“If anybody will give another big contribution to the Young Democrats, I’ll sing a song!” Martin O’Malley is making this plea on a Tuesday evening in late March from a makeshift stage in the basement of Margaritas, a rundown Mexican restaurant in Nashua, New Hampshire, bathed in pinkish brothel light and furnished with beat-up couches.
O’Malley is here to headline the New Hampshire Young Democrats’ “Social Hour,” a decidedly unglamorous event which has, despite its advertising, drawn a rather geriatric crowd of about 100, making the room “at full capacity,” much to the delight of O’Malley’s handlers.
This is not the type of place you will find Hillary Clinton.
Clinton’s campaign will be become official this weekend and with it all of the money, excitement and celebrity that comes with the worst kept secret in American politics.
But O’Malley, who says being a politician is all about “humility,” is on a quixotic mission to set himself up as the anti-Clinton in the hope that a hunger for a viable and willing challenger elevates him, by default, to be her only serious rival.
With Clinton in the race, O’Malley’s strategy is to be patient. He will sit back while Clinton campaigns for the next few weeks, during which time, his camp believes her poll numbers will sink. When she is sufficiently weakened, he will pounce.
Given Clinton’s dominance, it seems nuts, but anyone who runs for president has to be not only ambitious but at least somewhat delusional.
O’Malley may take this to the extreme.
His national support, according to an April 2 ABC-Washington Post poll, is 1 percent.
His support here in New Hampshire is also at 1 percent.
“There’s a lot of examples where, in our party, there was an inevitable frontrunner right up until the first contest,” O’Malley told me during an hour-long interview, “and then, suddenly the country says, ‘Oh my goodness, the frontrunner wasn’t inevitable,’ and there’s a challenger none of us has ever heard of.”
Asked what the difference between him and Hillary is, he thought for a moment, and told me, “Those differences will become apparent in the course of a full campaign.”
And while ‘I’m a warm body that is not Hillary Clinton’ seems to be as far as he’s gotten in the message-crafting process, there is some evidence that it may be enough.
As Hillary’s recent State Department email scandal showed, seemingly invincible front-runners can falter, and when they do an unknown challenger can quickly vault into competition, or at least that’s the theory behind O’Malley’s all-but-certain challenge to Clinton.
“I’m not gonna roll around in that,” he said when I asked about Clinton’s email scandal. “Politics is an important part of [a campaign] but it’s not the politics of emails.”
Still, over the last few weeks, O’Malley campaign seemed to grow more inevitable. There are pins, stickers, and beer-cozies featuring a blue and red “MARTIN O MALLEY” logo piled on a table at Margaritas.
But it wasn’t just the swag, O’Malley has gone from avoiding talk about the Clintons to directly (ish) challenging their dominance over the Democratic nomination.
But first, a song.
O’Malley lingers in front of the crowd at Margaritas, teasing them into thinking there is any chance in hell that he is not going to pick up the guitar and sing. “I don’t know, they’re all breaking up,” he jokes as he watches a few people disband to the back of the room where margaritas are being served. “Maybe they just want to go back to the bar!”
He gives up, lifts up the guitar, it’s red strap decorated with yellow suns, and strums. “Sing it with me!”
He begins softly crooning Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land, his right foot tapping along to the pleasant tone of his voice.
As O’Malley sings, his eyes remain wide open. His steely, unbreakable gaze communicates a desperation that makes the performance feel like an audition for a version of American Idol wherein the winner receives the presidency rather than a recording contract.
It’s unsettling…To me anyway, but maybe not to the rest of the crowd. They eventually join him, whisper-singing in eerie unison.
Nobody living can ever stop me As I go walking that freedom highway Nobody living can ever make me turn back This land was made for you and me
O’Malley is 52 years old, of average height, with grey hair styled in the back to conceal an emerging bald spot. He is exceedingly charming, but flashes a smile so pleasant it verges on menacing.
He grew up in a political family (his parents met working on a Young Democrats newsletter in 1954 and first entered politics in 1982 as a “young college student,” he said, at Catholic University, when he took a semester off to volunteer for Gary Hart.
That experience, he told me, allowed him to “see how open our political process really is as a nation.”
He needs that to be true now more than ever.
O’Malley’s first campaign was for Maryland State Senate in 1990. He lost.
The following year, he was elected to the Baltimore City Council, where he remained until he ran for mayor in 1999.
He was elected in a landslide.
After that election, O’Malley said Bill Clinton, “very kindly called me.” O’Malley smiled recounting the conversation to me.
“How does somebody get 91 percent?” the president asked him.
“The goodness of the people I serve,” O’Malley told Clinton.
Back then, O’Malley governed as Clinton-style New Democrat who labored to make government more efficient. As mayor and then governor, O’Malley relied on statistics to measure the effectiveness of government programs. He adopted the model from CompStat, a system created by the late Jack Maple, the Deputy Police Commissioner for Crime Control Strategies in New York City, which helped to dramatically lower crime rates.
O’Malley and Maple grew close, and broadened the use of CompStat to tackle problems other than crime.
O’Malley considers the successes of his data-based programs to be his most important legacy, although, he admitted, “this is not something that I would roll out at a firefighters convention to get people on their feet.”
His wonky centrism made him a natural ally of the Clintons. O’Malley told me he has maintained a “cordial, friendly, and respectful relationship” with Bill and Hillary, who both endorsed him for governor in 2006. He returned the favor by endorsing Hillary in 2008 when she ran for president. O’Malley eagerly pointed out he was one of the only Democratic governors to stand by her side until the very end of the primaries.
Back at Margaritas, O’Malley finished his one-song set and I followed him to a table upstairs. He was on his third Corona, and the lime was stuck in the neck of the bottle. He tapped it on the table but couldn’t dislodge it, so he finally poked his index finger into the bottle. He rewarded himself with a long sip and a tortilla chip. He unbuttoned the third button on his white dress shirt, grabbed the end of his blue tie, and tucked it inside the shirt.
Besides the guitar, O’Malley plays the Bodhran, an Irish drum, the tin whistle, the harmonica, the banjo and, briefly, the Irish bagpipe. He joined his first band, the Shannon Tide, when he was 17.
“In D.C. there were kind of seven Irish bars and only three Irish bands. We weren’t very good, but they paid us to do the same 10 to 20 songs everyday.” Eventually his band moved on and he went solo before forming O’Malley’s March.
“We mostly do Irish stuff,” he said. “But we toss in Johnny Cash, songs of the Chesapeake and stuff I’ve written.” His favorite Cash song, he said, after joking that the question was “like a foreign policy question,” is I Walk the Line.
The music thing, he said, is no gimmick: “I found when I was running for mayor that the music was a bit of an international language and a way to break down sort of the power-distance bullshit that people sense between their candidates or elected leaders and themselves.”
But the guitar-playing has also become a campaign schtick.
His aides sometimes like to pretend the performances are unplanned, as if guitars just somehow keep finding O’Malley while he’s out on the road. Ahead of the the Margarita’s event, Lis Smith, O’Malley’s spokesperson, told me that having a guitar on hand was her idea, but her boss had no clue it would be there. “I’m not bullshitting you – he doesn’t know!” she said.
But Howell “Huck” Montgomery, a Democratic operative and self-described (on Twitter) “#NHpolitics junkie” told me the guitar was the doing of his girlfriend, who works with the Young Dems. “It’s her guitar and she said, ‘Oh well, maybe you should bring it and he will play.’”
O’Malley told me he is “more comfortable singing” than speaking to crowds, which turned the conversation to the obvious: why the hell is he here in Nashua, upstairs at this decaying Mexican restaurant – which is located on top of train tracks – telling college kids and little old ladies about what he wants for America’s future?
“Anyone running for the sacred trust and the awesome responsibility of wielding the power of the president of the United States on behalf of the people of the United States needs to earn that trust,” he said, chewing his tortilla chip. “So the presidency of the United States is not a crown to be passed between two families. It is a sacred and awesome trust to be earned.”
By comparing the Bushes and Clintons to royalty, O’Malley said, he was articulating “the same sentiment that everyone in the country feels.”
When I mentioned Hillary by name, O’Malley stared into my eyes in the same slightly disturbing and mesmerizing way he looked out at the crowd while he performed. “I know that we are a country of 319 million people,” he said, “and it would be an extreme poverty indeed if only one was willing to compete for the Democratic nomination of the president of the United States. That’s what I know.”
At the end of his tenure as governor, O’Malley, like many liberal activists, moved further left. He ended the death penalty, gave driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, legalized gay marriage and began articulating a populist economic message like that of Elizabeth Warren, which may serve as a condolence of sorts to her supporters if she does not, as she has repeatedly said she will not, launch a campaign.
These resume items are no doubt what O’Malley will campaign on, but he was more jazzed when discussing CitiStat and StateStat, and his dreams of leading a statistics-driven country.
When I asked what he might call a similar system if he were in a position to implement one nationally, he answered immediately, as if it were something he considers frequently: “FedStat.”
How would it work? He picked up a bottle of Tapatio hot sauce and moved it into the center of the table. Then he moved the salt, his empty Corona, and the tortilla chips. He arranged them – the various factions of the federal government, for our purposes – just so. He knew exactly what he was doing.
O’Malley is not shy about wanting to be president. I wondered if he ever considered what types of people run for this office – who they are, what drives them – he joked “uh yeah, like everyday.”