BALTIMORE (AP) -- Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley on Saturday joined the Democratic presidential race with a longshot challenge to Hillary Rodham Clinton for the party's2016 nomination.
"I'm running for you," he told a crowd of about 1,000 people at Federal Hill Park in Baltimore, where he served as mayor before two terms as governor.
O'Malley has made frequent visits in recent months to early-voting Iowa, where he was headed later Saturday, and New Hampshire, his destination Sunday. Still, he remains largely unknown in a field dominated by Clinton.
Already in the Democratic race is Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. One of O'Malley's first tasks as a candidate would be to consolidate support among Democrats on the left who are reluctant to back Clinton and eyeing Sanders.
O'Malley said "the urgent work" drawing him into the campaign was "to rebuild the truth of the American dream for all Americans."
An ally of former President Bill Clinton, O'Malley was the second governor to endorse Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign in 2007. But he says Democrats deserve a choice in the 2016 primary.
"The presidency is not a crown to be passed back and forth ... between two royal families," O'Malley said. "It is a sacred trust to be earned from the people of the United States, and exercised on behalf of the people of the United States."
A leading Republican contender is former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, son and brother of presidents. Bush is expected to officially announce his candidacy soon, entering a wide-open Republican nominating contest that may initially draw more than a dozen candidates, including Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida and governors Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana.
The 52-year-old O'Malley has spoken often about the economic challenges facing the U.S. and said he would bring new leadership, progressive values and the ability to accomplish things.
"Our economic and political system is upside down and backward and it is time to turn it around," he told the crowd.
O'Malley has presented himself to voters as a next-generation leader for the party, pointing to his record as governor on issues such as gay marriage, immigration, economic issues and the death penalty.
Just weeks ago, riots in Baltimore broke out following the death of Freddie Gray, an African-American man who died in police custody following his arrest last month.
A few demonstrators gathered near Federal Hill Park to protest O'Malley's criminal justice policies as mayor, an office he held from 1999 until his election as governor in 2006. "He's claiming to be this savior of Baltimore, but he's not," said Duane Davis, who said he is homeless.
O'Malley was known for his tough-on-crime, "zero tolerance" policies that led to large numbers of arrests for minor offenses. Critics say it sowed distrust between police and the black community. Supporters note the overall decrease in violent crime during his tenure.
O'Malley has defended his work to curb crime, saying he helped address rampant violence and drug abuse. He has said the unrest in Baltimore should wake up the nation to the need to address despair in poor communities.
O'Malley could soon be joined in the Democratic field by two other longshots -- former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who plans to make an announcement next week, and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, who is exploring a potential campaign.