Thursday afternoon the Martin O'Malley staff called up and made me an offer. They were going to be en route from Mt. Pleasant to Des Moines Saturday night, and wanted to know if I was free for dinner and an interview.
Well, I'm not going to say no to a one on one with a presidential candidate. So Saturday we met at the Midtown Family Diner - a nice locally owned spot that got the nod over the more famous Hamburg because of location, location, location: a brief detour from their route at a time when there was some risk of post-football traffic. (As the game was a 62-14 blowout, traffic traffic tricked out the whole second half.)
After some background - part of this was about him picking my brain, too - and some food I put on the Beret Of Official Journalism for a two cup of coffee interview.
Unlike some of the other candidates, you've got a lot of history with the caucuses, going back to the Gary Hart `84 campaign. What's changed between then and now in Caucus Land?
In 30 years lots of things have changed I suppose. Certainly the Internet has changed a lot of things. the way people get their news has certainly changed. But at the same time one thing that hasn't changed is the fact that individuals really matter and make a big difference. People that are respected in their communities matter. And that's what's exciting about this process is that in an era of big money it's still good to be some place that everybody gives you a fair shake.
And things like those local endorsements, being able to say, Joe Judge (note: the Judges had hosted an event earlier that day in Albia) is with me. That can make a difference here.
Yeah. All of that is huge. And it's also... I suppose what I find most refreshing and why I enjoy always being in in Iowa is that people have seen 1% candidates or 2% candidates that nobody else has heard of suddenly emerge.
I know people who still brag that Jimmy Carter slept on their couch.
Yeah. And the people of Iowa take pride, I think, in winnowing this process. And very often they are the ones that first identify that leader for a new generation and put that leader forward. And so I'm doing this campaign the old fashioned way, John, I am going county to county to county, the small groups of people that actually have respect in their community and know other people, and making my case for a better way forward for our country and what I have to offer at this time.
Maybe the caucuses have changes less for you - I mean, obviously you're not the staffer you're the candidate - but you seem to be running, of the Democrats at least, the most old-school kind of campaign, where you're going to the mid-size events and taking every question and shaking every hand you can, they can't get you out of the room... and you're not having a 15,000 body rally, and you don't have the Secret Service.
I remember in 1983 when I was working here for Gary Hart. John Glenn always had the big rallies. Tons of people would;d come to see John Glenn. Alan Cranston supposedly had sucked up all of the oxygen on the left. But I also saw my candidate continue to hang in there, go from county to county to county and offer ideas of substance, and some depth, and in the course of all of those talks on a chair, arrive at the needed message for those times and emerges as the alternative. And for all of the big crowds of John Glenn, he finished way down and Hart was able to finish on top of Cranston who was far better financed.
The great leveler, I think, and maybe the last sort of line of defense against big money running our process, is the process like this in Iowa, and to a very big degree your neighbors in New Hampshire who get to meet each of the candidates and who make a big difference.
Of course New Hampshire's got the different process with a primary, an open primary. There was a lot of criticism of caucus process in the 08 cycle. Obama did better in the caucus states than Hillary did. I just remember week after week after week Debbie Wasserman Schultz on MSNBC talking about how unfair caucuses were...
That was the Hillary Clinton talking point at the time.
Yeah. What do you think? Are caucuses - not the meeting and greeting process, the actual process of the night itself. The stand in the corner thing. Is that open enough?
I think it's very open. And I think it's very democratic. I think it's a good process. It tends to reward the better organized candidates, too. In 1983, I think after Iowa they sent me to Oklahoma, which was also... was Oklahoma a primary or a caucus? I think Oklahoma was a caucus. One of the few caucus states we won that year. So, I kind of like the caucus process. I think it's good for democracy. I mean, so much of what we do, we dial in. We drive through.
Are you excited for the debates finally coming up? I know you've talked about them a lot.
Yeah, I sure am. By this point 8 years ago, we had already had nine debates. And this year in the process we haven't had any. The Republicans have had two, very well, heavily viewed, publicized for weeks in advance with free media on CNN, letting everyone know who their candidates are. And we haven't. So our party needs to tell its story, not only of the progress of these last 8 years but who we are fighting for and the fight that we still need to continue here. So I'm looking forward to the debates, and I think we should have more of them rather than less. And hopefully more rational minds in the party will prevail.
Do you think it's possible now in the social media age for somebody to be flying under the radar and then make that great leap forward form a very distant second place to a big win in eight days, the way Hart did?
Yes. Although I was there at the time and it wasn't quite eight days. My experience was and what I hear back `cause I talk to our young people, our 30 organizers that are here in the state, is it's much the same process. Iowans, knowing how important their vote is, many people want to wait until they see the process unfold before they decide. Now fortunately, there are some people who want to be with you early, and those folks for the nucleus of your organization in any county or any district. But what I think the reason why it looks like somebody suddenly emerges is not because they suddenly emerge but because they were relentless in continuing to ask people , is there anything more I can send you on my candidacy? Is there anything more you and I can talk about. about the issues that matter to you, that my candidate might be able to address for you? And so as we roll out our policy statements and our policy positions, as people come to know my record and what I've actually accomplished in office, all of that comes together and gels in the end.
It's a remarkable process here when decision time is finally upon us, the debates have all happened, and it's time time for people to decide who they're going to be for, just to watch the networks light up and to see the relationships emerge. I felt after working for about two months in Scott County, after I got through that process. I felt like I had lived in Scott County for 10 years. I understood who knew who, who disliked who and why, and all of those things kind of gel in the end. And the candidate who gets rewarded in that process is the candidate who was relentless, who was all about ideas, and all about the national interest and governing.
Electability and experience is clearly part of your message, and yet we know... you're the turtle, the good Maryland Terrapin...
Fear the turtle!
Why do you think electability is not a bigger issue yet on the Democratic side? I got a theory, but I want to hear your theory.
Hmm. Why isn't electability a bigger issue in our party? Couple reasons. I think because it's early, and i Think in the early going people in both parties want to express their anger, frustration, discontent with the established leaders. People they feel that have let us down, gotten to cozy with powerful wealthy interest at the expense of our common good as a people. But I think the dynamic will shift, and as the debates start to happen I do believe that people will be looking at which of us can best win a general election. What do you think?
Well, my pet theory is that the Republican race looks like such a clown car right now that Democrats aren't worried about electability right now, because they feel like "are you kidding? We can beat any of these guys with anybody." My other theory is identity politics are playing a big part in all this. And in Johnson County at least, Move The Democrats Left is as much of an identity politics as Elect A Woman President is. So, with those dynamics going on, where do you fit in?
Identity politics. My son tried to explain this to me. I think the most important identity politics at the end of this process is which of us do people believe will fight the hardest for them and their family. I've always found that's the most important identity politics. In every race, there is a kind of a question that needs to be answered by voters about the two candidates - or the three, four, the five in our case. Which one of these people is on my side. Not only saying the right things, not only agreeing with my issues, but in the totality, which one is on my side? Which one had both the independence and the motivation and the emotional connection to fight for me and for my family? And I think that's the most important identity politics of all.
I know I'm an unknown right now, but that will all start to change once these debates start to happen, and the smaller number of people in our field will I think be a competitive advantage for me.
Just by division, you'll get more time than Scott Walker had to fight for in his last hurrah.
Yes, but what I will have to fight is a rather rigged process, where they try to hide the debates on Christmas weekend in New Hampshire, and in the middle of a big Iowa game here. That sort of manipulation and the limiting of debates, all of that will be a challenge. But I do believe that people throughout IA and NH, your serious voters and caucus goers, will be tuning in to those debates and will make sure that they see them. All of those very interested individuals are very aware there are going to be fewer debates. So I think you're going to see a higher viewership. So strangely enough, what they intended would be something that would suppress competition and circle the wagons around this years inevitable front runner I think will have the opposite effect on viewership. I think more people will want to view something that the party boss tries to hide from us.
I'm getting the feeling right now, between the rise of Trump, behind the very different movement Bernie Sanders is building, and now with John Boehner being squeezed out of office - I've got a sense of the wheels falling off the system (O'Malley laughs) more than I have since the Ross Perot era. Can the system be saved?
Yes. And that's what people are looking for. They're looking for the glue guy. They're looking for somebody that can pull it all together and invite all of us back to our table of democracy, remind us that we're good people and that our kids are depending on us to make our country stronger. And that's what people are looking for. Once we're done emoting, once we're done expressing our anger,. we're looking for an honest individual who can pull our country back together. Because the inequality, the injustice, the lack of confidence in the integrity of our own political process, all of these things are threatening to tear us apart. people are looking for a leader that can pull us back together.
Speaking of the process, you've talked about campaign finance reform, Hillary devoted a big speech to election process reform back in the spring. Other than campaign finance, what do you think the biggest improvements we could make to the actual electoral process, what do you think the biggest barriers are to participation, and what can we do about it?
During my term we tried to find ways to make it easier for people to vote. We extended early voting periods, did same day registration. There are some nations on this planet like Estonia that do on line voting. This is a country that is adjacent to Russia, and was once totally cut down by cyber attacks. So clearly they figured out, even as near as that threat is, how to secure online voting. And over the long arc of history, I think that's where it's moving towards. Despite the frustrations and some occasional detours, the march of our nation is towards fuller participation, with more and more people, and striving to make that easier with every generation.
I'd like to see us overturn Citizens United. I intend to talk in the course of this campaign about publicly financed congressional elections. I think the general public is on to the fact that we've turned our Congress members into telemarketers to special interests, and that;s not good for our representative democracy.
I've worked in elections for 18 years and I didn't see the same kind of gaming the rules, like the ID stuff, before Florida. So it seems like now it's acceptable in our political process to...
...make it harder for your opponents people to vote? Even if they're poor and sick and old?
Yeah. To try to rig the rules.
That's pretty outrageous, and we need to do a better job as a party of pushing back on it. What our party should be doing is running a wishbone offense to organize around two important principles: that corporations are not people, and the other one is to enshrine in the Constitution the right to vote. That's how a party could be helpful, rather than limiting debates or trying to figure out how to hide the Iowa debate on a Hawk eye game.
I hear a lot of good things about you. People like you. The one negative feedback I get is looking back to the 90s, to policing policies. Looking back, seeing how things have played out, what might you do different?
I wish we had been earlier implementers as a state of body cameras. because as a city we were early implementers of the crime cameras on the corners that had been - Whole swaths of our city, entire neighborhoods, had been under a 24/7 drug dealer occupation for a couple decades. I was elected to restore justice to those poorest of neighborhoods, where it seemed like the police had given up. And that's what we did. I wish we had been earlier implementers in the body cameras.
But having said that, I rolled out a criminal justice reform agenda at the Urban League and some of the things we had in there were things that we did in Baltimore City. Things which sadly subsequent administrations stopped doing, but that actually work, and could be a model for police departments all across the country. Reverse integrity stings, a civilian review board with its own independent staff. I believe nationally every department should have to report under standards and in a timely fashion its discourtesy, excessive force, lethal use of force.
So no mayor is without critics, and from the first day I ran there were those that said if I were elected, there would be a riot in Baltimore. And then 15 years later, after Freddie Gray's tragic death, some of these same voices found their way to cable news and said "look, this was all his fault."
The truth of the matter is, arrests peaked in Baltimore - and I did promise people there would be a heightened level of enforcement - and I won every council district, including those of my two opponents. Arrests peaked in 2003, and then they declined, along with crime, every year thereafter for the next 12. So the year before before Freddie Gray's tragic custodial death, arrests in Baltimore were actually at a 38 year low. So there are things that one might point to, things that led to a lack of police and community relations, but a heightened level of arrests was not one of them.
Some of the young men that you saw on TV that evening, 12 years ago they would have been six years old at the time that arrests reached their highest. And I was re-elected with 88% of the vote in the city - and I was still white when I was re-elected in a majority African American city. Some of the biggest numbers I received when I ran for governor I received from those poorest parts of Baltimore City where you saw the unrest and on the east side as well.
There's no one in this race who has treated this wound of race and law enforcement and violent crime in America quite as consistently or as persistently as I have. And during my time we actually improved police-community relations, and if I hadn't I wouldn't have been re-elected, or supported overwhelmingly in subsequent elections. And it is a fact that the 4 years with the lowest numbers of police-involved shootings, three of those four were achieved during my term of office.
All of us have a responsibility, and I said this in that talk to the Urban League, to save and redeem more lives. All of us have a responsibility to look at OUR criminal justice polices, laws, and ask ourselves what works? What serves? And what doesn't work and no longer serves, doesn't serve? And that's what I've done through my 15 years, including repealing the death penalty, driving incarceration rates down to 20 year lows, restoring voting rights to 52,000 people, decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana, passing medical marijuana - did I mention the death penalty? It's getting late.
Is it possible to make it harder for the seriously mentally ill and the criminal to get their hands on guns without also making it harder for law abiding citizens, and can we have a one size fits all gun law that will work for Baltimore and, say, rural northern Wisconsin?
I think that banning the sale of combat assault weapons would be something that would be good for us to do as a country. It would be good four our homeland security, it would be good for the desire we have of avoiding these mass shootings, the magazines of 10 or more rounds. Background checks - I think all of those are common sense things that people could agree with. And we have to continue to push for it. There's no other developed nation on the planet that has this problem, that buries as many people from gun violence as we do. And it's possible to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill without impeding hunting and hunting traditions, and that's what we did in Maryland. I sent out a letter encouraging everybody to register to hunt. That's what we needed to do to preserve our open space.
Other than building the Trump wall on the border, foreign policy has been little discussed this election, at least what I've seen. What are you hearing about, and why do you think foreign policy has been kind of set aside?
I do have the sense that people's primary concern today is about their children's future, and the fact they're working harder and it feels like we're slipping further behind, for 70% of us. So that's the primary anxiety.
Having said that, I do believe there's a tremendous desire to have new thinking and fresh approaches when it comes to our foreign policy. I don't think either the Democrats or the Republican Party can say they've figured this world out. It's going to require a much more flexible, adaptable, nimble foreign policy. One that's more engaged, not one that's retreating behind walls and putting its head in the sand. So that's what I'm going to do my very best to speak to in these debates and in the remaining days of the campaign.
There's a connection between a more collaborative and engaged foreign policy and a more far-seeing national security strategy and an economy that works for all of us here at home, They're all connected. America's role in the world is to lead by example, because of a rising global middle class. But we can't do that if we're creating an economy that is increasingly, steadily, leaving more and more of our people behind. We've got to re-establish that economy of opportunity that allows people, whatever rung of the ladder they're on to be able to climb that ladder to better opportunity for their families and their kids. And if we do that then that will make our foreign policy more credible, If we do that we'll be a lot more effective at interrupting the propaganda of ISIS with our actions. If we lead on a humanitarian front by accepting the refugees from Syria that we were asked to accept, rather than kind of mumbling or pretending that 8000 is doing our part. It's kind of hard to have credibility if the only time people see us is at the other end of a drone strike. We need to dial up the whole of government approach to rising threats before they rise to a level where the choices are very binary, American boots on the ground or not.
So that's what I think people are looking for - a more far-seeing national security strategy, an engagement that dials up the diplomacy, and sustainable development in the whole of government rather than always reaching first for the military tool.