Iowa Democratic activists hungry for a caucus conversation got a full serving of progressive populism from Martin O’Malley during his two-day Iowa swing this week. The former Maryland Governor and Baltimore Mayor railed against Wall Street greed and income inequality in a keynote speech at the Scott County Democrats’ Red, White and Blue Dinner on Friday night. It was a strongly-delivered and well-received speech. In just a few short hours, O’Malley went from a little-known liberal governor to a serious Iowa Caucus contender among many local activists who met him.
O’Malley gave an impassioned speech – interrupted multiple times by standing ovations – about restoring the American Dream for the middle-class to a crowd of over 300. He touted a record he described of raising the minimum wage, strengthening Maryland’s middle-class, and making college more affordable.
It took him a little bit to really get going, but by the midway point of his speech the crowd was eating it up, loudly cheering and applauding for a number of standard progressive messaging points. “Sing it with me people, when women succeed, America succeeds” was one of several lines that elicited a very loud response from the crowd. He got a standing ovation with his assertion that “We are Americans, we make our own destiny – and the future we choose is a future of liberty, justice, and opportunity for all.” By far his best line, and the one that got the biggest cheers, was “The enduring symbol of the American Dream – the enduring symbol of the land of opportunity – is not the barbed wire fence, it is the Statue of Liberty.” At his finale, he had a good call-and-response going with the audience, encouraging Democrats to tell others that “I voted for you.”
While she may dominate the early polling in Iowa, Hillary Clinton can’t leave receptions like these unanswered for long. If O’Malley continues to excite Democratic caucus-going crowds in the manner he did Friday night, he may become the main legitimate alternative to Clinton sooner than many think.
Still, Starting Line spoke with only two people who were ready to support an O’Malley candidacy. This is Iowa, of course, and most others were still considering their options so early in the process, hoping to hear from other potential candidates soon. But O’Malley opened a lot of doors with his performance, and should now find his name in the mix more when people discuss alternatives to Clinton.
An Openness to Support
“His speech was right on – he’s talking about working-family values, he’s talking about middle-class values, he’s talking about building from the bottom-up,” said Tom Moritz, a leader in the Quad City Federation of Labor. “O’Malley talked about how we need to build communities, and it starts at the local level and builds up and out … He’s talking about the things I like to hear, the things that will bring America back.”
“I think he’s for the working people,” agreed Gene Rome, an attendee impressed with the speech. When asked about O’Malley’s chances against Clinton, he contended that “O’Malley might give her a run for it.”
“I thought he was very charismatic,” remarked Grace Bruett, a student at St. Ambrose University in Davenport. “He seems very presidential as it is already … I think he’s a very good blue-collar everyman kind of politician, and that’s definitely what I’m looking for and going to vote for.”
O’Malley also seems to already understand how a caucus campaign works. He shook hands at nearly every table before his speech, and hung out with Democrats at a later after-party at a nearby Irish bar. He specifically allotted time in his visit with the Cedar County Democrats the next day to interact one-on-one with attendees. Any Democrat who wanted to personally meet O’Malley got their chance to do so.
Appealing to a Smaller Crowd
His appearance in Tipton at the Cedar County Democrats’ off-year caucus was a lower-key affair. The setting evoked a classic Iowa Caucus feel. About 30 Democratic activists, many in their 50s and 60s, sat on hard folding chairs in a plain meeting room in the basement of the county courthouse. The attendees discussed recent events among themselves like President Obama’s comments on mandatory voting before O’Malley arrived. Once there, the former governor gave an abridged version of his remarks the previous night, and then took a number of questions.
The first question was also your typical intellectual caucus-goer inquiry: who’s your favorite president, favorite historian, and favorite theologian? Abraham Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Karl Rahner O’Malley answered after some thought. “I believe that clean, renewable energy, domestically harvested, is the greatest business opportunity our country has had in a hundred years,” he responded when asked on renewable energy options. In an answer to a labor-based question, he said, “As Governor of Maryland we actually expanded collective bargaining rights rather than undermining them. I believe that unions are very, very important to the cause of making wages go up rather than go down.”
The smaller group of Democrats was engaged with O’Malley’s appearance, though not as enthusiastic as the crowd the night prior. It will be interesting to monitor the difference in reception between his big speeches and smaller get-togethers.
“He was articulate, educated and intelligent – he seemed really comfortable standing up,” noted Emily Peck of West Branch. “It didn’t feel canned at all.” She did mention that a few of his responses were more “generalized,” though she said it was still early in the process of candidates’ figuring out their message.
“If he knows how to campaign in caucus states, I think that’s critical,” said David Johnson, also of West Branch. “I think this is something the Hillary campaign has not figured out yet.” Johnson spoke at the meeting in favor of Bernie Sanders getting in the race, but said he would lean toward O’Malley if neither Sanders or Warren launched a campaign.
A Full Schedule for O’Malley
O’Malley filled the two days with many meetings in addition to his public appearances. He sat down with influential Davenport Mayor Bill Gluba, held a breakfast with Scott County activists, and headlined a House Truman Fund fundraiser in Cedar Rapids. He headed out west to Council Bluffs at the end of Saturday for a fundraiser with the Pottawattamie County Democrats, where he broke out his guitar and sung for the crowd. He will return to the lead-off caucus state on April 20th for a central-Iowa swing.
This was O’Malley’s first visit to Iowa in 2015. He traveled the state extensively during the 2014 cycle, hitting up 24 different events and fundraisers for Iowa Democrats. His PAC also donated $40,000 and lent 14 staffers to Democratic efforts in the state, with a particular emphasis on state legislative campaigns. “Governor O’Malley was really helpful in helping us maintain the Iowa Senate,” said State Senator Bob Dvorsky on Saturday. “He put in resources to a lot of Senate campaigns and also had staff that helped too … I think that was greatly appreciated.”
Video of O’Malley’s Cedar County Visit
(Sorry for the shakiness of the video in the first minute – I need to get a monopod)
by Pat Rynard