Weekend open thread: Harkin Steak Fry/Martin O'Malley edition

Although the Harkin Steak Fry took place last weekend, the Jewish new year interfered with my plans to write a post immediately after the event, and the rest of the week flew by. I’ve posted some notes from the steak fry after the jump, along with other links about the featured speaker, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley. That won’t be his last speech in front of a crowd of Iowa Democratic activists.

This is an open thread: all topics welcome.

Before O’Malley spoke, several other Iowa Democrats addressed the steak fry crowd. Zach Wahls became famous last year after testifying before an Iowa House committee against a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. His speech last Sunday was similar to his brief remarks to the Democratic National Convention crowd, but he added an appeal to support judges up for retention: “There’s some folks here who are trying to use our retention process to scare and intimate Iowa judges and we can’t let that happen.”

Iowa Democratic Party Chair Sue Dvorsky reminded the group that there is “no path” to winning Iowa’s six electoral votes for President Barack Obama without also preserving the Democratic majority in the Iowa Senate. Like Wahls, Dvorsky encouraged voters to turn the ballot over and vote “yes” (for retention).

Representative Bruce Braley (IA-01) was up next and paid tribute to his wife, who “took a day off from her day off” as a teacher in Waterloo to be there. He also told the crowd about his mother, who has taught kids during each of the last eight decades. He spent more time talking about his work for veterans and especially to pass a law inspired by Iraq War veteran Andrew Connolly’s painful experience. Connolly returned from Iraq with cancer but was initially denied VA funds to renovate his home because he was not yet in a wheel chair. He unfortunately died last year. A new law, extended for a decade this summer, expanded a veterans’ housing grant program to help more disabled veterans retrofit their homes.

Braley closed his speech by introducing Representative Dave Loebsack (IA-02), joking that Loebsack was “so far ahead I don’t even know why he’s here.” Loebsack quickly corrected Braley, noting that he’s “so far ahead” that his district is only “lean Democrat.” Loebsack then talked about his childhood, living in poverty in Sioux City with a single mom who struggled with mental health issues. He recounted how his grandmother’s Social Security survivor benefits helped put food on the table for his family. He said he would not have gotten through Iowa State University if not for the Social Security survivor benefits he received after his father died when Loebsack was a high school senior. He described Medicare and Social Security as “the two greatest anti-poverty programs” in American history and promised to fight to protect them: “It’s personal for me.”

Loebsack then mocked Republican proposals to privatize Social Security and turn Medicare into a voucher program for future retirees. Does anyone think that’s a good idea? He closed by introducing Representative Leonard Boswell (IA-03), whom he said had become a close friend over the past six years.

Boswell started by praising the many educators in the audience. He remarked that he, Braley, and Loebsack are all married to teachers, and that Democratic Congressional candidate Christie Vilsack used to be a teacher as well. He defended President Obama’s record: “Are we better off? Of course we are! Are we done? Of course not!” Boswell was most passionate when railing against House Republicans, who have failed to bring a new farm bill up for a vote. He talked about how everyone in the U.S., whether you live in the city or the country, gets something out of the farm bill and said Congress must pass a new bill.

Boswell then commented that he’s amazed Iowa is one of only two states never to have a woman in Congress and reminded the crowd that “we have an opportunity to make history.” He asked people to stand up to welcome the next speaker, Christie Vilsack.

Vilsack spent drew a lot of contrasts between herself and Representative Steve King, the incumbent running in the fourth district. She said she was running for one reason: to make sure people have opportunities to live in Iowa’s small towns and small cities. Not by having three jobs that each pay a little bit, but by having one job that allows you to spend time with your family. She talked about education, innovation, and “connection,” including not just more high-speed internet but also improvements to highways 20 and 30, and other roads and bridges. As she has been telling audiences all around IA-04, Vilsack said, “I see this job very locally,” whereas King “uses the national stage to promote himself and promote an ideology” that has nothing to do with creating jobs or strengthening the middle class. All of the speakers were interrupted by applause several times, but this line from Vilsack drew a standing ovation: “We don’t need a bully for a Congressperson.” Repeating an analogy she has used on the stump and in her debates with King, Vilsack said she sees the 39 counties in IA-04 like students who have potential; her job is to work her heart out for them to help them reach that potential.

Dvorsky was back on stage next and expressed optimism that Democrats will go “four for four” in the Congressional races. She characterized those races as “our statewide election” and reminded the audience that sending Democrats back to Congress from each of those districts is important no matter where you live in the state.

Senator Tom Harkin and his wife, Ruth Harkin, were up next. O.Kay Henderson posted the full audio of their remarks here. Iowa’s junior senator has a knack for drawing contrasts between Democrats and Republicans, and he didn’t disappoint the crowd. He described the diversity of the Democratic crowd in Charlotte earlier this month. In contrast, the crowd at the Republican National Convention in Tampa was like “50 shades of white,” according to Harkin. He went on: “You know they’re in trouble when their number one job at their convention was to humanize” their candidate, adding he still thinks “robot Romney” should be on Mars driving that vehicle around. On a more serious note, Harkin promised that Democrats will fight to protect Medicare.

Harkin acknowledged a lot of people in addition to the other steak fry speakers: the staff and volunteers who helped set up the grounds, the people who prepared the food. He also asked attorney Joe Glazebrook to stand up, because Glazebrook took the case against Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz, who’s “trying to intimidate voters.” Representing the ACLU of Iowa and the League of United Latin American Citizens, Glazebrook got a temporary injunction from a district judge blocking the new rules from going into effect. Harkin didn’t mention that Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, who was in attendance, is defending Schultz’s efforts.

It’s standard for politicians to say the current election is the most important of a lifetime. Harkin described this year’s election as the “scariest” ever, because of the flood of special interest money after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. If “scary” Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan get elected, Harkin asserted, they will be “ramming that budget down our throats,” and their allies like the Koch brothers will use their money to make sure Republicans stay in power for a generation.

When Harkin introduced O’Malley, he described him as “my kind of Democrat” and “my education governor.” Under O’Malley’s leadership, Maryland has enacted a four-year tuition freeze at state universities and public colleges, invested $2 billion in school construction and renovation, and is top in the nation for the number of high school students passing advanced placement exams. Harkin mentioned O’Malley’s extensive work in Iowa on then Senator Gary Hart’s presidential campaign before the 1984 caucuses. (Iowans love it when outsiders spend lots of time here.)

O’Malley’s speech, which you can listen to at the Radio Iowa site, was very well received. Lots of people approached him afterwards to shake his hand or ask for photos and autographs.

O’Malley acknowledged many of the Democratic officials in attendance: Harkin for his work on many issues, especially the Americans with Disabilities Act; Tom Vilsack (it’s a relief as governor to call up the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture “and have him call you back”); all of the Congressional incumbents and Christie Vilsack; Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, Iowa House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy; State Treasurer Mike Fitzgerald and Attorney General Tom Miller. O’Malley also recalled traveling to Iraq with Iowa Governor Chet Culver.

O’Malley spent some time bragging about what’s going right in Maryland: number one public schools in the country, college is more affordable, crime is down, and this year residents will be voting for the DREAM Act and marriage equality. (That drew a standing ovation.)

Recapping the Democratic National Convention speeches, he praised First Lady Michelle Obama, President Bill Clinton, and President Obama, who “carries himself with dignity.” The alternative, Mitt Romney, “can’t even go to another country’s Olympics as a guest without putting his foot in his mouth.”

O’Malley acknowledged the man who sang the national anthem at the steak fry before telling stories about the battle in Baltimore that inspired “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Many of the people who fought the British troops were immigrants, and the girls who sewed the flag that hung above the city included an African-American slave. What tied them together was what ties Americans together today: the thread of human dignity, the dignity of work, home, and neighbors.

Speaking about his experience as mayor of Baltimore, O’Malley noted that mayors don’t have the “luxury of ideology,” because there is no Democratic or Republican way to pick up the trash. But the experience of non-partisanship didn’t stick with him, because O’Malley then spent several minutes bashing Republicans, repeating this line many times: “President Obama is moving America forward, not back.” (He encouraged the crowd to join him in chanting “forward, not back.”) He drew many more contrasts between Democrats and Republicans. My favorite line from that part of the speech noted that today’s tea party is “more Mad Hatter than James Madison.”

O’Malley got personal toward the end of his remarks, talking about what his parents did during World War II and the lessons he learned growing up in “a small Catholic family” with six kids (good laugh line among Iowa Democrats). He referred to some contemporary issues but talked broadly about Democratic values rather than wading into a lot of policy details.

As we search for common ground and a better way forward, we need to ask one another […] How much less do you really think would be good for our country? How much less education do you think would be good for our children? How much less public safety would be good for our towns and cities? How many fewer college degrees would be good for our nation? How many family farms can we no longer afford to save? How many hungry American children can we as a people no longer afford to feed? […]

The United States of America is the greatest job-generating, opportunity-expanding country ever created by a free people in the history of civilization […] So let us not be the first generation of Americans to give our children a country of less. Let us return to the urgent work of creating more jobs, more security, more opportunity, and a better future for our children. And let us together, Iowa, move forward and not back by re-electing Barack Obama president of the United States.

I think that message will resonate with a lot of Iowa Democrats.

Final note on the steak fry: I noticed that AFSCME had signs printed up especially for the occasion: AFSCME (heart shape) Governor O’Malley. The Associated Press reported,

O’Malley is popular with AFSCME – the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees – in Maryland, Iowa Democratic officials said, and had reached out to Iowa’s public employees union.

AFSCME endorsed Hillary Clinton before the 2008 Iowa caucuses and would surely do so again if she runs in 2016. If it’s a wide open field, though, O’Malley probably has as good a chance as anyone at getting that endorsement. He may claim not to be thinking about a future presidential run yet, but a governor doesn’t create a federal PAC for no reason.

For those interested in learning more about O’Malley, I recommend this recent interview with Louis Jacobson and this one on Charlie Rose. You can watch his Democratic National Convention speech here. I think Baltimore Sun columnist David Zurawik was right when he said O’Malley’s speech was “too big and felt far too artificial and gimmicky for the intimacy of TV.” The crowd seemed to enjoy it, though.

  • Thanks for this.

    I would have liked to go, but it is a three-hour drive and I have a lot of things on my plate.  I door-knocked for Mary Jo Wilhelm that afternoon.

    • what you did

      is a lot more important. Even Iowa House candidate Scott Ourth, who’s running in Warren County, didn’t stay long at the steak fry–he was on his way out to knock doors as the speaking program started.

  • It's hard to get too excited about your own governor

    But if Marylanders approve same sex marriage in the November referendum and if he can push through a meaningful offshore wind energy bill, I think O’Malley will have some real additional feathers in his cap going to 2016. Of course, if Hillary gets in the race, I’m not sure that she’ll get any serious challengers. But if the field is wide open, O’Malley could be a serious contender. He’s definitely a fine D governor, but he has his baggage just like everyone else. My biggest beef with him right now is the awful gerrymandering with the new congressional districts, revealing overzealous partisanship and leaving no room to criticize Texas R’s or anyone else. (A challenge to the new districts will also be on the ballot this fall.)

    I agree 100% about his convention speech. It did not come across well or genuine on TV, but may have been better live.

    • RF,

      have you decided on the PG gambling issue? I tend to be a ‘no,’ but I know a lot of people in PG who want it.

      • On gambling

        I’m torn. It’s definitely not the ideal kind of economic development I would like to see. Since I live pretty close to the proposed gambling site, I also have logistical concerns, especially traffic. But PG county can really use all economic development and jobs it can get. The casino could also help spur additional development and retail in south county, which are severely lacking in the area. I have no great moral concerns about gambling, and I welcome the gambling tax revenue. On balance, I’m leaning “yes” at this time.

        The referendums are definitely the most interesting part of MD elections this year: gay marriage, dream act, gambling, and redistricting.

        • no doubt

          The referendums are definitely the most interesting part of MD elections this year

          1. Marriage equality passing in MD Nov 6th would be particularly significant as few states have a larger proportion of African American voters or “minority” voters in general. Pretty much leaves “NOM” in ruins in a way that a ME or WA can’t.

          Looking forward to “Muck Fairyland” from the usual sources. I think the % with which it passes will shock.

          I’ve liked how low-key it’s been. People seem to have better things to do than grandstand over the issue one way or the other. MD is definitely a no-drama state, which I appreciate.

          2. MD-Dream. I am very cautiously optimistic. A friend tells me that her dean at a “major university” in the state sent out email with his thoughts on the issue to all students. Lots going on behind-the-scenes. An interest group is claiming 60% support, which would surprise me, but I’d be happy with a simple majority.

          3. Redistricting – I hope this sucker bounces big. Pleased that MoCo CC refused to recommend voting “yes.” Also glad that so many MD Dems understand that it is irrelevant that the MD-GOP is against the map. Imagine if this were Iowa: BVP doesn’t like the map, we must vote for it!

          • If redistricting gets defeated

            I will give MD voters a lot of credit. The wording on the redistricting ballot question gives no real indication about the actual problem, and I just can’t see that question getting enough attention with all the other referenda and Northern Virginia election ads dominating the media. But hopefully this debacle will give enough ammunition to fair-minded legislators to go for Iowa-style nonpartisan redistricting.

            • gonzalez research

              is a MD pollster. New poll results:

              Q4 (Dream) 58-34

              Wow, is all I can say. Iowa Republicans, take note: 29% MD Republicans are voting “for.”

              Q6 (Marriage Equality)

              51-43 (6% undecided)

              44%-52% with African Americans. Disappointing. I think in the end, the result will be better than 51%, though.

              Q7 (Expanded Gaming/PG)

              toss-up 45-46 (9% undecided)

              The redistricting question didn’t get polled, which is no surprise as MD Dems do not want to draw attention to the issue.

              nonpartisan redistricting

              This will never happen in MD, period. As for the vote, Western Marylanders hate the map, along with upper Montgomery, and several local pols have been ginning up anti sentiment based on minorities getting carved up to serve the interest of MD “good old boy” political families. Add MD Republicans to the mix. Working against this is sneaky MD establishment Dems. I expect them to work many channels to get a lot of ‘yes’ votes behind-the-scenes.

  • will

    If it’s a wide open field, though, O’Malley probably has as good a chance as anyone at get that endorsement.

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