CONCORD, N.H. — It’s a Friday night, and there are no waving or yelling crowds waiting to greet the potential presidential candidate arriving at Gibson’s Bookstore.
There are no signs urging former Democratic governor Martin O’Malley of Maryland to run for the nation’s highest office, no buttons or T-shirts like one might see if, say, party heavyweights Hillary Rodham Clinton or Elizabeth Warren were making a swing through New Hampshire.
In fact, there is very little indication that a political event is even going on, save for the two activists campaigning to get big money out of politics, the media horde — which about equals the number of regular voters — and a Merrimack County Democrats sign.
So what exactly is O’Malley doing, and who exactly is here to listen to a lesser-known candidate on the stump a year before ballots are cast? Well, this is New Hampshire in presidential primary season — albeit the very early stages of primary season — and even the most prosaic politicians on the stump are paid attention.
“Those are the ones who often emerge,” 69-year-old Judith Ackerson from Franklin said after having a brief one-on-one exchange with O’Malley about the Citizens United court ruling on money in politics and the need for Democrats to focus on the positive. “To know that you got in on the ground floor and had the opportunity to shake hands and have eye contact, it does give you a feeling about a person.”
Questions still remain about O’Malley’s 2016 political ambitions. He gave no hard and fast timeframe for when he would decide to make official his Democratic bid, saying only that a decision would be made by spring.
The deciding factor?
“Oh, I don’t know. The overarching point of clarity that I have to reach as a person is whether I feel I have a compelling vision and agenda to move our country forward,” he said. “And if I do, then I will do it.”
And while it’s still early in the 2016 campaign — like, really early — O’Malley’s noncampaign campaign opted not to throw any sharp elbows at Clinton, his potential Democratic rival and the party’s primary front-runner.
The two-term governor and former mayor of Baltimore deflected questions about Clinton seeming to have violated State Department e-mail policy, wading — ever so slightly — into the controversy only after reporters forced the issue.
“I don’t know what the rules are that govern the e-mail procedures on the federal level,” he said. “I’ll leave that to others to explain.”
And the Clinton Foundation’s fund-raising from foreign governments?
“I like Hillary Clinton and I respect Secretary Clinton and I didn’t come here to talk about Secretary Clinton,” O’Malley said.
Instead, he stuck to his talking points about economic anxieties and immigration and Wall Street reforms. Incomes have decreased over the last 12 years, the minimum wage hasn’t kept pace with inflation, the threshold for overtime pay hasn’t been adjusted, and the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, a Depression-era law that prohibited commercial banks from combining with brokerage houses, “led our banks to speculate recklessly with our money,” he told the crowd.
“That’s the situation in which we find ourselves,” he said. But, he continued, “I truly believe that our best days are ahead of us as a people. There was a headline in a Washington publication that said ‘The American dream is dead.’ This dream is not dead. You make it come alive by the love that you show for your kids and for your neighbors.”
O’Malley remains largely unknown among rank-and-file party activists and is barely registering in early polls. In the crowd of about 40 people at the bookstore were those present simply because a spouse needed a ride, some who knew nothing about O’Malley but were passionate about politics and happened to get a baby sitter for the night, and those who were there because friends support O’Malley.
“I happened to be on the way home,” said Matt Gatzke of Bow who lived in Washington, D.C., for 20 years before moving to New Hampshire 17 years ago. “I heard it on the radio being plugged, and friends of mine are supporters in Maryland, so I figured why not?”
Every election cycle, Gatzke said, he vows “to do less of these and do them closer to the election.”
And yet, there he was on a Friday night waiting to hear O’Malley.
Because, as 60-year-old Ken Roos of Concord put it, you can’t avoid politics when you live in the Granite State.
The vice president of the SEIU Local 1984 said he tries to hear as many candidates as possible when they swing through New Hampshire testing the waters of a presidential run. He listens for issues that are important to organized labor — jobs, health care, wages — but he also homes in on what resonates personally.
“I’m interested in someone who will formulate a plan to make a better life for my kids because I had a better life than my parents and grandparents,” he said. “Having put two kids through college and still paying their loans and for them trying to get decent jobs, I see his question on ‘Do I think our kids are going to have a better future than I had?’ Right now I don’t see that.”
Roos’s friend and fellow union member Kirsten Marabella, 40, said she was “pleasantly surprised” by what O’Malley had to say.
“I’d never heard him talk before,” said the mother of two young girls who attends political events “only when I can.”
Doug Campbell attends for the food — and if his wife needs a ride.
“I’m no fool,” he said unwrapping a chocolate mint. “They all want us to come out and hear them speak, but feed us if we do.”
He said he wasn’t necessarily swayed by what O’Malley had to say, having already made up his mind that his ideal ticket would be Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Warren of Massachusetts.