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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Why Dan Hynes Thinks Martin O’Malley Can Beat Hillary

The former Illinois comptroller was one of the first politicians to back Barack Obama when Hillary looked like a shoo-in for the White House. Now he thinks the former Maryland governor can pull off a similar upset.

O'Malley as governor of Maryland in 2011  Photo: RACHEL WOOLF/BALTIMORE SUN

Martin O’Malley, 52,  is a generation younger than Hillary Clinton, 68, and Bernie Sanders, 74.  He is tall, athletic, handsome, energetic, and articulate. He was a two-term mayor of Baltimore and two-term governor of Maryland. He’s married, the father of four, progressive but not scary left, not incredibly wealthy. Yet he’s polling around 5 percent—somewhat better in Iowa but still short of double digits—and the conventional wisdom says there’s no way he can he beat Hillary Clinton unless she’s incapacitated or indicted.

Dan Hynes, 47—former Illinois comptroller, losing candidate in the 2004 U.S. Senate primary (against Barack Obama) and in the 2010 gubernatorial primary (against Pat Quinn), scion of a famous Chicago political family—will have none of that. He told me in a telephone conversation this week that Hillary is inevitable only until she’s not anymore. And Hynes has a pretty good platform from which to make that argument. In 2006, he was the first elected official to publicly call—via a letter published in the Sun-Times and a press conference—on his former opponent, then-U.S. Senator Barack Obama, to run for president at a time when Hillary the Inevitable was poised to stroll into the Oval Office.

Now working in the financial services industry, Hynes is the Illinois chairman of the O’Malley for President campaign. Nationally, he is one of five people who served on Obama’s National Finance Committee during his first term and are now backing O’Malley.

Hynes sounded energized by an O’Malley fundraiser Tuesday night. The high-end part—minimum $500—at Phil Stefani’s 437 Rush attracted about 75 people, including his father, Tom Hynes, a former Cook County assessor and Illinois Senate president “who maxed out.” The younger Hynes is particularly enthusiastic about the low-end event—admission as low as $25—at Cards Against Humanity on Elston Avenue, which attracted, he says, about 200 people under the age of 35.

“It was very interactive and lively. Martin talked a lot about what he had done as governor and mayor, how he had revitalized the city, turning schools around, being innovative on fighting crime.”  (Hynes dismisses the fact that, during this summer’s Ferguson unrest, protestors heckled O’Malley as he walked the streets; alleging that his policies caused incarceration of African Americans to escalate.) Young people are drawn to O’Malley, Hynes says, because of his courage on issues such as marriage equality and immigration. (In the wake of the Paris attacks, O’Malley has called for the U.S. to accept 65,000 Syrian refugees, 55,000 more than Obama.)

Listed as members of the host committee are Chicagoans such as Michael Forde, a Chicago attorney who represented Rahm on the residency challenge to his first run for mayor. (Rahm has endorsed Hillary for the nomination.)  There’s also Therese McMahon, executive director at the Chicago chapter of Autism Speaks, and Regan Burke, a former Clinton administration official.

When I asked Hynes for some other “name” Chicagoans, he mentioned Ariel Investments’ John Rogers as being “helpful.” He hasn’t endorsed yet, Hynes says, but he’s putting some money behind O’Malley. (A call to Rogers for comment was not answered by post time.)

I asked Hynes to chart for me O’Malley’s path to victory: “In the last four weeks, we went from five candidates on the stage, and Vice President Biden looming, to just three candidates. Bernie Sanders is fading and O’Malley is rising. I wouldn’t say surging. His polling numbers are creeping up in Iowa. So far the path to victory is just getting the opportunity to be center stage.”

Hynes also predicts that as Bernie Sanders loses momentum, his supporters will rally around O’Malley because “he offers a lot of the same progressive philosophy … being bold in action and ideas.” 

O’Malley’s “two tickets out of Iowa,” Hynes explains, are, one, to win the caucuses—a challenge, he concedes, because in the complicated, mystifying caucus system with its 1,682 precincts, O’Malley could be scored a zero unless his support is at least 15 percent. The second is to “beat expectations,” and that’s the one on which Hynes is counting.  People will see, he says, the “clear contrast with Hillary, this young, innovative governor.” He also mentions that O’Malley has been in Iowa more than Hillary or Bernie, that he has 80 county chairmen and is building an “incredible grassroots operation.” (O’Malley said publicly after Saturday’s debate that he is planning to “park” in Iowa.)

Hynes organized for Obama in 2007-2008 in Iowa, and he plans to do the same for O’Malley and to get the same result. “[There] will be a cavalry of Illinoisans to hit the doors and streets in Iowa.”

As a member of the Democratic National Committee, Hynes is irritated with the “headwinds” his candidate is fighting because of the paucity of debates, which, he charges were designed by the DNC’s chairwoman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, to give Hillary an advantage.   The debate schedule, he adds, “is structured in a disadvantageous way. It’s outrageous. The last one was on a Saturday night during the middle of an Iowa football game; the next one is the Saturday night before Christmas. I’m disappointed in the chairwoman.”

When I mention that most pundits and  focus groups declared Hillary the winner of last Saturday’s debate, he unsurprisingly disagrees. “Martin did exceptionally well. He threw out stark contrasts, looking forward. When Hillary referred to herself as a child of the ‘60s, I don’t think that’s a reminder we need. As far as the pundits go, what they really mean is that Hillary won because she didn’t lose, didn’t have a fatal blow.… Little by little he’s gaining attention as an attractive alternative.”

He also argues that O’Malley was the “hands-down” winner when MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow interviewed the three candidates earlier this month. And he claims that O’Malley “knocked it out of the park at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner” late last month. (Politico’s Glenn Thrush agrees, writing that O’Malley “best[ed]” both Hillary and Bernie.)

When I ask Hynes about the importance of national security at this moment in the campaign cycle—at a barbecue in Ames, Iowa last Sunday, Hillary focused almost entirely on Islamic State terrorism and how to combat it, while O’Malley focused on domestic issues—he responds, “Nobody is going to be fully prepared to be commander in chief until they’re commander in chief.”

But if Hillary is the nominee, he “absolutely” will support her.  Although he has now worked against her twice, he is, after all, a Democrat, and a loyal one at that.

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.

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