Then-Gov. Martin O'Malley participates in a tabletop disaster-preparedness exercise in 2014.

Office of the Maryland Governor

Then-Gov. Martin O'Malley participates in a tabletop disaster-preparedness exercise in 2014.

Viewers of Sunday night’s Democratic debate could be forgiven for not realizing that there was a third candidate on the stage. His name, apparently, was Martin O’Malley and according to Wikipedia he was once the mayor of a city called Baltimore and the governor of Maryland. Wasn’t it nice of NBC to let him stand on stage next to the designated front-runner? Bless their hearts.

O’Malley didn’t get to say much but he did make one very interesting statement when asked to lay out his top three priorities should he win election. He said:

“… we need a new agenda for America’s cities. We have not had a new agenda for America’s cities since Jimmy Carter. We need a new agenda for America cities that will invest in the talents and skills in our people, that will invest in CBVG transportation, infrastructure and transit options, and make our cities the leading edge in this move to a redesigned built clean green energy future that will employ our people.”

As City Limits has documented tirelessly (perhaps even tiresomely) in past presidential years, it’s rare for candidates on the national stage to talk about urban policy, despite cities’ vast needs, huge potential and large populations. This is likely because Democrats take urban voters for granted and Republicans mostly write them off, because “soccer mom” electoral power is concentrated in the suburbs, because of a traditional skew toward rural “heartland” visuals in American political imagery and because the allegedly all-important first-contest states of Iowa and New Hampshire are remarkably non-urban.

Given all that, it was interesting to hear O’Malley refer to cities as a top priority. But neither he nor his opponents mentioned cities later in the debate—although, of course, many of the topics that were discussed (especially policing) had particular relevance for urban areas.

But what exactly does O’Malley want for U.S. cities? A policy brief from his campaign lays out several policy goals—on energy efficiency and wages, for instance—that would have effects everywhere, not just in cities. But he does vow to increase Community Development Block Grants and focus on smarter transit funding, which would have a big urban impact.

Neither Bernie Sanders (a former mayor) nor Hillary Clinton have issued urban-specific policy papers. Certainly, their proposals on the economy, climate change and other broader issues would certainly have bearing on urban life. But rural areas do get special treatment from both candidates.

We have in the past noted that Barack Obama had about the most urban pedigree of any modern U.S. president, with a background in community organizing and a base in Chicago, and that translated into an attempt to elevate urban policy in the national conversation. When he became president, Obama created a new White House Office of Urban Policy and launched several place-based, multiagency policy initiatives with strong urban overlays: Promise Neighborhoods, Choice Neighborhoods and Sustainable Communities.

The White House office never really gained traction, and the Promise and Choice programs operated largely under the radar—victims of a political environment that made bold policy changes all but impossible after the 2010 midterm elections.

But Obama’s impact on cities, while subtle, might be felt years after he leaves office. The debate in New York City right now over whether and how to develop East New York grew in part out of its inclusion in Sustainable Communities.