feet.

The 28-year-old said she now works at a Shop-Rite grocery store, is living with family, and hopes soon to get a place of her own in public housing.

"I support [O'Malley] 100 percent," she said. "Baltimore was a better place when he was mayor."

Others said the increased safety that he promised came at a cost -- a zero-tolerance approach to policing that sent arrests for minor offenses skyrocketing and led to a lawsuit by the ACLU and NAACP that the city ultimately settled -- and O'Malley lost their trust.

"He started something that now has a terrible effect on the public," said Robert Clayburn, 50, as he sat on the corner selling water and soda.

"He says a good thing, but he doesn't do a good thing," Clayburn said. "I would not give him my vote."

Blackledge said he once supported the young politician.

O'Malley was elected to the City Council in 1991 and as mayor in 1999. Blackledge recalls him supporting plans for playgrounds and investment in schools.

But since then, Blackledge has seen schools close and what he sees as insufficient investment in youth. He sees it as a betrayal.

"It's like he pulled away," he said. "It's about your candidacy. It's not about the people."

Anthony Moody, 43, said it was other city leaders who let crime get out of hand in the years after O'Malley left Baltimore for Annapolis. He said he expects the former governor to appeal to voters the same way he does to Moody -- as someone approachable who will listen and answer questions.

"I think he has a chance," Moody said.

Others said O'Malley will face a challenge in selling his record in Iowa and New Hampshire after the death of Freddie Gray, the riots and the gun violence in the weeks since have riveted a global audience.

"Baltimore is in a very crazy state right now," said Angel Brooks, 23. "He's got to get it together."

(c)2015 The Baltimore Sun