Martin O'Malley held a classic, old-school caucus visit Thursday night in Iowa City, taking questions from a crowd of about 75 in a bar one size too small.
The former Maryland governor and Baltimore mayor used those two offices as a key selling point. "I'm the only candidate in this race with 15 years of executive experience," he said, and cited a liberal wish-list of accomplishments.
"I have always been drawn to the toughest of fights," said O'Malley, citing Maryland's progress on living wage laws, collective bargaining, voting rights and marriage equality.
O'Malley transitioned smoothly from climate change to the green economy, saying "We created 2000 solar jobs in 7 year in Maryland. We can create a new economy with new jobs and greater opportunity for our kids".@GovernorOMalley "For all of the good that @BarackObama has done (praise of record) the American dream we share is on the ropes."— John Deeth (@johndeeth) June 12, 2015
But one aspect of O'Malleys record, policing tactics, came under fire from a questioner. O'Malley had brought the issue up himself in the prepared speech, and said "In Baltimore we took action to save neighbors from violence," while at the same time mentioning in passing the April death in Baltimore police custody of Freddie Gray, and the rioting which followed.
The second questioner O'Malley called on read a prepared statement calling O'Malley to task for racial disparity in "mass arrests and mass incarceration" during his tenure as mayor. O'Malley took the opportunity to again defend (without being defensive) his record.
"There was nothing mass about it." said O'Malley. "This was not easy. Every day we had to tend the wound of race in America. We reduced police involved shooting to its lowest level ever" during his term as mayor. O'Malley went on to point out his efforts as governor to increase drug treatment and early intervention, lowered incarceration rates, and restore voting rights to ex-felons. He concluded with Maryland's abolition of the death penalty, which drew applause.
So O'Malley satisfied most, if not all, of the crowd with his well-prepped answer to the meta-issue. But no answer was going to satisfy the questioner, and it's a good example of how Q & A time, especially in the People's Republic of Johnson County, can be a gotcha game.
(Pro tip to Team Hillary: Have a good heckler comeback line ready for Sunday. And be more ready for that heckler to be from the left than from the right.)
And pro tip to all candidates coming to Iowa City: Grad student group COGS seems to be working the bird-dogging circuit this cycle, asking about student debt and academic freedom issues. "We need to shame Congress into action" to lower student interest rates, said O'Malley. "We need to move to a point where education is debt free. We can't do that overnight, but we need to get there."
A campaign finance group is also on the bird dog circuit, which underscores my point that, while campaign finance may not yet be an issue that moves general election votes, it's starting to move outside the realm of pure inside baseball and into the strike zone of base issues, as overturning the Citizens United decision got the loudest applause of the night.
Pro tip: if you attend a political event at a restaurant or bar TIP BIG. Lots of work for wait staff— John Deeth (@johndeeth) June 12, 2015
The personal touch seemed to matter more than the fairly solid set of liberal issue positions. Roughly half the crowd, mostly the younger half, stuck around for that second handshake and a picture. There were some longer, detailed issue discussions, but some folks just thanked O'Malley for being there.
Electeds on hand were Jim Throgmorton from the city council, Supervisor Mike Carberry, State Rep. Dave Jacoby, and State Senator Kevin Kinney, who did the introduction. O'Malley came in last summer to do a fundraising event for Kinney, whose open-seat gain from the Republicans was the race that clinched the Democrat's one seat hold on the Senate.
Small to mid-size events like Thursday's are O'Malley's best shot at breaking out of the low single digit third place spot he now has in polls. It's simply not possible for Hillary Clinton, whose first open to the general public event is Sunday at the State Fairgrounds, to shake every hand and answer every question. It's hard for even second place Bernie Sanders to do that.
.@GovernorOMalley has been briefed on the beret. Or maybe warned. Not sure.— John Deeth (@johndeeth) June 12, 2015
Pretend this is 2003. A two term governor and two term mayor looks like a pretty solid and serious candidate in that 2004 field. And a crowd of 75 to 100 seven months out - in mid-summer in a college town - seems pretty solid unless you're comparing it to a rock star crowd.
Which is, of course, what it will be compared to.
Martin O'Malley knows he has a long way to go in these next seven months. But he's definitely someone to take seriously.